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Jesuit priest among Catonsville Nine remembered for inspiring anti-war activism

Jesuit priest among Catonsville Nine remembered for inspiring anti-war activism
Thomas Melville puts more fuel on fire as Philip and Daniel Berrigan and the rest of Catonsville Nine watch draft records burn on May 17, 1968. (William Laforce / Baltimore Sun)

They mixed soap powder and gasoline — what they called homemade napalm — planning to leave no casualties other than the draft cards they burned in protest of the Vietnam War.

En route to the May 1968 raid on the Catonsville draft board, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan calmed his tense, fellow pacifists.

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"It's a beautiful day and we're going to a picnic," his student, Brendan Walsh, of Baltimore, remembered him saying.

Then the activist priest, Berrigan, and eight others entered the Catonsville offices, grabbing hundreds of drafts cards and burning them in the parking lot, in one of the more prominent protests of the Vietnam War. All of them were arrested.

Berrigan died Saturday, age 94, in a Jesuit residence at Fordham University in New York. The notorious demonstration of the Catonsville Nine, and their ensuing trial, established him as a leading figure among advocates for peace and social justice.

"Just driving there, everybody was kind of tense and that eased it: What we were doing was going on a picnic," said Walsh, who rode with the nine to Catonsville but didn't participate in the raid. "Like this is the thing we should be doing. ... It's natural."

In 1968, Walsh founded the Viva House, a soup kitchen and food pantry in Southwest Baltimore. He remembers Berrigan encouraging activism among theology students at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., where Walsh was a student in the early 1960s.

"It was the first time I had ever heard the Gospel actually preached as if it was meant to be acted upon," Walsh said. "It was a tremendous introduction for what was required of you if you wanted to call yourself a Christian."

The Catonsville demonstration was followed by similar nonviolent protests around the country. Amid increasing social pressure, Congress ended the draft in 1973.

"One of the definite things that all this did was to end the draft," Walsh said. "They'll deny it, but there were so many actions taking place."

Still, Berrigan, who lived in New York, is remembered as much for his writings as his activism.

"The writing produced the activism, and the activism produced more writing," Walsh said.

Daniel Berrigan was teaching at Cornell University when his brother, the priest Philip Berrigan, asked him to join the activists for the Catonsville demonstration. At the time, Philip Berrigan was awaiting sentencing for a 1967 protest in Baltimore during which demonstrators poured blood on draft records.

The pacifists spent weeks carefully planning their raid on the Catonsville draft board.

"There was ultimate concern that it had to be a completely nonviolent action," Walsh said.

Under the ploy of browsing wedding venues, one protester visited the Catonsville Selective Service office, in the old Knights of Columbus Hall on Frederick Road, to scout where records were stored.

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Then on May 17, 1968, the Berrigan brothers and other Vietnam War protesters entered and began ransacking cabinets and throwing U.S. Selective Service System files into two wire trash baskets. In the parking lot, they doused the records in the homemade napalm and burned them. They then waited for police.

Stephen Sachs, of Baltimore County, was the U.S. attorney for Maryland at the time and his office prosecuted the Catonsville Nine.

Sachs said they were an important part of Vietnam War-era protests. He grew to respect them, while still disagreeing with their actions.

"Their legacy is that you can't take the law into your own hands," he said. "The rule of law applies neutrally across the board, and you are not entitled to be excused from it just because you think your views are more correct than your neighbor's."

Now 82, Sachs remembers crowds during the trial, the hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse in downtown Baltimore.

"There was a religious quality about the whole week," Sachs said.

After each day in court, crowds would gather in St. Ignatius Church, on Calvert Street, for candlelight vigils.

"I was very pleased with the fact that through the entire week, despite the protests and crowds, there were no arrests," Sachs said.

The nine were convicted of destroying U.S. property and interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967. All were sentenced to prison terms, ranging from two to 3.5 years.

In court, they attempted to put the Vietnam War on trial, Sachs said.

"Their fundamental argument was that they should be acquitted because they were right."

The brothers unsuccessfully appealed their case. Daniel Berrigan went underground before going to prison and made the FBI's most wanted list. The FBI tracked him down in 1970 and sent him to federal prison in Connecticut. He was released in 1972 after serving about two years; his brother served about 2.5.

Afterward, they continued their activism and began the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear weapons campaign in 1980. Both were arrested that year after entering a missile facility in King of Prussia, Pa., and damaging nose cones of nuclear warheads. Philip Berrigan, 79, died in 2002.

In the Baltimore courtroom, Daniel Berrigan was the most articulate of the nine, Sachs said. Afterward, Berrigan wrote a play about it, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine."

The play features some of his most searing words of pacifism.

"Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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