BALTIMORE – A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” as 800 mourners marched through snowy west Baltimore Dec. 9, following a pick-up truck carrying a pine coffin with the remains of Phil Berrigan, a “warrior for peace.” He died at his home, Dec. 6, at age 79.
People from across the country came to pay their last respects to the former Catholic priest, who spent a combined 11 years in prison for what he called “prophetic acts” of civil disobedience against war and nuclear weapons. Among the dozens of banners and placards carried by the throng were “Books Not Bombs,” “No War on Iraq,” “The Death Penalty is a hate crime,” and “Swords into Plowshares.”
In a last message written days before his death, Berrigan said, “I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family and life itself. We have already exploded such weapons in Japan in 1945 and the equivalent of them in Iraq in 1991, and Yugoslavia in 1999 and in Afghanistan in 2001.”
Hundreds of students at mostly African-American George Washington High School crowded the windows to watch the solemn procession pass by. Leading the march were Berrigan’s widow, Elizabeth McAlister, daughter Kate, and brothers Dan and Jerry. Actor Martin Sheen, a longtime friend, joined the procession.
Berrigan and other members of the Plowshares movement were tried and convicted repeatedly on charges of destroying government property. The protests were always symbolic and did little damage, pouring blood on draft records or hammering on the nose of a warplane.
Berrigan had secretly married McAlister, a nun, in 1972, a romance born of letters exchanged while both were in jail for their militant peace protests. Forced from church service, they lived in a modest Reservoir Hill home called Jonah House, a spiritual haven for their family and many pacifists who boarded in the commune. They made their living by house painting.
Frances Crowe, a member of the Atlantic Life Community in Northampton, Mass., carried a placard, “Organize a national strike.” She told the World, “That was the last thing he called for. Phil Berrigan was a voice of hope and resistance. He was a hard taskmaster who pushed us all to do more. I’m hopeful that we can stop this war on Iraq. I think we have already delayed them.”
Brad Lyttle, a veteran peace activist from Chicago, said, “Phil Berrigan devoted his life to the most important humanitarian issues, world peace, the abolition of nuclear weapons, ending poverty, racism and economic injustice. The most important thing right now is not to let the Bush administration intimidate us, to speak out against their repression, their violent military orientation. We need to take a stand and not be afraid.”
Bill O’Connor, of Baltimore, a lifelong participant in the peace movement, recalled his involvement in the Catonsville Nine case that helped galvanize opposition to the Vietnam War and the military draft.
Phil Berrigan, his brother, Dan, and seven others walked into the Catonsville, Md, Draft Board offices May 17, 1968. As staff workers stood stunned, they dragged thousands of Selective Service files out to the parking lot, doused them with homemade napalm and set them on fire. Their arrest, trial, and conviction Nov. 8, 1968, was immortalized in a Broadway play called the “Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”
O’Connor served as their liaison with the news media, helping arrange interviews. “I will never forget the day their lawyer, Harold Buchman, called me with the news that I, too, was going to be indicted,” O’Connor said. “They wanted to intimidate me but I was not intimidated. The charges were dropped. We just returned from New York City, where we engaged in some street theater to protest war on Iraq. We need to engage people, talk to them, convince them this war is wrong.”
The procession arrived at St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church where Berrigan, then a Josephite Father, served as pastor starting in the mid-1960s. In the funeral service, his family and co-workers recalled Berrigan’s struggle for peace. As recently as last April 20, Berrigan, ill with liver cancer, delivered a passionate plea in the Sylvan Theater in Washington, D.C., against war on Iraq.
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