Thursday, December 11, 2003

Bill O'Donnell -- social activist, Catholic priest

Stephanie Salter, Chronicle Staff Writer

Click to ViewIn a 1998 public "conversation" with his actor friend Martin Sheen, the Rev. Bill O'Donnell told a packed Berkeley audience that it was in the civil rights movement that he began "to learn that we're all connected and that sin is when we're disconnected. Sin is the separation of human beings."

Father O'Donnell, a giant in the world of peace and social justice activism, died Monday at his desk at St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Berkeley. He had celebrated morning Mass, breakfasted with parish staff and was working on an Advent homily when he apparently suffered a heart attack.

He was 73.

"He went exactly the way he wanted to go -- on the job," said the Rev. George Crespin, pastor of St. Joseph. " 'Retirement' was a word Bill didn't understand. It wasn't in his vocabulary."

Plenty of other words were, including some barbed and salty ones that Father O'Donnell unleashed on anyone he perceived as misusing power to injure or oppress the poor and marginalized. In some 40 years of activism and nonviolent civil disobedience, he was arrested more than 230 times.

Fighting alongside Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, he said, taught him "when you fail to educate someone about the morality of an issue, then you shame them."

Targets of his educational efforts ranged wide over the decades, from directors of Catholic hospitals, who tried to block their employees from unionizing, to U.S. District Judge G. Mallon Faircloth, who last year sentenced Father O'Donnell to six months in federal prison for trespassing at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Ga.

"Bill actually stood at the sentencing and told the judge that the court was pimping for the Pentagon," said the Rev. Louis Vitale of St. Boniface Church in San Francisco.

A fellow peace and justice activist and longtime friend, Vitale was sentenced by Faircloth to three months in prison for the same civil disobedience at Fort Benning.

"Bill hated going to prison, but he was ready to do it again if it was necessary. He had so much integrity," Vitale said. "He could not not speak the truth, no matter who or what was involved. El Salvador, Fort Benning, the Concord Naval Weapons facility, the farm owners, even some of the big bosses -- he would tell them, 'This is against the teaching of Christ.' "

To Vitale, Father O'Donnell "was a true prophet. Not many come along, but something in them compels them to speak the truth and put their body out there. He preached it, and he lived it, talked the talk and walked the walk."

Father O'Donnell was one of identical twins born in Livermore on Jan. 2, 1930, and raised on a nearby farm. He had six brothers and sisters, including Mary O'Donnell, an alcohol and drug recovery counselor whom he often described as "my best friend."

Father O'Donnell entered St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park in 1950 and was ordained six years later.

During their 1998 conversation -- a fund-raiser for the Latin American education and advocacy organization, the San Carlos Foundation -- Sheen asked Father O'Donnell if he ever thought in seminary that he had made a mistake.

"Every day," the priest said to much laughter.

Through their mutual friend and San Carlos Foundation co-founder, Dr. Davida Coady, Sheen said he had learned of Father O'Donnell's death at the end of a day of shooting "The West Wing" and was deeply upset.

The priest was responsible for introducing the actor to Chavez in 1988, and the two men hooked up for many a demonstration -- and arrest -- thereafter.

"I was really honored to know Bill," Sheen said. "If you meet one person like him in your life, you're a lucky person. I'm a lucky person."

Coady and Father O'Donnell founded Options Recovery in Berkeley for the drug and alcohol addicted and took turns over their 30-year friendship pulling one another into various causes. They made some 20 trips to Latin America and Mexico and two to the Middle East.

"He attacked everything head-on," Coady said. "And he really got a charge out of people and their stories. He found a genuineness of poor and oppressed people stimulating -- it's why he didn't burn out -- and he saw the priesthood as a way of fighting for social justice."

Along with Chavez and Martin Luther King, Father O'Donnell often cited Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, as a major influence.

"The rich have no right to be rich," he once said. "Not as long as there's a poor person; no one has a right to have more."

Father O'Donnell frequently clashed with his hierarchical superiors and liked to say he was "a bishop's nightmare." He was instrumental in changing the name of St. Joseph the Workman to the Worker and defied a Vatican ban on discussing the ordination of women by praying for that possibility during Mass.

In addition to his sister Mary of Berkeley, he is survived by his brothers, Edward of Lafayette and James of Moraga. 

On Saturday, Father O'Donnell's remains will lie in his church at 1640 Addison St. in Berkeley from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Sunday, there will be a celebration of his life at the Berkeley Community Theater at 4 p.m. His funeral Mass, also at St. Joseph the Worker, is Monday at 10:30 a.m. with burial following at St. Mary's Cemetery in Oakland.

In lieu of flowers, his family suggests donations to St. Joseph the Worker, Options Recovery or School of the Americas Watch.

E-mail Stephanie Salter at

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