The Rev Bill O'Donnell

Radical priest dedicated to social justice

Friday 19 December 2003 01:00

William Joseph O'Donnell, priest and social activist: born Altamont, California 1 January 1930; ordained priest 1956; Parish Priest, St Joseph the Worker, Berkeley 1973-2003; died Berkeley, California 8 December 2003.

The first time Father Bill O'Donnell was arrested was at the headquarters of the Safeway supermarket chain, as part of a delegation representing Cesar Chavez's legendary farmworkers' union in the heady summer of 1968. Safeway refused to comply with a Chavez-inspired boycott against non-union grapes, so Father O'Donnell refused to leave the building until the police cuffed him and dragged him away.

He may have been a latecomer to civil disobedience - he was already 38 - but O'Donnell soon found plentiful causes that set his deep spiritual convictions on a collision course with authority. As one of a generation of radical priests offering themselves as the conscience of the counter-culture, he marched against the Vietnam war and against the nuclear weapons industry, particularly at the Lawrence Livermore laboratory outside San Francisco where a policeman once broke his wrist.

He rallied against militarism and toxic waste, both when it was fashionable and when it was not. He threw his support behind every union strike in the San Francisco area from 1966 on. He spent days at a time, sometimes a week, behind bars, ignoring court injunctions, "ban and bar" letters and the tut-tutting admonitions of district and federal judges. By the time of his most celebrated clash with the establishment - leading a peaceful protest in 2001 at a US military training camp in Georgia, where many of Latin America's notorious paramilitary and death squad commanders received their education - he had been arrested a total of 224 times.

Known for his fearlessness, his brutal honesty, his commitment to Gandhian non-violence, his bracing disrespect for those in power, and, not least, his raucous Irish wit, Father Bill was regarded as little short of a saint by friends and fellow activists in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A testimonial on the wall of his parish office at the church of St Joseph the Worker in Berkeley - next to a coat-hanger displaying his voluminous collection of plastic and metal hand-cuffs - praised him "for raising hell to create heaven on earth". His friend and fellow activist Martin Sheen, the Hollywood actor, once said: "Bill is one of the scariest people I know 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."

O'Donnell himself told The Independent in an interview last year that getting arrested was like an addiction for him: "I hate authoritarian anything. I hate people telling me what to do for their own agendas." Like his heroes - Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and Archbishop Cesar Romero of El Salvador - he believed that God gave the earth to everybody, and that co-operating with the rich was a sin. "I can't save the poor," he said, explaining his philosophy, "but I can walk with them and be with them for support."

After his arrest at the Fort Benning base in Georgia, he helped reduce his trial to the farce he profoundly believed it to be. He told the chaplain at the base he was "a disgrace to the priesthood and a betrayer of the Gospel". He accused the judge of "pimping for the Pentagon", likened his courtroom to Dante's Inferno and celebrated the trespassing convictions he and his 35 co-defendants received by leading them in joyous song on the courthouse steps.

O'Donnell was sentenced to six months in a low-security federal penitentiary, which he spent organising subversive Bible study groups and preaching revolutionary theology to initially bemused white-collar inmates serving time for embezzlement and fraud. He was back on the streets earlier this year, demonstrating against the war in Iraq and returning to Fort Benning - though taking care this time not to get arrested because, he said, prison took too much time away from his other activities.

He was born to a brawling, hard-drinking Irish farm family in dusty Altamont, over the Oakland Hills from San Francisco, and first entered the priesthood as a means of escape. Words, not fists, became his weapons of choice. Rather than succumbing to drink himself, he chose to counsel alcoholics and other addicts. "I love booze, but I'm scared to death of it," he told me. "If people like me don't help others, we're dead."

A chance assignment following the civil-rights movement in Alabama proved a definitive eye-opener. "All of a sudden, the Christian scriptures started to make sense," he said. His enthusiasm for minority rights and the labour movement appalled his Catholic superiors, and by his own account he was thrown out of three parishes before settling in Berkeley in 1973. O'Donnell said he didn't believe in the hierarchy of the Church because it was "anti-Gospel", and he drove one particularly disapproving Bishop of Oakland, Floyd Begin, to near-distraction.

Left largely to his own devices, he co-founded the charitable San Carlos Foundation to raise awareness about US policy in Latin America. He never stopped campaigning for his cherished causes, even when heart trouble threatened to slow him down. He died at his desk, preparing his next Sunday sermon, with a book by Archbishop Romero beside him. Father Bill would not have wanted to go any other way.

Andrew Gumbel

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