When Protest Becomes Sacrament: Grady Sisters Heed a Higher Call

These Catholic social justice advocates are exemplars of the force behind We Are Seneca Lake, one of the nation’s longest-running campaigns of civil disobedience.

By Nicholas Kusnetz

On a warm May morning, two dozen people wearing blue shirts formed a neat line in front of the gates of a natural gas compressor station in central New York. The facility lay hidden somewhere in the trees behind them, and just beyond was Seneca Lake, a 38-mile azure gash through deep green hills that provides drinking water to 100,000 people. The sun crept over a ridge on the far side of the lake. It was still early enough to intercept the day's first delivery.

Within minutes, a tanker truck neared the gates and pulled onto the shoulder. Word soon came that sheriff's deputies were on their way, and the protesters started singing a verse that became a spiritual anthem of the civil rights movement.

Protesters at Seneca Lake

The We Are Seneca Lake campaign is perhaps the nation’s longest-running act of environmental civil disobedience. (Photo: Nicholas Kusnetz)

We shall, we shall not be moved

We shall, we shall not be moved

Just like a tree that's standing by the water

We shall not be moved

Leading the song were three sisters, each in their 50s, who had come to protest the expansion of a gas storage facility here. Ellen, Clare and Teresa Grady, together with two other siblings who weren't there that morning, have organized their lives around acts like these. The Gradys were raised in the radical Catholic social justice community of the Vietnam era. Their parents worked with Daniel and Philip Berrigan, brothers and Catholic priests famous for their anti-war raids on draft offices in the 1960s and '70s. As part of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement, they aim to "live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ."

By the time they were in their 20s, Ellen and Clare were sneaking into weapons facilities with the Bible-inspired anti-nuclear Plowshares movement. That's where Ellen met her future husband, Peter De Mott, with whom she built a family devoted to faith and protest. After 25 years of marriage, De Mott died suddenly—he fell out of a tree in an accident— leaving behind Ellen and their four daughters.

The Grady Sisters

The Grady sisters, (L-R) Ellen, Teresa and Clare, protest in Seneca Lake. (Photo: Nicholas Kusnetz)

Ellen's and Clare's first arrest here came last year in direct response to Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. The papal letter issued an urgent plea for action on what Francis called "global environmental deterioration," as grave a threat as nuclear war. The sisters' stand at the gates of the Seneca Lake compressor station was not simply an act of protest, but a sacrament, like the Eucharist or marriage. 

"We're trying to live the call to not be silent in the face of injustice," Ellen said, "and live the call to love one another and love creation." 

The sisters are hardly leaders of this protest movement, which goes by the name We Are Seneca Lake. A steering committee loosely coordinates a diverse collection of grandmothers, parents, students and other community members who have been coming to these gates every couple of weeks for nearly two years to block deliveries and, usually, to get arrested.

With more than 400 people led away in police cars and paddy wagons across 50 blockades so far, the campaign is perhaps the nation's longest-running act of environmental civil disobedience. They see the gas project not simply as a threat to the lake, but also an affront to the state's ban on fracking, enacted two years ago by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The expansion of the storage facility here, approved by federal authorities in 2014, would allow more gas from the fracking fields of Pennsylvania and beyond to flow through here, deepening reliance on fossil fuels. The sisters, and this movement, slide into a space left open by the lack of a clear national energy policy. Infrastructure projects such as these are effectively shaping the nation's energy future. Once built, they are hard to close, costing jobs and threatening local economies.

Activists around the country are similarly devoting their efforts to stopping individual fossil fuel projects. In Georgia, landowners fought off a major energy company from building a pipeline for refined oil. In Massachusetts and Washington state, protesters have blocked trains hauling crude. In Colorado, Utah and Louisiana activists have disrupted auctions of oil and gas leases. Running through all these disparate acts of protest is the unifying theme to "keep it in the ground."

A Protest Is Born

In 1893, the Glen Salt Company drilled down 1,902 feet into the Syracuse Formation, layers of rock and salt left behind by an ancient inland sea that now lie beneath the rolling hills of New York's Finger Lakes region. It was the first of many wells through which the company and its successors would pump fresh water to dissolve the salt for evaporation and production on the surface. Over time, the process left behind dozens of caverns, some of which have been used to store natural gas.

While construction has yet to begin, plans to expand the existing storage facility—now owned by a joint venture of Consolidated Edison, Inc., a New York utility, and Crestwood Equity Partners LP, a Texas-based pipeline and storage company—date back at least to 2009. They call for increasing the site's natural gas capacity while adding storage of up to 63 million gallons of liquid petroleum gas, a byproduct of gas drilling. Construction would include new compressor stations, a pond to store brine from the caverns and a flare stack. (Petroleum gas storage is overseen by the state, which will have to rule on whether that part of the project can proceed.)

[UPDATE: In May 2017, Crestwood abandoned efforts to expand the natural gas storage facility. In July 2018, regulators in New York rejected the proposal to store liquified petroleum gas.]

At the time, many Finger Lakes residents worried that the fracking boom overtaking parts of Pennsylvania could spread to New York. Some formed a group called Gas Free Seneca, which commissioned a study that said the caverns are unstable and prone to leaks. They warned that an accident could cause explosions or allow brine or gas to seep into the lake, polluting the water. Pollution from the compressor stations would detract from the area's bucolic character. Tourism to the nearby wineries would suffer.

Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, 20 miles east of Seneca Lake, had been active in the campaign to ban fracking. In 2012, she led a march on Albany carrying a declaration signed by more than 3,000 people who pledged to engage in protests "and other non-violent actions" should fracking proceed. So when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seemed like it was heading toward approval of the facility, Steingraber and several residents of towns surrounding the lake felt they had no other recourse than to move outside the system.

"I guess I thought, if you won't listen to me as a health biologist, then you'll have to listen to me as a mother," she said. "I'll put my body between the compressor station and the trucks."

When final approval came on September 30, 2014, the protesters were ready. First, it was 10 people—as young as 39 and old as 86—arrested on October 29, 2014. Five days later, 15 others came to block the gates. Another 10 were arrested in the driveway two weeks after that. In December, on the day of their eleventh action, the Cuomo administration banned fracking in the state, handing a huge victory to a grassroots movement that had drawn much of its strength from the Finger Lakes region.

The decision energized the Seneca Lake activists, who began drawing in more supporters. Most came from nearby counties, but others flocked from across the country, viewing the protests as an integral piece of a national fight against fossil fuel projects. The organizers have been careful to keep their offenses to violations, akin to parking tickets, to attract a broader base and hold down legal costs.

"The thing that's been interesting about that is how they chose to strategically make this a long-term process," said Wes Gillingham, program director for Catskill Mountainkeeper, a New York advocacy group that campaigned against fracking. Gillingham was among more than 50 protesters arrested in an action in July. "It wasn't just 10 or 100 people going or this one-time thing. They've been able to sustain this for a long time, and the number of people arrested just keeps climbing, and it's showing the inertia of the political momentum in this process."

The methodical campaign has inspired others, including a group called Resist AIM that has staged a series of blockades to halt construction of a gas pipeline from New Jersey to Massachusetts. In March, Bill McKibben, who founded 350.org and helped lead the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, traveled to Seneca Lake to join in the arrests, bringing with him national attention. We Are Seneca Lake's real strength, however, may lie not in its ability to attract climate celebrities like McKibben, but to draw in ordinary people who hadn't ever seen themselves as environmental activists.

Moral Protests of the Nuclear Age

An hour before the protest at the lake, the Grady sisters packed into Teresa's boxy white Jetta sedan, chirping over each other in an unbroken stream of words. The subject was first arrests. For Ellen, it happened on a White House tour, when she displayed images of victims of the U.S.-backed war in El Salvador.

"We had them under our jackets and we took them out and knelt down and prayed," she said. "It would have been early '80s, like '81, or maybe even '80..."

The Grady Sisters

The Grady sisters, (L-R) Teresa, Ellen and Clare. (Photo: Nicholas Kusnetz)

"'80 was when we did the action at the Pentagon, in August," Teresa interrupted.

"Oh right, okay, so it would have been '81," Ellen said.

Teresa thought her first was at the Seneca Army Depot a few years later. She was 18 years old. For Clare, the oldest of the three, it might have been when she was 23 at a U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. But she wasn't sure.

"It's strange I don't remember," she said.

Ellen's memory of when she decided to lead a life of protest, however, is crystal clear.

"Picture me. I'm 17 years old. I had a babysitting job, I was just out of high school. I decided not to go to college because I was going to work around this whole issue of nuclear weapons. I didn't know what I was going to do," she said. "The kids are playing and I'm reading the newspaper, and I read about the Plowshares 8 action, and I was like, 'Oh my God!'"

It was September 1980 when the Berrigan brothers and six other pacifists made headlines for their raid on a General Electric nuclear facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. After sneaking inside, the protesters proceeded to hammer on two missile nose cones, pour blood over documents, and pray for peace. It was the first of what would become dozens of anti-nuclear Plowshares actions, named after the biblical admonition to beat "swords into plowshares."

The Grady Family at Court

The Grady family (Clare, Teresa and Ellen, along with their parents and brother, John) in front of a courthouse during a Plowshares trial in May 1983. (Courtesy: Grady Family)

Two years later, Ellen was one of seven Catholic activists who raided the General Dynamics Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, where the Trident nuclear submarines were assembled. Like the Berrigans before them, they hammered on the missile hatches of the USS Georgia and poured blood over the boat. 

Ellen's older brother John was also among the seven, as was Peter De Mott, whom Ellen would marry the following year. "It's a great way to meet your future partner," she said, laughing. Ellen and the other activists were quickly arrested and found themselves in court.

"The judge was very condescending," Ellen said.  "He said to me, 'I hope by the time that you get old, you'll understand that you can't do this.' See how much I've learned?"

She was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. De Mott got time, too, and the two began courting from behind bars. "He was on the men's side and I was on the women's side, and he started sending notes over," she said. They used a groundskeeper as a courier. "I started writing notes on paper towels and he started writing notes on paper towels and we sent them over to each other. It was kind of fun. But we never put our names on them in case we were caught."

A picture from the day of the action shows Ellen with dark hair, a round face and a cherubic smile. Today, the hair has faded but the smile remains unchanged, framed by a ruddy Irish complexion. "I had a very young look at the time," Ellen said. "She still does," Teresa said quietly.

Embracing Life

Ellen lives in a three-story red log home that her brother built 30 years ago, just outside town. She moved in soon after, and they raised their children together for several years, squeezing in 11 people at one point. John and his family have since left. In their place came Mary Loehr, who met the Gradys in 1980 at a Pentagon protest.

Soon after, Loehr lived with the sisters and their mother for a year, and their outlook changed her life.

Ellen Grady arrest

Ellen Grady gets arrested at the Pentagon on Hiroshima Day, 1995. (Courtesy: Ellen Grady)

"It's just an embracing of life and an embracing of other people and a trust in God in ways that I hadn't been introduced to by my family, and it just spoke to me," Loehr said. "There was that whole worldview side, but the chemistry, the magnetism and the charisma of the sisters, and the fun." 

In the 1990s, the Gradys helped establish the Ithaca Catholic Worker house, joining a community founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the midst of the Great Depression. To pay the bills, Ellen provided elderly care and De Mott worked as a contractor and handyman.

They continued their activism but committed mostly minor offenses so as not to be separated from their children. One exception came in 2003, as American troops prepared to invade Iraq, when Clare, Teresa and De Mott raided a military recruiting center near Ithaca and poured blood on the walls, carrying on the tradition begun by the Berrigans during the Vietnam War. They were eventually convicted on misdemeanor charges and given sentences ranging from four to eight months.

Then, a few years later, De Mott fell from a tree he was trimming.

"It was just a real loss for all of us," Ellen said. She worried in particular about their youngest daughter, Saoirse. "One of my sorrows about the whole thing was that, the other kids knew who he was," she said. "They'll do his sayings and recite his poems and do all that. And Saoirse doesn't have that."

On top of the pain, Ellen said, she feels the loss of the activism they never got to perform together. "I felt like we were coming to a place in our lives where he would be free to do a Plowshares action again. And that didn't happen."

Ellen was left to raise Saoirse, who was six at the time, alone. While she hasn't participated in another Plowshares action, she did continue to risk arrest. And it was jail, once again, that brought Ellen into the Seneca Lake campaign, when Steingraber, the renowned anti-fracking activist in town, landed behind bars just as Ellen completed her own 15-day sentence for protesting against drones at a nearby military base. The two sentences helped reveal a parallel, Ellen said, between civilians who get caught in war and people who live in the way of drilling or pipeline projects.

An Inconvenient Protest

Supporters of the gas project say its opponents have exaggerated the risks. "You've got two major salt plants that have been in existence forever and we've had tourism flourish over the past 30 years," said Dennis A. Fagan, chairman of the Schuyler County Legislature, which in 2014 passed a resolution 5-3 in support of the project. Rejecting the expansion, he said, could lead Crestwood, the owner, to pull out of the county and hurt the local economy. "When they talk about industrialization, I don't think they know what they're talking about," he said. "It's a scare tactic."

Seneca Lake

(Courtesy: Flickr user Kathryn Yengel)

Even Fagan acknowledges, however, that the actions may be achieving their goal. So far, 401 people have taken part in 657 arrests. Of those, 414 cases remain open while most of the rest have been dismissed.  

"The cases are clearly clogging up the system," District Attorney Joseph Fazzary wrote in an email. His office may have to contest more than 80 trials for the protests, which he said will draw his staff away from criminal cases.

The application with the state to store liquid petroleum gas is now eight years old and has yet to receive a ruling. The matter has been awaiting a decision from an administrative law judge for more than a year. In a letter to the judge on August 8, the company said it would amend its proposal to address public concerns, reducing its size and eliminating planned rail and truck terminals. A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation declined to comment, citing that proceeding.

Crestwood has made no move to begin construction on the natural gas project, two years after it was approved.

Elsewhere, civil disobedience has helped draw attention to many fossil fuel projects, with the Keystone XL pipeline the most prominent among them. Cuomo's administration recently rejected a permit for the Constitution Pipeline and has urged federal officials to suspend construction on the interstate pipeline opposed by Resist AIM, the protest group. Over the past year, at least two dozen fossil fuel projects have been rejected or canceled across the country.

Thy Will be Done

After the protest at the gates in May, the 21 people who had been arrested filtered out of the Schuyler County Sheriff's Department later that morning, gathering on a strip of grass between the low-slung building and the road. They seemed energized, "uncommonly cheerful in that place of penitence," as Daniel Berrigan wrote about his arrest following the first Plowshares action.

Arrests at Seneca Lake

Twenty-one people are arrested at the May protest. (Photo: Nicholas Kusnetz)

Many activists, given the privileged position of choosing to get arrested, describe an entirely different relationship with prison than that experience by most Americans who land behind bars. Members of the Plowshares movement have referred to such lawbreaking as "divine obedience." In the words of Dorothy Day, "We are trying to say with action, 'Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.'"  

Teresa Grady recalls her time in prison in similarly spiritual terms.

"You look at life I think in some ways in a lot freer way, than when you're kind of constrained by having to work and pay bills," she said. "It's a freedom, I don't know how else to describe it."

Ellen's and Clare's first arrest at Seneca Lake came after Pope Francis published the environmental encyclical last summer. Ellen was inspired to "enflesh" his message, so she and several other Catholic Workers built a 7-foot replica of the letter and carried it to the gates. Videos from the day show them reading from the document and singing in Latin from the Catholic canon.

Dona Nobis Pacem

Dona Nobis Pacem, Pacem

They continue singing—grant us peace—as a deputy begins telling them they are under arrest and ordering them to put down the papal letter. They do not stop singing.

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