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Philip Berrigan, apostle of peace, dies at age 79

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Philip Berrigan, the patriarch of the Roman Catholic anti-war movement whose conscience collided with national policy for more than three decades, died last night of liver and kidney cancer. He was 79 and had lived at Jonah House on the grounds of a West Baltimore cemetery for much of the past decade.

He led the Catonsville Nine, who staged one of the most dramatic protests of the 1960s. They doused homemade napalm on a small bonfire of draft records in a Catonsville parking lot and ignited a generation of anti-war dissent. More recently he helped found the Plowshares movement, whose members have attacked federal military property in anti-war and anti-nuclear protests and were then often imprisoned.

Mr. Berrigan died at 9:30 p.m. at the Jonah House, a communal living facility of war resisters.

In a final statement released by his family, he 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 the earth itself."

Though Mr. Berrigan was an Army veteran - he was a second lieutenant in the infantry - who fought across Western Europe in World War II, he persistently and publicly criticized the Vietnam War and U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He first gained national attention during part of the 14-year period during which he wore the Roman collar and clerical garb of a Josephite priest.

He eventually served some 11 years in jail and prison for his actions challenging public authority and repeated bashing of the military budget.

Howard Zinn, professor emeritus at Boston University who maintained a friendship with Mr. Berrigan through the years because they had similar views, called him "one of the great Americans of our time."

"He believed war didn't solve anything," Mr. Zinn said. "He went to prison again and again and again for his beliefs. I admired him for the sacrifices he made. He was an inspiration to a large number of people."

Mr. Berrigan saw his protests as "prophetic acts" based on the Biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares, and that included the "symbolic" destruction of Selective Service records in raids on draft board offices in the Baltimore Customs House in 1967 and in Catonsville in 1968. He was also convicted of smuggling letters in and out of the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., while an inmate there in 1970, though the conviction was later thrown out. The end of the Vietnam War failed to silence him; he continued his missions of dissent until the end of his life.

In his most recent clash in December 1999, Mr. Berrigan and others banged on A-10 Warthog warplanes in an anti-war protest at the Middle River Air National Guard base. He was convicted of malicious destruction of property and sentenced to 30 months. He was released Dec. 14 last year.

Mr. Berrigan's brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest and poet who participated in the 1968 Catonsville protest, later wrote the play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which ran on Broadway for 29 performances in 1971 and was made into a movie a year later. It recounted verbatim episodes from the trial and the moral dilemmas of the Vietnam War era.

"We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes," said a statement Philip Berrigan and his eight fellow protestors issued that day in Catonsville. "We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war and is hostile to the poor."

He expanded those views to include opposition to almost any form of established government that would wage war, deploy nuclear weapons or even use nuclear power. Neither he nor any member of the Jonah House community had voted for years because of their dismissal of government.

"We don't know whether we're qualified to vote because we're all felons," he said recently. "But we intend to pursue it for the elections in 2004 because it's pretty important to get Bush out of there."

Philip Francis Berrigan was born Oct. 5, 1923, in Two Harbors, Minn., then a thriving mining town on the Mesabi Iron Range.

According to a 1976 Current Biography profile, Mr. Berrigan stressed the influence of his father, Thomas, a trade unionist turned Socialist who lost his job as a railroad engineer. Mr. Berrigan later characterized his father as a "tyrannical" man. He said he father's treatment left him apt to "bristle against authority."

"Our mother (Frida) was a mild woman, dedicated to her six sons and to her religion," said his brother, Jim Berrigan, a retired electrical engineer who lives in Salisbury.

After graduating from high school in Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Berrigan cleaned New York Central Railroad locomotives. A good athlete, he was a first baseman who played with a local semi-professional team. He also enjoyed golf and basketball in college.

He spent one semester at St. Michael's College in Toronto before being drafted into the U.S. Army in January 1943 for service in World War II. He was an artillery man in some of the fiercest action from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, where he was chosen to go to infantry school near Paris. He served out the rest of the war as an infantry officer, a second lieutenant.

He earned an English degree at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. In 1950, he followed his brother Jerome into the Society of St. Joseph. The order, known as the Josephite Fathers, serves African-American communities.

Ordained in 1955, he was assigned to New Orleans, where he earned a degree in secondary education at Loyola University of the South in 1957 and a master's at Xavier University three years later.

While at Xavier, he began teaching English and religion and counseling students at his order's St. Augustine High School.

"From the beginning, he stood with the urban poor," Daniel Berrigan wrote of his brother's years in the priesthood. "He rejected the traditional, isolated stance of the Church in black communities. He was also incurably secular; he saw the Church as one resource, bringing to bear on the squalid facts of racism the light of the Gospel, the presence of inventive courage and hope. He worked with CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee], the Urban League, the forms of Catholic action then in vogue. He took Freedom Rides, did manual work of all kinds, begged money and gave it away, struggled for scholarships for black students."

Philip Berrigan, in a recent Sun interview, said his first arrest of many came in 1962 or 1963 during a civil rights protest in Selma, Ala., at which point his name began appearing in newspapers. He would become quite adept at surviving in prison. He got along with the other prisoners, even murderers sometimes, and they accepted him. He led Bible study classes and helped prisoners with educational and legal matters. If he had extra money, he would buy items from the prison commissaries for down-and-out inmates.

As an activist priest, Father Berrigan soon got in trouble with his church superiors. He was transferred to the faculty of Epiphany Apostolic College, a Josephite seminary in Newburgh, N.Y., where he again led protests on behalf of the poor.

Rosalie Bertell, 73, of Buffalo, N.Y., an activist and member of the order of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, said she admired Mr. Berrigan for his "blunt honesty" and for the "choices he made in life."

A longtime friend of the Berrigan family, Ms. Bertell is an internationally recognized expert on radiation and testified as an expert witness in trials where he was arrested for anti-nuclear demonstrations. "He knew the U.S. was becoming a killing machine, and he was willing to go to jail trying to stop it."

As the United States expanded its presence in Vietnam, Father Berrigan became more outspoken and visible. In 1964, he organized the Emergency Citizens Group Concerned About Vietnam in Newburgh and co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship in New York City.

Frustrated by the church's failure to speak out against the war, he compared its stance on Vietnam to "the German Church under Hitler."

In another speech, he asked, "Is it possible for us to be vicious, brutal, immoral, and violent at home and be fair, judicious, beneficent and idealistic abroad?"

Not long afterward, Father Berrigan's Josephite superiors transferred him again, this time to St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore.

"He was an excellent curate, much respected in the community back in the 1960s," said the Rev. Michael Roach, a former Southwest Baltimore pastor who is now at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manchester.

While at St. Peter Claver, Father Berrigan started the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission. He made frequent trips to Washington to lobby Congress and federal officials and lead vigils and other peace demonstrations.

On Oct. 27, 1967, Father Berrigan and three others dumped blood on Selective Service records in the Baltimore Customs House, "anointing" them, he said. They waited to be arrested, as they would in subsequent protests. His arrest shocked the Catholic Church.

In a statement to reporters, the Baltimore Four said that "this sacrificial and constructive act" was meant to protest "the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood" in Indochina.

It was a new kind of protest. The Baltimore chancery said the action was likely to "alienate a great number of sincere men in the cause of a just peace."

Philip Berrigan and the three others were charged and convicted of defacing government property and impeding the Selective Service. While awaiting sentencing, Mr. Berrigan began recruiting brother Daniel and seven others for a second "prophetic act."

The Catonsville Nine chose Selective Service Board 33, housed in a Knights of Columbus hall on Frederick Road in Catonsville.

According to a Sun account, the nine walked into the draft board office on May 17, 1968, moved and swept aside stunned clerks and emptied filing cabinets of 600 draft records.

They set the records afire with homemade napalm in the parking lot, said a prayer and waited for arrest. They spent the night in the Baltimore County Jail in Towson.

Charged with conspiracy and destruction of government property, Mr. Berrigan and his companions were found guilty in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Nov. 8, 1968. They were free on bail for 16 months until the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reconsider the verdict.

But on the day they were supposed to begin serving their sentences, the Berrigan brothers and two others went into hiding. Twelve days later, FBI found Philip Berrigan at the Church of St. Gregory the Great in Manhattan, and he was taken to the federal prison in Lewisburg.

Mr. Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun, a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, had secretly married a year earlier, in, as they put it, "trust and gratitude." The marriage was not disclosed until 1973, when there was a ceremony at which a former monk officiated.

A fellow inmate at Lewisburg, who was allowed to take courses at a local college, carried messages between Mr. Berrigan and his wife.

Ms. McAlister kept Mr. Berrigan informed of what was being done and said in the peace movement. They were unaware that the inmate carrying their messages was a paid informer and that copies of everything they wrote were going to the FBI.

The FBI's scrutiny led to the capture of Daniel Berrigan, to the arrest of draft resisters in Rochester, N.Y., and to the indictment of Philip Berrigan, Ms. McAlister and five others.

The government indicted the Harrisburg Seven on 23 counts of conspiracy, including plots to kidnap presidential adviser Henry A. Kissinger and to blow up heating tunnels in Washington. Defense lawyers, including Paul O'Dwyer, Ramsey Clark and Leonard Boudin, saw the conspiracy indictments as a "gross caricature," and the charges were later modified.

In April 1972, a jury in Harrisburg, Pa., found Mr. Berrigan and his wife guilty on the letter-smuggling charges but deadlocked on all the other counts. A mistrial was declared. Everything was later thrown out by a federal appeals court.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills, who lived in Baltimore from 1961 to 1980, said he participated in the anti-war demonstrations with the Berrigans.

"I've known them for decades and I've written about them, and Phil has always been an inspiration to me," Mr. Wills said. "Phil was a real pacifist. He always turned the other cheek."

Mr. Berrigan and Ms. McAlister helped start the anti-war and anti-nuclear Plowshares movement in the three-story Reservoir Hill rowhouse on Park Avenue they called Jonah House, in which they lived in community with other activists for years before moving into the old St. Peter the Apostle Cemetery in West Baltimore.

Mr. Berrigan was the author of several books, including No More Strangers, Punishment for Peace, Prison Journals of a Priest Revolutionary and Widen the Prison Gates. In 1996, he wrote his autobiography, Fighting the Lamb's War, and with his wife wrote The Times' Discipline, a work on their life together at Jonah House.

The funeral will be held at noon Monday at St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore, 1546 N. Fremont Ave. A wake will be held at the church from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow, with a circle of sharing at 6 p.m.

Memorial donations may be made to Citizens for Peace in Space, Global Network Against Nuclear Weapons, Nukewatch, Voices in the Wilderness, the Nuclear Resister, or any Catholic Worker house.

Survivors include Ms. McAlister; two daughters, Frida, a prolific writer who is a research associate at the World Policy Institute and a member of the War Resister's League executive committee, of New York, and Kate Berrigan, a senior at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio; a son, Jerry Berrigan, a member of the Catholic Worker who is also involved in anti-war, anti-nuclear and anti-death penalty movements, of Luck, Mich.; four brothers, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest in New York, John Berrigan of Prescott, Ariz., Jim Berrigan of Salisbury and Jerome Berrigan of Syracuse, N.Y.

Last words

Philip Berrigan began dictating to loved ones a final statement last month, "When I lay dying of Cancer," but his health failed and he was unable to complete it:

I die in a community including my family, my beloved wife Elizabeth, three great Dominican nuns - Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, and Jackie Hudson (emeritus) jailed in Western Colorado - Susan Crane, friends local, national and even international. They have always been a life-line to me. 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 the earth itself. We have already exploded such weapons in Japan in 1945 and the equivalent of them in Iraq in 1991, in Yugoslavia in 1999, and in Afghanistan in 2001. We left a legacy for other people of deadly radioactive isotopes - a prime counterinsurgency measure. For example, the people of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be battling cancer, mostly from depleted uranium, for decades. In addition, our nuclear adventurism over 57 years has saturated the planet with nuclear garbage from testing, from explosions in high altitudes (four of these), from 103 nuclear power plants, from nuclear weapons factories that can't be cleaned up - and so on. Because of myopic leadership, of greed for possessions, a public chained to corporate media, there has been virtually no response to these realities ...

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