Editorial: Father Bill’s Death Stills a Resounding Call to Conscience

Becky O'Malley
Friday December 12, 2003

I was in St. Joseph the Worker church most recently on Sunday evening, the night before Father Bill O’Donnell died. It was that most Berkeley of events, the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra’s holiday special: Handel’s Messiah, sung by an enormous assemblage of unauditioned but well-rehearsed community members who rattled the stained glass windows with glorious sound. The orchestra was splendid. The soloists were thrilling. The audience enthusiastically stood up to join in singing the Hallelujah Chorus. BCCO performances bring out all kinds of Berkeleyans, people who probably couldn’t sit down at the same dinner table for conversation (or even agree on the choice of a restaurant), but who manage to get together harmoniously a few times every year. 

My favorite part of Messiah is the triumphant trumpet solo, accompanying this text: 

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 

I thought of it when we got the news at the Daily Planet that Father Bill had died with his boots on, at his desk after saying the eight o’clock mass. I also thought of another scriptural text: In the midst of life, we are in death. It’s all too easy, these days, to be dead to what’s going on in the world around you. People like Bill O’Donnell are the trumpeters, letting us know that we need to wake up and do the right thing.  

A few years ago, some Berkeley politicians came up with the precursor of Gavin Newsom’s Care Not Cash initiative. They put together a meeting for religious leaders, hoping to get their endorsement for a ballot measure. Father Bill showed up, and with a few well-chosen remarks put the proposal in context, and most decided not to go along with the plan. This is a role he played many times, jolting people who were tempted to close their eyes to moral decisions out of their complacency. He didn’t always win the battles he engaged in (his side lost the election on that one, though they won in court), but he raised many of us from sleeping and changed many of our hearts and minds. 

Hundreds of people in Berkeley have their favorite stories about The O’Donnell. We’ve got a few of them on these pages, and there will be more to come. 


Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.