Over two thousand people gathered in Berkeley’s Community Theater Dec. 14 to celebrate the life of Father Bill O’Donnell, beloved Roman Catholic priest whose 47 years of service in the Bay Area enriched virtually every progressive movement for peace, and for the rights of workers and oppressed people at home and abroad.
Father O’Donnell, retired pastor at St. Joseph the Worker Church, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack while working at his desk Dec. 8. He was 73. He is survived by his sister, Mary, and brothers Edward and James.
Known to all as “Father Bill,” Father O’Donnell was a sparkplug at picket lines and demonstrations, with his politically pointed invocations and his determination to uphold people’s rights regardless of consequences. He is thought to have been arrested during protests over 300 times.
“Bill dreamed of a world without fear, where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the sands of habit,” his friend and co-worker, actor Martin Sheen, said at the celebration.
Elected officials, union leaders, Catholic clergy, and fellow peace and justice activists told story after story about Father Bill’s outspoken courage and lively good humor.
California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski recalled a janitors’ picket line where police, anticipating a “notorious activist,” appeared in full riot gear and assumed the wedge formation. Father Bill, arms linked with Pulaski and janitors, began challenging the police. To Pulaski’s words of caution, Father Bill responded, “We’re already in trouble; might as well enjoy it!” As the police charged, Father Bill called out, “That was ragged. I want you to go back and try again” – throwing the cops into disarray and greatly heartening the janitors, many of them first-time demonstrators.
Perhaps the strongest of Father Bill’s many union identifications was with the United Farm Workers. “Year after year he stood consistently against injustice,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta recalled how Father Bill upheld the rights of women, and defied church authorities by urging their ordination. “He said his life of crime began when he met up with the UFW,” Huerta recalled.
“Let us continue his work in a way that would make him proud,” said Rep.Barbara Lee, as she announced that she and Rep. Nancy Pelosi would place his life story in the Congressional Record.
Two years ago, as Father Bill protested at Fort Benning, demanding the notorious School of the Americas be closed forever, he was arrested and later served six months in federal prison. He was honored in absentia at the 2002 Northern California People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo Banquet. At this year’s banquet, he was introduced to tumultuous applause.