December 21, 2003
tribute to the Rev. Bill O'Donnell
Salter, Chronicle Staff Writer
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
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."
Salter at email@example.com.