Left in Andover: Martha’s life of faith and family

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Eight-year-old Martha Hennessy learned of the assassination of JFK standing in line at Perkinsville Elementary School. Fifty-seven years later, the Vermont native and grandmother of eight recalls:

“That same year, 1963, we were still having duck-and-cover air raid drills because of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the perceived threat of nuclear annihilation. I was aware of this solely because of my family, and Dorothy Day reporting on it.” The seeds for her current anti-nuclear weapon activism were planted.

Martha Hennessy in her study with portrait of Dorothy Day.

In his address before the U.S. Congress in 2015, Pope Francis stated:

“A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture where all people ‘dream’ of full rights for their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue … ”

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was also Martha’s beloved grandmother. Co-founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy frequently took time out from her life of service to the poor, to stay with her daughter Tamar (1926-2008) and nine grandchildren in Perkinsville. In 2000, Dorothy Day was named “Servant of God,” an initial step toward canonization by the Roman Catholic Church.

In the mid-1970s, Martha taught spinning at East Hill Farm in Andover. Although our parents were acquainted, it was not until 1979 that I became close with Martha as we picked apples together at Scott Farm in Brattleboro. Somehow, Martha managed to nurse her young son as well as make it out to the orchard!

Martha with Brussels sprouts in her root cellar.

At the end of that picking season, I met John Specker, my husband-to-be. Serendipitously, he was caretaking a cottage next door to the Hennessy farm in Perkinsville. John, a recent transplant from New York, had become friends with Martha’s younger brother Hilaire (1957-2019), guide to all things Vermont.

A lifetime vegetarian, I was fascinated by the whole butchered goat that Hilaire had given to John, filling his refrigerator for weeks. I even tagged along once as John and Hilaire went deer hunting. Tamar kept a memorable bucket of prehistoric looking chicken feet handy by her wood stove for making soup stock. She was also a dedicated weaver and gardener.

I was entranced by this larger-than-life, multi-generational family living off the land, putting into practice what so many idealistic young people were moving to Vermont to experience.

Over the narrow valley hovered the spirit of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. His mantra of “cult, culture and cultivation” — the triple whammy that he prescribed for a good life — resonated particularly with me.

Martha had been raised religiously until a young teen and confirmed at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Springfield. When the Catholic Worker Movement acquired a working farm in Tivoli, N.Y., in the mid-1960s, she spent summers there with her grandmother, attending mass and vespers and working in the gardens.

Dorothy Day with granddaughter Martha Hennessy in 1972.

After a lifetime of raising children, plying her profession as an occupational therapist and working the land, a success by any measure, Martha felt called by her faith to act upon a larger social mission. To this end she became involved in international Catholic peace missions and, starting in 2010, volunteering at Maryhouse in New York City.

April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., honoring his call to action against “the triple evils of militarism, racism and materialism,” Martha Hennessy, along with nine other non-violent Catholic activists, the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, entered the premises of the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Ga.

They were arrested and subsequently convicted of conspiracy, destruction of government property and trespassing after symbolically spilling their own blood and hammering on statues of nuclear missiles. One of their banners read:  The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide. The Kings Bay Naval Base is home to an arsenal of at least 120 Trident thermonuclear weapons. Each one of these is 25 times as powerful as the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, killing 140,000 civilians.

Kings Bay Plowshares 7, informal portrait Martha Hennessy center wearing scarf.

From Martha’s perspective, every Christian needs to take seriously the duty of how “…to figure out how to become a disciple of Christ in one’s own time.” She continues, quoting her grandmother Dorothy Day, “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount which means that we will try to be peacemakers … We cannot keep silent. … Love is not the bombardment of open cities … It is the laying down of one’s life for one’s friends.”

Reflecting upon the unexpected direction her later life has taken, Hennessy continues, “My goal is not to simply idolize Dorothy, but to do the work.”

Lunchtime a week ago, sitting in Martha’s cozy kitchen enjoying a delicious stew of homegrown lamb, vegetables and dried kidney beans (I am no longer vegetarian), I struggle to remind myself of my friend’s current status.

Instead of preparing for a Vermont winter feeding her woodstove and enjoying her full larder, she is here only temporarily, home on bail awaiting sentencing by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, for up to 25 years in federal jail.

A recent edition of ‘The Catholic Worker.’

“Not all of us,” Hennessy says between bites of stew, “are cut out to do this work, to walk onto U.S. military bases to perform an act of sacramental nuclear disarmament. But over my lifetime I have come to a place of knowing what I need to do with my life.”

On a visit to her family in Perkinsville in the 1960s, Dorothy Day, a radical by any measure, addressed an audience in Chester. She was, Martha remembers, shouted down.

To this day — seven times a year — The Catholic Worker newspaper mysteriously continues to arrive at the Andover Town Clerk’s Office. Faithfully addressed “Andover Town Library,”  excerpts from Day’s original column “On Pilgrimage,” including her diaries, are a regular feature of the paper, still priced at a penny per copy.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Great read Susan and also a very talented Potter I LOvE her pottery 💕

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