Father Bill O'Donnell, 1930-2003
Longtime Berkeley Priest; Dedicated Fighter for
Peace, Social Justice, the Poor and the Oppressed
by Bill Berkowitz

December 18, 2003

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Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain't free.
Wherever men are fightin' for their rights,
That's where I'm a-gonna be, Ma.
That's where I'm a-gonna be.

-- The Ballad of Tom Joad, Woody Guthrie

n Monday, December 8, Father Bill O'Donnell, the longtime pastor at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, California, died at his desk while preparing his homily for the upcoming Sunday service.

Father Bill O'Donnell's life was devoted to "speaking truth to power" and he did it with a sparkle in his eye and a smile on his face. Father Bill, as he was known to the many thousands of people whose lives he touched and influenced, was an activist priest. He not only spoke out about human rights, peace and justice, solidarity with working men and women and service to the poor, but he continuously put his body on the line in support of these issues.

In 1974, I joined the United Farm Workers Union boycott team in Oakland, California. My assignment was to organize Berkeley and North Oakland residents in support of the UFW's boycott of grapes and Gallo wines. My first night-time picket line was at a liquor store located in a generally supportive North Oakland neighborhood. It was also the first time I met Father Bill O'Donnell.

During the picket, a fellow stumbled out of the bar next door, wobbled over to Father O'Donnell and ripped off his collar. As picket captain, I didn't know what to expect or exactly what to do. Father O'Donnell set the tone: he smiled, calmed "the brother" down, and we went on picketing the store as if nothing untoward had happened.

A few weeks later, at 4 o'clock on a cold and wet summer morning, a handful of East Bay boycotters gathered at Oakland's fruit terminal. Our mission was to "talk" with the truckers delivering non-union produce, and picket those fruit dealers selling non-union grapes to markets from across the East Bay. It was a decidedly unfriendly crowd, but Father O'Donnell was there leading the demonstration. One of the truckers saw Father O'Donnell and went berserk, screaming at him: "What's a priest doing here?" and then proceeded to shove him against a stack of boxes of grapes. Bob Purcell, then the head of the East Bat boycott, recently remembered that "as always, Father O'Donnell straightened up and stood his ground."

Father O'Donnell was born in Livermore, where he attended St. Michael's church and school. He "came from a large Irish family who were farmers. He told friends his Irish mother, Maude Regan O'Donnell, was the 'one who inspired me,'" The [Fremont, CA] Argus pointed out in its obituary.

According to The Argus, Father O'Donnell "once told a reporter he was 'kicked out' of three parishes before finding his rightful home. That was his assignment in 1973 to St. Joseph's, which at the time was known as St. Joseph's the Workman. O'Donnell as assistant pastor was instrumental in 'de-gendering' the name to St. Joseph the Worker, to honor the work of women as well as men."

In his well-worn leather jacket, priest's collar and black jeans Father O'Donnell, 73, marched with Cesar Chavez and the farm-workers, was on Justice for Janitors picket lines and got arrested with hotel workers at the San Francisco Marriott Hotel. He could be found at the head of marches and speaking at rallies for workers seeking justice in workplaces throughout the greater Bay Area.

"Labor could always count on him to be there in the day-to-day fights," said Bob Purcell, now Director of the Public Employee Department of the Laborers' International Union of North America. "Even when the cameras weren't rolling, he was there," Purcell recently told me. "It wasn't just that you were calling on a priest from the local parish; he was a working class guy. He brought the moral authority of the Catholic Church and his personal integrity, and he was there whenever the cause was just. He represented the best tradition of Catholic social teachings."

Father O'Donnell was arrested more than two-hundred-twenty times for performing non-violent civil disobedience at demonstrations against Ronald Reagan's Central American contra wars, the proliferation of nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and on numerous labor picket lines.

He recently returned to Berkeley from serving a six-month sentence at Atwater Penitentiary, a high-security federal facility near Merced, California, for trespassing at the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security -- formerly known as the School of the Americas or School of the Assassins -- at Fort Benning, Ga. In November 2002. "Your honor, you are pimping for the Pentagon" Father O'Donnell matter-of-factly told a Federal Judge before his sentencing.

After he was sentenced, he commented to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter about the history of U.S. military actions overseas: "Philosophically, it's the bully beating up the little kid. We've been beating them up for centuries. The crusades are alive and well in Washington D.C."

"Bill is one of the scariest people I know," actor Martin Sheen once said about his close friend, "because he makes us tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, all the time. He takes the cup as it is offered, not altered."

Several thousand people paid their respects to Father O'Donnell at a memorial service at the Berkeley Community Theatre on Sunday evening, December 14. "Father Bill O'Donnell rested in a pine coffin draped by a United Farm Workers flag, serenaded with protest and union songs, eulogized by former cellmates -- a measure of a man one mourner dubbed Berkeley's saint and another likened to Jesus," the Contra Costa Times reported.

At the memorial, speaker after speaker -- including San Francisco Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi, Oakland's Representative Barbara Lee, Dolores Huerta, one of the founders of the UFW, Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president, Chuck Mack of the Teamsters, representatives from the janitors and hotel workers' unions, Father Roy Bourgeois, a leader of the anti-School of the Americas movement, and a young girl from the St. Joseph's youth group -- talked about Father O'Donnell's commitment to peace and justice and his connection to them personally.

Perhaps the most poignant and revealing testimony came from a recovering alcoholic that Father Bill had taken under his wing. Being unemployed and homeless in Berkeley can be as daunting as being down and out in any-town USA. Father Bill not only befriended the man, but he supported him at every turn. This included giving him a car so he could go to work. The man said that he was reluctant to accept the gift, but Father Bill, with his customary straightforwardness and humor, tossed him the keys and said, "Here, it's a gift from the Pope."

Father Bill O'Donnell was just as at home at St. Joseph's as he was marching with farmworkers, getting arrested with anti-nuclear activists, organizing prison inmates, supporting immigrant workers and ministering to the poor and homeless. That's where he was "a-gonna be" from the very beginning. And that's where he always was.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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