Sunday, December 21, 2003

Eclectic, loving tribute to the Rev. Bill O'Donnell

Stephanie Salter, Chronicle Staff Writer

Click to ViewYou could live a long time and never witness the kind of sendoff they gave Father Bill O'Donnell last week. It took three days of vigils, tributes and Masses. The funeral alone, which ran close to two hours, was a clinic in that much discussed but rarely executed concept known as "diversity."

Where else would you find two bishops -- one conservative, one liberal -- sharing the sanctuary with an honor guard of red-flag-waving United Farm Workers? Where else would the primary eulogist speak lovingly of the man he was proud to call a fellow federal prisoner?

Where else would the bishops, more than 100 priests in flowing formal vestments, the Farm Workers, a platoon of bereaved family members and a plain pine coffin -- made by union carpenters, of course -- exit the church to "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and "De Colores"?

Where else would that coffin carry not only the customary Catholic funeral pall and gilt Gospel text but a tangled nest of plastic handcuffs once worn by the departed?

The Rev. Bill O'Donnell, who died in Berkeley on Dec. 8 of a heart attack at the age of 73, often described social justice as "the armpit of the Mystical Body of Christ." He meant it as a compliment -- and a reality check.

Fighting, as he did throughout his life, for the poor, for immigrants, for labor unions -- for peace -- must be done in a tough arena. It gets dirty, hot, sweaty, confined and sometimes stinking in there. It is no place for the dainty, the decorum-minded or, especially, the dilettante.

But the company, O'Donnell would say, can be nonpareil. As he put it many times: "You meet the best people in jail."

With an arrest record of around 230, he would know.

Hundreds of those "best people" helped pack to overflowing O'Donnell's church, St. Joseph the Worker, in the Berkeley flatlands this past Monday for the priest's funeral. Brother cellmates. Sister patrol wagoners. Comrades in custody from the Pacific Stock Exchange to Fort Benning to Los Alamos to Safeway.

They sat and sang beside regular St. Joe's parishioners who treasured O'Donnell as much for his pastoral care as for his activism. Counting the folks out on the sidewalk who listened to the Mass on loudspeakers, about 1, 500 people attended. 

The evening before, thousands more nearly filled the 3,500-seat Berkeley Community Theater for a secular tribute to Father Bill that ran more than three hours and ended with a blocks-long candlelight march back to St. Joseph's. The priest's coffin was draped with the United Farm Workers flag and rode in the back of his own black pickup, which was driven by his brother Jim and guided by Berkeley police Capt. Bobby Miller -- on foot.

Inside, 19 speakers and a half-dozen musicians (including a female Lutheran minister who sang "Danny Boy") paid homage. With St. Joseph's pastor, the Rev. George Crespin, as master of ceremonies, the lineup was a veritable Who's Who of American nonviolent civil disobedience:

-- The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the movement to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or School of the Americas.

-- Dolores Huerta, right hand to Cesar Chavez and veteran labor activist, who could compare cop-inflicted scars from protest rallies with O'Donnell and win the contest -- his worst injury was a broken wrist, hers a shattered spleen.

-- U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, the only member of Congress to vote against giving George W. Bush military carte blanche. Unlike U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who received warm but subdued applause, Lee got a thunderous standing ovation.

-- "The West Wing" star Martin Sheen, who sat in the audience for three hours like everybody else until it was his turn to talk about his friend and compadre. The next day, Sheen and his wife, Janet, attended the funeral Mass, then drove with a couple of hundred others to St. Mary's Cemetery in Oakland for Father Bill's burial.

Bob Purcell, who got roughed up in the mid-1970s with O'Donnell during UFW grape boycotts and protests, made an observation that would have embarrassed but pleased Father Bill. Reminiscing with Working Assets Online columnist Bill Berkowitz -- a fellow United Farm Workers activist -- Purcell said of O'Donnell:

"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."

And those teachings were at the core of Father Bill O'Donnell and his life's work. While he was famous for wearing dark sunglasses, a black leather jacket and jeans, he nearly always wore them with his Roman collar.

Despite an occasional irreverence toward church authority -- he once gave his car to a recovering-alcoholic homeless man with the words, "Here, it's a gift from the pope" -- O'Donnell practiced his Catholicism fervently. A few years ago he said:

"My theology is liberation theology because I can't imagine any other kind ... and psychology, philosophy, every science and art, its purpose has to be to liberate the human spirit."

Mary O'Donnell, who'd placed all the handcuffs on her brother's coffin, joked the day afterward that he was too busy responding to so many posthumous praises to be channeled. 

"I think he is astonished at the outpouring of love and support that has been shown this past week," she said. "He always considered himself just a parish priest. I don't believe he had any idea of the influence he had."

E-mail Stephanie Salter at

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