Elizabeth McAlister

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Elizabeth McAlister
McAlister under arrest at a protest in 2001.
Maureen McAlister

(1939-11-17) November 17, 1939 (age 79)
Montclair, New Jersey, United States
Alma materMarymount College, Tarrytown, Hunter College
OccupationFormer nun, peace activist
Known forHarrisburg Seven, Jonah House
Spouse(s)Philip Berrigan
ChildrenFrida, Jerry and Kate Berrigan
RelativesDaniel Berrigan, S.J.

Elizabeth "Liz" McAlister (born November 17, 1939[1]) is an American peace activist and former nun of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.[2]

Early life[edit]

Liz McAlister was born Maureen McAlister to Irish immigrant parents in Montclair, New Jersey.[3] She and her twin sister Katherine had a sheltered upbringing and attended Lacordaire Academy. Following graduation, the sisters attended Marymount College, Tarrytown. During her sophomore year at Marymount College, McAlister, still Maureen, entered the novitiate of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (R.S.H.M.). In June 1961, she became Sister Elizabeth McAlister, R.S.H.M.[3] McAlister continued her studies at Hunter College, graduating with a Master's degree in art.[1] She then returned to teach art history at Marymount College in 1963.[2]

Relationship with Phil Berrigan[edit]

While an instructor at Marymount College, McAlister got involved with peace demonstrations and prayer vigils against the Vietnam War. Through this community, McAlister met Philip Berrigan S.S.J., who came to speak and demonstrate in Tarrytown, New York.[2] According to McAlister's daughter, Frida Berrigan, the two met "at a funeral in 1966,"[4] although there are accounts that Berrigan and McAlister moved in the same circles from 1964, on.[2][3] In early 1969, Phil Berrigan and McAlister married by “mutual consent.” At this time, Berrigan was awaiting sentencing for pouring blood on draft files in the US Customs House in Baltimore.[1][5]

Harrisburg Seven[edit]

While Berrigan was in federal prison for his involvement in the Catonsville Nine, McAlister and Berrigan communicated via a fellow inmate, Boyd Douglas, who was allowed furlough for work release.[5] Douglas was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and turned over the contents of Berrigan and McAlister's letters to the authorities. These letters, which included nascent plans to kidnap Henry Kissinger, led to the prosecution of McAlister, Berrigan, and five others, known as the Harrisburg Seven.

Excommunication and marriage[edit]

Berrigan had spoken and written about the importance of celibacy to activists, but abandoned his previous position on romantic entanglements for McAlister.[6] In January 1972, McAlister and Berrigan married with witnesses while Berrigan was in prison. Following his parole, on May 28, 1973, they legalized their marital status and were excommunicated by the Catholic Church.[1] McAlister had three children with Berrigan: Frida, Jerry, and Kate. McAlister and Berrigan continued their activism, facing jail time for their civil disobedience. Between their activities in the Plowshares movement and other protest actions, during their twenty-nine year marriage, Berrigan and McAlister spent a total of eleven years separated by prison.[4]

Jonah House and later life[edit]

McAlister and Berrigan founded Jonah House in 1973. The "resistance community" functioned as a commune, with the Berrigan-McAlister family in the basement of the Baltimore row house. They raised their three children there, with the help of the other activists in the community.[1] In 1996, Jonah House moved to a house overlooking St. Peter's Cemetery, and the community members care for the grounds.[1][7] McAlister is still involved with Jonah House and its activities.

DePaul University Special Collections and Archives holds collections of papers and ephemera, donated by Berrigan family members and friends. These collections include news clippings related to McAlister’s life and protest actions, as well as personal letters written by McAlister.[8][9] The Berrigan Library includes McAlister's personal books, some annotated in her hand.[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister papers, DePaul University Special Collections and Archives". DePaul University Libraries. Retrieved 22 December 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d Levins, Hoag (September 26, 1971). "How a Formerly Quiet Nun Became a Draft Office Destroyer". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 22, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c Fay, Martha (December 16, 1974). "Father Phil & Sister Liz Now Keep House and the Rebel Faith". People Magazine. Retrieved December 22, 2016.
  4. ^ a b Berrigan, Frida (2014). It Runs in the Family. New York: OR Books. pp. 1–2.
  5. ^ a b Lewis, Daniel (December 8, 2002). "Philip Berrigan, Former Priest and Peace Advocate in the Vietnam War Era, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved January 4, 2017.
  6. ^ Peters, Shawn Francis (2012). The Catonsville Nine. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 297–8.
  7. ^ Serpick, Evan (March 2012). "Peace Train". Baltimore Magazine. Retrieved January 4, 2017.
  8. ^ Collection on Peace Activism, DePaul University Special Collections and Archives Accessed 20 December 2016.
  9. ^ Murray Polner papers, DePaul University Special Collections and Archives. Accessed 20 December 2016.
  10. ^ The Berrigan Library, DePaul University Special Collections. Accessed 20 December 2016.

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