A nonviolent lion for justice

Sr. Klaryta tries coaxing one of the Sheriff's deputies across the line at the Nevada Test Site, April 2007. (WNV/Mario P. Intino, Jr.)

Sr. Klaryta tries coaxing one of the Sheriff’s deputies across the line at the Nevada Test Site, April 2007. (WNV/Mario P. Intino, Jr.)

It’s a striking image. At the culmination of a peace pilgrimage in 2007 from Las Vegas to the southern gate of the Nevada Test Site, Catholic Sister Klaryta Antoszewska crossed the line into the top-secret facility. Since 1982 thousands of people had done the same — first, to protest the detonation of 928 nuclear bombs since 1951, which ended with a U.S. moratorium on testing in the early 1990s, and more recently to urge the government to scrap its ongoing nuclear programs at the site and to return the land to the Western Shoshone nation. For the most part, the arrests over the years had been fairly choreographed, and the nonviolent protest that year, which included actor Martin Sheen, was no exception.

In the photo, this Franciscan nun, like the others, is headed into the site — when she suddenly decides to grab onto the shirtsleeve of one of the Nye county officers. “Sr. Klaryta tries coaxing one of the sheriff’s deputies across the line,” reads the caption on the Nevada Desert Experience’s website. Not having been there, I can’t confirm that this is what she was doing, but if so, it was a potentially dangerous move. People had been tear-gassed in the past at the Nevada Test Site entrance, and she could have faced felony assault charges for simply touching a police officer, let alone yanking on his arm. But look at the photo. She has a grin on her face, while the deputy — with his holstered handgun at the ready — seems both a bit surprised and playfully passive. He hasn’t tensed and started into automatic reaction mode, even as she is moving gently but firmly forward, as if to say, “Come on, we have some work to do, ending the foolishness going on around here.”

Sister Klaryta died this week at the age of 81. She had been diagnosed with cancer last year and left Las Vegas where she had lived since 1976 for treatment in Southern California.

When I learned that she had passed away, I went searching online for the usual raft of sporadic obituaries — a practice that has become, in this virtual world of ours, a reflexive ritual of mourning and celebration, where we chance upon and savor the vestiges of a life strewn across the Internet. But when I searched for Klaryta, I turned up almost nothing. (The next day one obituary appeared.) This I take to be a clue to her life — and to the many Klarytas out there. She largely operated under the radar. Not being in the spotlight — or even leaving many virtual breadcrumbs — does not mean that she was not an agent for nonviolent change.

Indeed, despite her playful mien in the photograph, Klaryta was a lion for justice. While her work included decades of nonviolent resistance at the Nevada Test Site protesting nuclear arms, most of the time she grappled with the impact of the poverty and systemic dehumanization that those weapons systems help keep tightly in place. She worked with refugees — women, men and families from Guatemala and El Salvador, from Vietnam and China, from Russia and Latvia — as they tried to navigate the bewildering perils of Las Vegas where, like in most of the rest of America, it is a crime to be poor. She kept hordes of clothes and supplies of all kinds that she doled out relentlessly, kept the food coming, helped them find jobs. The lion came out when these human beings were pitilessly denied their humanity. When they were refused medical treatment, for example, she stormed into the hospital and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

This fierce compassion didn’t come out of thin air. Sr. Klaryta — born Ida Antoszewska — experienced the terror of war and institutionalized hatred as a girl in Poland during the Second World War. From what Klaryta indicated to those of us who knew her, her parents were part of the resistance to the Nazis who, among other things, smuggled food into the Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. In the end, her mother was killed and her father was deported to Siberia. At 12 years old, as the oldest of three children, she became the head of the household.

After the war she became a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity in Orlik, Poland, taking the name Klaryta. Was there something in Saint Francis’ story that spoke to her own — the medieval saint whose journey to religious life was inextricably bound to his experience of war (the horror of medieval combat, followed by a year as a prisoner of war) that led him to an unquenchable thirst for peacemaking and the well-being of all?

Klaryta’s experience of unspeakable violence led her to a lifelong journey to mend the utter brokenness of the world, especially as it seeks to systematically crush the most expendable. This determination worked itself out in resisting the violence of poverty as well as the violence of the nuclear threat. It is her history, and the history of all others who have been caught in the suffocating cage of war and structural violence, that she brought to the gates of a nuclear test site, hoping to contribute, in some small way, to freeing those on all sides of that line.

Sr. Klaryta studied theology, languages and philology. One of her teachers, Karol Józef Wojtyła, would later become Pope John Paul II. In the 1960s, she was sent to Rome, where she worked at the Vatican in the Office of Peace and Justice. In 1976 she accompanied Sister Rosemary Lynch, of the same religious community, to Las Vegas, where they established the Sisters of Saint Francis Social and Refugee Program. It was here that Sister Rosemary would wander out to the desert adjoining the 1,350 square mile nuclear test site to pray for an end to the nuclear blasts that, on average, took place every 18 days there. Eventually Sr. Klaryta joined her there as a new anti-nuclear movement took shape.

Julia Occhiogrosso, the founder of the Las Vegas Catholic Worker who knew Sr. Klaryta for many years, recalls how Sr. Klaryta took few pains to mask the anger she felt at injustice. Eventually, Julia came to see this flinty, angry glare for what it likely was — a profound anxiety rooted in the experience of the horrendous violence she had experienced. These experiences did not destroy her. In fact, she channeled her deep response to them for healing those who, like her, had in many cases faced enormous violence and were now trying to fashion a new life.

Sr. Klaryta was not alone in being unsung. There are many unrecognized agents of nonviolent transformation keeping the world from flying apart — and preparing the ground for the nonviolent shift that the survival of the planet and its inhabitants requires. She, like many who are methodically but quietly building a better world, are saying with their actions and sometimes with their words, “Come on, we have some work to do, ending the foolishness going on around here.”

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