Released from Jail, Father Bill Fights On

By AL WINSLOW Special to the Planet
Friday May 23, 2003

Catholic priest William O’Donnell recently returned to Berkeley after six months in federal prison. 

O’Donnell, 73, was arrested at a mass demonstration for stepping onto the property of the School of the Americas, the U.S. Army’s alleged training school for Latin American death squads at Fort Benning, Ga. 

It was his fourth arrest at Fort Benning, his 227th arrest overall — a total of a full year in one jail or another as a follower of the teaching of Jesus. 

O’Donnell returned unruffled. 

“I’ve never seen him get angry or irritable,” said Rev. George Crespin, who has been a priest with O’Donnell at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley for 22 years. “He’s just a very peaceful man.” 

Sixty years ago, O’Donnell wandered into the priesthood. He was brought up with three brothers and two sisters in a poor Irish Catholic sharecropper family in Altamont. It was the Depression. 

“My mother used to drive us to a small Catholic school in Livermore,” O’Donnell said. “I remember the nuns always saying the best thing you could do with your life was to be a priest. The seminary looked very good to me. Farming was hard work. It was healthy, but there was no payoff, no money.” 

One of O’Donnell’s sisters became a nun. A brother became a real estate agent. Another brother and sister became alcohol and drug abuse counselors. 

As was done then, O’Donnell began studying for the priesthood at age 13 and finished 12 years later. He was ordained and sent to his first parish, Corpus Christi in Piedmont. 

O’Donnell had been a priest for five years when, in 1961, he became aware of the civil rights movement. 

“I was only reading about it in the newspapers,” he said. “I was reading that people were being denied their rights, their right to vote, their right to housing, to jobs, to health care, just because of their color. I didn’t understand it.” 

Then came Vatican II, the Church reform which, among other things, allowed Mass to be held in languages other than Latin. 

“If the Church was the expression of Christ in the world, it had to be in the street to be relevant,” he said. “That’s when my real education began and I left the sacristy and went into the street.” 

O’Donnell’s constant civil rights activities troubled his superiors, who removed him from Corpus Christi in 1965 and sent him to St. Joseph’s in Alameda, where his activism persisted. 

The Church sent him to St. Joaquim in Hayward in 1967, where he became involved in the farmworkers’ attempt to start a union. 

“I didn’t think it could happen because of the violence delivered on anyone who attempted to organize,” O’Donnell said. “But there was this little Mexican guy, Chavez, who had learned about the power of nonviolence from Martin Luther King, who had learned it from Ghandi, who had learned it from the Sermon on the Mount, and who knows where Jesus stole it from.” 

On May 15, 1969, O’Donnell was arrested for the first time. He went with a delegation of farmworkers to discuss the grape boycott with the Board of Directors of Safeway. The delegation refused to leave after the meeting and was arrested for trespassing. 

“I got up on Sunday [after the arrest] and said it was a mortal sin to shop at Safeway,” he said. 

St. Joaquim shipped him off to Sacred Heart in Oakland, where O’Donnell said he was “held under a sort of ecclesiastical house arrest.” 

“The bishop said if I left the boundaries, I would be suspended.” he said. “But it was just a threat. I talked him out of it.” 

In 1973, O’Donnell, was sent to St. Joseph the Worker in Berkeley, where he has worked as a priest ever since. 

Neither parishioners nor the community has complained very often, not  

even in the 1980s, when St. Joseph became a sanctuary for refugees from El Salvador. O’Donnell said he hasn’t gotten a complaint from the diocese in 29 years. 

“What to say about him?” said Rev. Paul Vassar, vicar general of O’Donnell’s archdiocese. “We’ve been in the same [priest] support group for 22 years and I can only speak for myself. 

“He’s a godly anomaly. I admire him tremendously because of his dedication and his intelligence. He takes the gospel seriously and isn’t afraid to wrestle with reality. In our group he will push us to wrestle with things we don’t really want to wrestle with.” 

Vassar indicated he doesn’t completely follow O’Donnell’s politics but that “it appears he underwent a transformation during that time with Cesar Chavez.” 

O’Donnell currently is on the board of directors of the Middle East Children’s  

Alliance and went with director Barbara Lubin on her first trip to occupied Palestine in 1988. 

“I’ve know Bill O’Donnell for 25 years. He’s one of the smartest and to me, most importantly, most funny people in my life and I love him dearly. He gives the Church a good name. 

“It’s hard to find people who don't love Bill," Lubin said.  

Last Sunday, there were 1,000 people at the Spanish-language mass at the church, a usual occurrence. 

Taped at the entrance was a large poster saying “Hungry for Justice,” urging support for the Claremont and Holiday Inn hotel workers.