Activist Priest Dies Suddenly Father Bill O'Donnell
Peggy Stinnett, December 9, 2003 by The Argus (Fremont, California)
BERKELEY -- Peace-loving activists throughout Northern California were stunned and deeply saddened by the sudden death Monday of Catholic priest Bill O'Donnell, who spent his life standing up for causes when others looked the other way. He was 73.
O'Donnell was at his desk writing a homily at St. Joseph's the Worker Catholic Church in Berkeley when he apparently died of a heart attack, the church reported. He had undergone coronary bypass about 10 years ago. On his desk was the book "The Violence of Love," by Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.
O'Donnell's Irish wit and outspoken truth-telling earned him cheers from common people to celebrities, including Hollywood actor Martin Sheen of "West Wing" fame, a close friend.
"Bill is one of the scariest people I know because he makes us tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, all the time. He takes the cup as it is offered, not altered," Sheen once said about his friend. Many of his legions of friends regarded O'Donnell as the "saint of Berkeley" for his almost 250 arrests at protests, which included marching with farm workers along with Csar Chvez.
FatherMost recently, at Fort Benning, Ga., O'Donnell and 10,000 other protesters tried to shut down the controversial School of the Americas. They say the school teaches terrorist tactics on behalf of dictators, a charge the school denies.
O'Donnell also participated in repeated demonstrations at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for which he once spent a week in Santa Rita Jail. During one protest, his arm was broken by a police officer, friends noted.
It was less well known that O'Donnell was born in Livermore, attended St. Michael's church and school there and came from a large Irish family who were farmers. He told friends his Irish mother, Maude Regan O'Donnell, was the "one who inspired me."
For trespassing on Fort Benning's federal property in November 2002 he was sentenced to six months in Atwater Federal Penitentiary. Within weeks, O'Donnell had formed a study group in prison on non-violence and was in frequent touch with the Catholic community in Atwater.
He had so many requests for visitors, his sister, Mary O'Donnell, called herself his appointment secretary. Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 15 at St. Joseph's the Worker, 1640 Addison St., Berkeley. A community gathering in his memory is being planned for Sunday by Mayor Tom Bates' office at a location to be announced.
This past March, a week after his release, he joined a demonstration blocking traffic in the San Francisco financial district against the war in Iraq and was arrested again. He was not jailed.
Last month, O'Donnell made his annual pilgrimage to the School of the Americas but promised before he left he wouldn't trespass on federal property again because being in prison took so much time from his other activism.
He worked closely with Berkeley physician Dr. Davida Coady, who runs a drug diversion program for addicts. The two friends were principals in the San Carlos Foundation, which funds interns in Central and South American villages, similar to the Peace Corps.
Coady was shaken when she heard about his death because he had talked to her earlier in the morning after saying Mass and having breakfast. "It's such a loss to all of us," she said. "Such a terrible loss."
While O'Donnell wasn't always associated with activism, the seeds were there waiting for something to bring them to life, he once said. At first he challenged the church itself but found his real life mission was with the labor, civil rights and peace movements.
After graduation from St. Joseph's College, Menlo Park, in June 1950, he went to St. Patrick's Seminary there and graduated in June 1956. He was ordained in St. Mary's Cathedral, San Francisco, when Oakland was part of the San Francisco Diocese.
His first parish was St. Jarlath's in Oakland's Dimond district where he was assistant pastor from 1956 to 1963. From there, O'Donnell was sent to Corpus Christi Church in Piedmont from 1963-1965; St. Joseph's in Alameda, 1965-1966; St. Joachim, Hayward, 1966-1969; and Sacred Heart, Oakland, 1969-1973.
He once told a reporter he was "kicked out" of three parishes before finding his rightful home. That was his assignment in 1973 to St. Joseph's, which at the time was known as St. Joseph's the Workman. O'Donnell as assistant pastor was instrumental in "de-gendering" the name to St. Joseph the Worker, to honor the work of women as well as men.
He was pastor there through August 1995 and chose to become associate pastor to allow more time for his activism. Present pastor, the Rev. George Crespin, and O'Donnell were fast friends, as was recently retired Bishop John Cummmins, who always stood by O'Donnell, sometimes in shock and awe but with an all-knowing smile.