Sarah Hipperson was a founder member of Catholic Peace Action and a Greenham Common women peace activist at Yellow Gate for 17 years
Sarah Hipperson died at the age 90 on 15 August 2018, an important date in the Catholic calendar which association would have given Sarah great joy. She is most importantly remembered as arguably one of the most committed Greenham women peace activists who from 1983 to 2000 lived at Greenham Common Yellow Gate and watched its transformation from an RAF military base to an American nuclear cruise missile base to an open common for the public including a memorial peace garden. She was born in 1927 in Glasgow and her early life was disrupted by the separation of her parents when she and all her siblings were sent into care under the supervision of the Sisters of Charity in Glasgow. She recalls her time under the Catholic nuns’ supervision with affection and her First Communion day with special joy. There is no doubt that from an early time her faith was a most important force in her life and which gave her a sense of identity and value as an individual which was to be an important part of her self confidence in all the struggles that were to follow.
Her formal education was limited and when she applied to join the nursing school in Eastern District Hospital Duke Street Glasgow the matron initially refused her entry on the grounds that she had not completed the necessary educational requirements. Not to be put off by such obstructions from authority even at that early age she argued her case with the matron saying that she should be given a chance and was finally accepted. She repaid the matron’s trust by winning the anatomy and physiology prize in her first year. She went on to qualify as a nurse midwife and to work in some of the poorest parts of Glasgow after further training as a district nurse. She had a great respect for how her very materially deprived patients coped with the harsh conditions of life in Glasgow during this time but her desire to travel and to see more of the world led her to apply to become a nurse in the army. She was however refused entry to the army when she failed the medical having what was to prove to be an insignificant heart murmur. One can only wonder how her life might have evolved if she had been then accepted into the army.
Her continual desire to travel led her to emigrate to Canada where she married and had five children. She returned to UK to London in 1969 where to all appearances she had a materially secure middle-class life and was even appointed a magistrate. Her experience on the magistrates’ bench proved to be a strain as her discordant voice in support for the often poor and inadequately represented defendants made her unpopular among her fellow justices of the peace. After a few years she finally resigned from the bench sensing that her presence was giving the legal process a legitimacy she could not support.
In the 80s as a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes Wanstead she became active in the Justice and Peace group and motivated by the Dr. Helen Caldecott film, Critical Mass, on the dangers of nuclear war she organised invitations to the local churches to a viewing of the film hoping to start discussions. She noted that in fact the usual response was horror and awareness followed by social paralysis. In 1982 she noticed an invitation by Dan Martin who was then the Justice and Peace worker for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Southwark to meet in the forecourt of Westminster Cathedral to discern a Catholic response to nuclear war preparations. This was to form the beginning of Catholic Peace Action and her first introduction to non-violent civil disobedience. At that time the Catholic Church’s teaching on nuclear deterrence was at the least ambiguous. The then Pope John Paul II’s address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in June 1982 gave a moral acceptance to nuclear deterrence as a step towards nuclear disarmament. To many in the Church this was taken as an endorsement of the policy or as was often termed loosely the “doctrine” of nuclear deterrence. Others in the Church saw this doctrine as a kind of heresy and there was no indication of nuclear disarmament. This was a time when the cold war was at its height. Mrs. Thatcher’s government then dominated the political scene, Mr. Heseltine the secretary of State for Defence was telling Parliament that protesters ran the risk of being shot and to be a peace activist often meant regular visits to court and sometimes jail for non-violent protests that were interpreted by the authorities as illegal. Greenham Common was designated to be the place where 96 nuclear cruise missiles, each with a capacity of 15 times that of the bomb at Hiroshima, would be stationed to counter the Soviet SS20 threat in the East. There was a general sense of uncertainty, the cold war political rhetoric was fierce and the introduction of these intermediate-range nuclear weapons made nuclear war more likely. The debate and division within the Catholic Church at this time was heated but respectful. Senior well known Catholic lay people in the Church and senior religious leaders took opposing views in public and while some developed a theology of nuclear deterrence others not only voiced and debated opposite views but advocated and took part in non-violent civil disobedience at military bases and at the Ministry of Defence London. To sustain people through the legal process and often jail time affinity groups which could be described as base Christian communities were set up among which Catholic Peace Action (CPA) was one in London and which Sarah became a founder member. Her first act of civil disobedience was carried out with this group and she described it as crossing an invisible line which marked out her commitment to no longer being a bystander.
In 1983 she moved to live at Greenham Common though continuing her discerning and support for Catholic Peace Action and their support for her. She attended their monthly meeting which focused on non-violent protests at the Ministry of Defence which often led to court cases and prison sentences.
The Imperial War Museum has recorded (oral history) an extensive oral history of Sarah’s story where she describes the harsh conditions of living in the mud of Greenham Common, the brutality of the bailiffs and police, her over 20 imprisonments, her numerous court appearances, her fasting which on one occasion lasted 31 days in Holloway Prison when she lost over 2 stone in weight. She records the moving experience of attending Mass on Sundays in Holloway Prison with the marginalised women whose faith was an inspiration.
She describes the grassroots non-violent spirituality of women and her confidence in the ultimate removal of the cruise missiles. She relates that the women at Greenham were neither saints nor sinners but were described by opponents as “bloody women” and she was proud of that description and that they were rooted in non-violence whatever faith tradition or none they claimed. She never hid her own Christian faith at Greenham and the unifying spirituality among them was the women’s non-violence and their anti-nuclear position and willingness to participate in protests that put them at risk of arrest.
Often social activist like Sarah never see the results of their struggle and it may be another generation that reaps the benefit but in the case of the Greenham Common women history gives them a visible definite legacy. In 1987 the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed by Mr.Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev and soon after the cruise missiles were removed as were the SS20s from the East. The Ash Wednesday annual Pax Christi demonstration at the Ministry of Defence against nuclear weapons is a legacy that Sarah was happy to see in her lifetime and the Catholic Church is now no longer ambiguous about any “theology” of nuclear deterrence. The very possession of nuclear weapons is condemned with clarity at the highest level. Sarah was very aware that her prayer for a nuclear free world remained unanswered in her time, we still have much to do but considering one “bloody woman’s” contribution to the cause of non-violent peace building she will be to all who knew her an inspiration and a challenge.
The Glasgow nuns who were so instrumental in Sarah’s Catholic formation have a lot to answer for. May Sarah rest in the peace of Christ which in her life, at a great personal cost, she struggled to embody.
“Greenham: Non-violent Women-v-Crown Prerogative”
Sarah Hipperson’s oral history at the Imperial War Museum
Breaking the Bylaws
From the Greenham Newsletter, 1991. Text by Dido.
After the Cruise missiles had all been removed, there followed a long struggle between the Ministry of Defence, who wanted to retain the base, and the people of Newbury who were demanding the return of their common land.
The House of Lords returned their rights to the common land to the people of Newbury and in 1997 Newbury was able to buy back its common land from the Ministry of Defence for £7million. Two years later cattle were back grazing and the rights of the commoners were re-established. A memorial has been designed in memory of the Greenham Common peace women.
The 87-year-old, who was one of the last women to leave the camp, said: “It is 14 years since the memorial peace garden was opened to mark the commitment and determination of women in their efforts to make this world a more peaceful place.
“The garden was maintained by the peace women through a commemorative fund appeal. But the time has come to ask the owner of the site Greenham Common Trust to take over the management of the site which they have kindly agreed to.
“It is a fitting end to the protest. At the end of the day you have to put your differences aside and give things back to the community. Long after we are gone people will be saying: ‘What happened here?'”
The site represents the four elements of earth, fire, water and air and is planted with British species.
It includes a flame sculpture, which symbolizes the campfire, and a stone and steel spiral sculpture, engraved with the words “You can’t kill the Spirit”.
A tree was planted to mark the official handover.
Greenham Common Trust chief executive Chris Boulton said: “The Peace Garden marks an important part of the history of Greenham Common. The trust would like to thank Sarah and the other peace women for the upkeep of the garden and for asking us to manage it in the future.”
On July 12th  Georgina and Jean won the Bye-laws Case in the House of Lords. The Greenham bylaws were declared illegal. Trespassing is no longer a criminal offence and women aren’t arrested anymore for going in.Greenham-S.-Hipperson-1-Book
Sarah Hipperson has died on this day, 15 August 2018, at the age of 90.
Sarah spent 17 years living at the Main Yellow Gate of Greenham Common protesting against the siting of 96 nuclear cruise missiles and was a founder member of Catholic Peace Action in 1982. Her non-violent protests resulted in over 20 imprisonments and numerous court appearances. She lived to see the removal of the nuclear cruise missiles from UK and the transformation of Greenham Common back to its original purpose for the common use of the public.
Update: Read her Obituary.
This was delivered as the homily on 9 August 2018 in the Crypt Chapel of Westminster Cathedral London by Ray Towey for the Franz Jagerstatter Memorial Service arranged by Pax Christi
The story is simple, a peasant farmer in Austria is conscripted to fight for Hitler, refuses claiming being a Catholic and being a soldier in Hitler’s army is incompatible so they kill him to preserve military morale. In 1943 German military morale was in serious jeopardy. The battle of Stalingrad had been lost.
The German state needed men at the eastern front. Franz was isolated in the Church, in the village, in his country. To his knowledge then no-one had taken a stand like this. I use the word peasant farmer purposefully not so often used now about Franz, to us it has negative connotations but the Gospel writer is clear about what is a negative:
I thank you Father Lord of heaven and earth because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and have revealed them to children. (Luke ch10: 21)
This Gospel passage is uneasy reading because ever since I entered formal education I have striven to be someone who is both wise and learned. To the Gospel writer that comfortable self-image or illusion was an obstacle that Franz did not have.
In 1982 I returned from 2 years in a mission hospital in Nigeria. The overwhelming experience of working as a doctor in Africa is watching helplessly the premature death of scores from diseases easily preventable by a little money or curable by modest means.
This remains the global injustice of our time, so the injustice of the Falklands invasion at that time was minor in comparison and I could see no need for further human sacrifice. There was enough premature death in the world, more than enough in Africa alone.
And so, the armada travelled to the South Atlantic to right the wrong bringing with it a military hospital well equipped and I thought why not just make a small detour and share a few drugs from the pharmacy, a few bottles from the blood bank, Nigeria is close by to the east. We won’t delay you long, but don’t forget Sierra Leone, Ghana, we have friends there too, and what harm if we do delay you long?
Even a child could see the need but the wise and learned had other plans.
There was worse to come. The cruise missiles in Greenham Common were an essential counter to the SS20s of the Soviets and the Pershing 2s in Europe would give us the superiority we needed to keep our Christian culture safe and the Church at the highest level then was ambiguous.
What was this doctrine of nuclear deterrence, a necessary modern moral relativism for the Church or a new heresy, is that too strong a word and who was for the burning? everyone? and so we asked, where do we stand and we made a stand and not like Franz, alone, but we were few. Like Dorothy Day we had the nerve to call ourselves Catholic and thereby Catholic Peace Action. We were non-violent but did not keep the law and counted jail time as a duty or was it a spiritual pride in the new indulgences? were we the orthodox or the heterodox? Time would tell.
We added our small voice to others in and out of the Church. We shared with a few of our own bishops but at the time like Franz were not affirmed and learnt how to be strangers in our communities, our Church and country which we loved. But let me not forget Bishop Gumbleton from Detroit and Pax Christi who wrote us a good character witness letter for our bad disobedient behaviour which we copied for the court, usually to no avail, so unlike Franz we were not alone but we were few.
Fr. Daniel Berrigan has a reflection on Franz written some years before Franz’s beatification:
“As for Franz he will not go away, he will not go away from the Church that sent him on his way alone.
His way, which should have been the way of the Church.
So he lingers half unwelcome……….”
After the war Franz’s name was added to the memorial in his parish cemetery of those who had died for Austria but it was secretly erased. For some in his village his name was most unwelcome.
In his own diocese of Linz 40 priests were sent to concentration camps and 11 died. In the Archdiocese of Vienna which was twice the size of Linz 9 priests were sent to concentration camps and 1 died. There was resistance in the Church to the Nazi regime but it was thin and patchy. One of his parish priests had been banned from the parish by the regime for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon and even he advised him accept the conscription, he saw his bishop who advised the same.
When the wise and learned advised him to fight for Hitler was he choosing the way of suicide? This was his terrible deep spiritual anguish.
When he was transferred to the Berlin prison he met with the prison chaplain who related to him the case of an Austrian priest Fr.Reinisch who had refused to take the oath to Hitler and was executed a year before. Fr.Reinisch had been conscripted to the medical corps but still refused the oath stating that he opposed the Nazi world view which had resulted in murder, the elimination of the mentally disabled, forced sterilisation, the illegal annexation of Austria. The chaplain relates that Franz breathed a sigh of relief and was greatly encouraged and said, “l can’t be on the wrong path after all, if even a priest has decided the same and has gone to his death for it then it’s all right for me to do it too.”
I think this was the first time he had heard of anyone refusing conscription for Christian reasons and it suggests that even at this late stage he was still in need of more support that his stand was correct and not a suicide.
After the war the search for justice began but there were to be dispensations, if you had the secrets of the VI and V2 rockets there was an amnesty. The learned and the wise needed you, and a new and comfortable life in the West or the East guaranteed. These wonderous Nazi indiscriminate weapons of terror had their uses. The VI became cruise missiles and the V2 ballistic missiles, just add a nuclear warhead when required.
And so… Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki….we know who won the battles but who won the values?
In 1941 while doing his military service after his second call up Franz writes, “Ybbs is a beautiful town.. there’s quite a large mental asylum here, which used to be full of patients but now probably even the mad have become sane, because there are no longer very many of them in the asylum. My dear wife there must be some truth in what you told me once about what’s happening to these people.
In May 1943 Franziska writes to Franz of the sudden death of a disabled child who had been put in a home for the disabled. Hundreds of thousands of disabled children, psychiatric patients, mentally disabled adults, Downs syndrome children were killed during the war. Bishop von Galen of Munster was a vociferous opponent of this Action T4 euthanasia programme and was placed under virtual house arrest in 1941.
In Europe these days Downs syndrome is becoming a rarity. For them we have developed our own final solution.
And what of us? The state may not need us in uniform but it still needs our obedience or is it just our silence?
But now it will never be so hard because we have Franz. Thank you, Franz from the bottom of my heart for making my small journey clearer, less lonely, more loyal, more forgiving and with no place for bitterness.