Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walking up over yonder hill
With Abraham, Martin, Bobby and John.”
Give César Chávez an abrazo from us.
FR. BILL O’DONNELL died of a heart attack while working at his desk on Monday, Dec. 8. In the effort to close the School of the Americas, Fr. Bill crossed the line many times. He served a six-month sentence for trespass at Atwater Federal Prison Camp and was released in March 2003.
Close to three thousand of his closest friends joined, over the last few days, in remembering Fr. Bill, his life and actions for justice and peace.
Donations in lieu of flowers to St. Joseph the Worker Church Options Recovery
We now have our own domain! www.FrBill.us
Fr. Bill with defendants, Lisa Hughes and Shannon MacManimon on their way to the Columbus, Ga. courthouse, July, 2003 [Photo @ www.soaw-ne.org by Linda Panetta.]
“He Gave It All”
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Read the Obit in the NY Times: Rev. William O’Donnell, a Rebel With Many Causes, Dies at 73.
A Chron article on Fr. Bill:
The High Priest of Protests: The Rev. Bill O'Donnell of Berkeley has taken a crusade for human rights into the streets – and maybe into jail
San Francisco Chronicle – Sunday, June 16, 2002 by Sam McManis
Berkeley – He is a Catholic priest facing the possibility of jail time. No, not because of that. Perish the thought. The Rev. Bill O’Donnell has been arrested about 300 times over four decades, but it’s always because his feet remain planted on the moral high ground, and his conscience and his God won't let him turn away.
Marching with César Chávez for the rights of migrant farmworkers? Father Bill was there.
Scaling the barbed-wire fence at the Indonesian Consulate in San Francisco to protest repression in East Timor? Father Bill was there.
Traveling to El Salvador to fight for freedom, to Cuba to lift the embargo?
Catching a ride with his buddy, actor Martin Sheen, out to Mercury, Nev., to circle the site of underground nuke testing and hold prayer vigils? Father Bill was there, always.
O’Donnell, 72, has been booked at many a police station across the land, but has almost always made it back to St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley for dinner or at least the Sunday service. Oh, he did a week in the jail in Santa Rita once in the ’80s after a vociferous protest at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but mostly authorities recognize his civil disobedience for what it is – “confronting our government,” he says, “when it morally misbehaves.”
On July 8, however, O’Donnell will go on trial in Columbus, Ga., charged along with 42 others with trespassing on federal property at Fort Benning, home of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Many, however, know it by its former name, School of the Americas, and the Fort Benning 43 were protesting what they claim is a school that trains dictators and terrorists in Central and South American countries.
If convicted, O’Donnell and others (including the Rev. Louis Vitale of St. Boniface in San Francisco) could face up to a year in prison. Some might ask, isn’t such a sentence a tad stiff for merely crossing a line during a nonviolent protest? Perhaps, but that didn’t stop U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth from imposing six-month to one-year sentences on 26 Fort Benning protesters last year, including 88-year-old Franciscan nun Dorothy Hennessey.
Staring at an extended jail term, O’Donnell could be excused if he were anxious about the coming trial. But when I visited him last week, he was the same old Father Bill – jovially defiant.
“Well,” he said, a smile spreading across his face, “I’ve never had a sabbatical.”
Once his laughter fades, O’Donnell admits that prison would be tough on his psyche. “Down deep,” he said, “I hate it. I hate authoritarians to the hilt.”
That’s putting it mildly. O’Donnell, who grew up on a farm just outside of Livermore, has always been a crusader for the downtrodden and the peace movement. Activist priests, such as O’Donnell, live by the credo: “If we’re not precious, there is no God. Our beauty is God’s glory. It becomes blasphemy when people are ignored.”
O’Donnell has dedicated his life to challenging “the establishment,” whether it’s the church or the government. He was kicked out of three parishes before finding an ideological home at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, where he has worked with the homeless and the drug-addicted since 1973.
“When I went out of the church structure and worked in the labor, peace and civil rights movements, I finally heard a voice that responded to my need to be a priest,” O’Donnell said. “I struggle with my faith all the time, but I find it with the people. I don’t find it with the bishops or the pope. I count on that strength.”
That strength has seen O’Donnell through some tough times in his demonstration days. For instance, he had his left arm broken by a CHP officer at a Livermore lab protest 20 years ago.
“But we’ve educated the cops there,” O’Donnell said. “Now, it’s become boring. It’s like old home week when we show up to protest.”
It was anything but boring down in Georgia on Nov. 18, when several hundred protesters converged on the School of the Americas. The Army constructed temporary fences with barbed wire to prevent trespassing, but O’Donnell, Vitale and 41 other protesters found a way in. They were cuffed and put on their knees, like penitents. Later, the base chaplain was summoned to talk to the three scofflaw priests among the 43 detained.
“His name was O’Malley, and that got me mad because it was the same race, you know,” O’Donnell said. “I told him, ‘You’re a traitor to the Gospel, a disgrace to the priesthood. You’re only in it for the huge salary and the retirement you’ll get. You’re disgusting.”
“He was there to convince us there is nothing going on at the School of the Americas. For him to pimp for the Pentagon is so ugly.”
The U.S. Army-operated school has trained more than 60,000 soldiers in courses such as military intelligence, sniper training and psychological and commando operations. Ten former dictators, including Manuel Noriega of Panama and Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala, trained there. The 1989 killings in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests were linked to School of the Americas graduates.
For the past four years, O’Donnell has been among the protesting throng. Most likely, he’ll be in prison, not outside Fort Benning, at this year’s protest on Nov. 17. But even if he’s behind bars, Father Bill will be there – in spirit.
“The protests will go on,” he said. “Maybe, possibly, we can raise enough awareness to close that damned school.”
Daniel Zwickel ben Avram,
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