By Rachel Laue –
The life of an activist is often unconventional, but few more so than long-time peace movement advocates, John and Martina Linnehan. When the couple met in 1969 they were both in holy orders. Martina, a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Augustine, and John, a parish priest from Boston, first engaged in anti-nuclear protests in the early 1970s when they became involved in the Tampa chapter of Pax Christi, the Catholic church’s international peace movement.
In 1973, they left the clergy, married, and moved to Sarasota where John became a real estate broker, and Martina a teacher. Their connection with Pax Christi continued, along with their opposition to nuclear proliferation. By 1978, they had organized the Nuclear Freeze Campaign in Sarasota and in 1980 they joined up with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, and became organizers for the UFW in Central Florida.
Feeling there was still more they could do, they took six months off in 1980 to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and “think things over” (Jeanne Pugh, “Peace activists to demonstrate without clergy aid.” Crossroads, Magazine of Religion, St. Petersburg Times. Feb. 12, 1983.)
The trip proved transformative for John and Martina. Their connection to nature deepened, as did their desire to protect it. The minimalist living of the trail also suited them and when they returned to Sarasota, they gave up their teaching and real estate careers and devoted the majority of their time to the peace movement.
The next years tested their resolve. In October 1982, as part of a protest with Immanuel House, the St. Petersburg Peace movement chapter, they were arrested outside of the General Electric Neutron Devices plant in Largo, Florida. Charges were brought against them and another protestor for stretching a steel cable across the gate to the plant so that vehicles could not enter or leave without damage. The couple defended their actions stating, “the whole world is on death row waiting for someone to push the button” (Laurin Sellers, “In the Name of Peace—Their Calling Former Nun, Ex-Priest Out to Change the World,” Orlando Sentinel, Jan.16, 1987.)
A six-month imprisonment in Pinellas County jails did nothing to alter their passion. John told the press that nuclear arms violated international law and that he hoped “the witness of Oct. 14 and this trial would speak to all individuals this urgent message: it’s time to stop the madness of the nuclear arms race.” (Patti Bridges, “Anti-nuclear demonstrators receive one-year jail terms for GE protest,” Evening Independent, May 26, 1983.) The presiding judge believed the Linnehans should be made an example of to discourage “anarchy” but his plan backfired. The event made John and Martina internationally known within the Peace movement as serious activists, willing to put it all on the line.
Over the next thirty years, the Linnehans organized and participated in protests against the death penalty, “Cancel the Countdown” in Cape Canaveral, the United States’ involvement in Central America, the White Trains Campaign, and, most importantly, the arrival of Trident II nuclear submarines at the King’s Bay Naval Base in Georgia in 1989.
To oppose Trident, the couple organized an annual protest on the Feast of the Holy Innocents—a Catholic holy day marking King Herod’s proclamation to kill all children under two years old in Judea. The Feast of Holy Innocents protest averaged over 200 protesters each year and protests have continued into the present, still sponsored by the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, an organization the Linnehans helped to build in the state. They summarized the intent of this protest as follows:
“The way of Herod was to do anything in order to try to ensure security—even at the cost of slaughtering innocent children to avoid a possible threat to his government. Each December 28th, the church has set aside this date to remember this brutal event. We have chosen this date to be a Christian presence at this submarine base because we see disturbing similarities between the actions of Herod and our possession and policy on the use of nuclear weapons. The destructiveness of nuclear weapons is indiscriminate: no distinction is made between combatants or civilians. Christians must issue a clear ‘NO’ to this whether we come from a pacifist or ‘just war’ tradition.
To protest against these weapons after they are used again will be too late; we must voice our objections now and find ways to non-cooperate with the nations which continue to threaten others with them.” (“Christian Witness for Peace at Kings Bay Submarine Base” December 1984, Peace Movement Collection.)
In 1986, the couple also established the Metanoia Community, an organizational support group for people interested in activism (metanois means to the change of heart, soe they hoped to generate in their work. The main hub of Metanoia was the Linnehans’ home, the Peace House. On the advice of peace movement colleagues in Washington, the couple built the house adjacent to the railroad tracks that terminated in the King’s Bay Naval Submarine Base. This allowed the two to constantly monitor trains carrying nuclear materials into the naval base. The idea of Metanoia was rooted deeply within the Linnehans’ faith. Though they left clerical work, they remained devout Catholics. Of their 1983 arrest, John said, “while it [the GE protest] was happening, we felt really good about it. I thought ‘Here we are, Catholics for all of our lives, and this is the first time we have really exercised the sacrament of confirmation by putting our beliefs in action.”
He added, “No government, no church, no corporation or any other institution is willing to stop the arms race because all have a vested interest in it. So who’s going to do it? It has to be the people—the ordinary citizen.” (Jeanne Pugh, “Peace activists to demonstrate without clergy aid.” Crossroads, Magazine of Religion, St. Petersburg Times. Feb. 12, 1983.)
In later years, John and Martina continued to work for the Peace Movement, but increasingly diverted some of their energy toward teaching sustainable living practices to combat climate change at the Sustainable Living Center of North Florida. After John’s passing in May 2020, Martina Linnehan organized all their materials documenting their decades of activism in the Peace Movement, and has donated them to the University of Florida.
The Florida Peace Movement Collection is archived in Special Collections and a guide to the collection, summarizing John’s and Martina’s work and identifying the contents of their papers, is now available online.