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Thousands Mourn, Celebrate Beloved Father Bill

Tuesday December 16, 2003

Nearly 3,000 people packed the Berkeley Community Theater Sunday evening to remember and celebrate the life of Father Bill O’Donnell, Berkeley’s well-known and beloved priest who passed away early last week. 

Before his plain pine coffin draped in a United Farm Workers flag in front of the stage, friends, family and fellow activists of Father Bill spent the evening telling stories, singing songs and recalling their favorite memories of a priest who served Berkeley since 1973.  

The diversity embodied in those assembled attested to the reach of Father Bill, who among other things was known as one of the last activist priests—with over 240 arrests on his record for his participation in pro-peace, pro-labor, and anti-nuclear demonstrations.  

Among the luminaries in the crowd were Mary O’Donnell, Bill’s sister, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Representative Barbara Lee, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, actor Martin Sheen, State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Mayor Tom Bates, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, Berkeley City Council Members Linda Maio, Kriss Worthington and Maudelle Shirek, Bishop John Cummins, and UFW President Arturo Rodriquez. 

“Have you nothing better to do with your lives? Why are you at my funeral? That’s what Bill would be asking,” said Mary O’Donnell, first to speak at the event.  

Throughout the night, speakers referred to the priest’s dedication as an activist, many recounting their favorite arrest experiences with the priest they said had inspired and motivated them. 

His list of involvements, like his police record, was long, including work with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the Farm Worker’s movement, his work in Central America, the Middle East, the anti-Apartheid and anti-nuclear movements and at Georgia’s Fort Benning, home to what was formerly known as the School of the Americas. 

Alongside the highlights of his national and international activist career, several speakers talked about the priest’s impact on the local community. 

“We need to figure out how to honor Bill. I suggest we make him the patron saint of Berkeley,” said Mayor Tom bates to cheers. 

Tom Gorom, a recent graduate from Berkeley’s Options Recovery Services—a program Father Bill championed—recalled the mix of humor and compassion Bill embodied.  

“He called me after graduation and asked me if I wanted to go have a drink,” joked Gorom, who before enrolling was also homeless. “Bill was the definition of empathy. I will continue to model my life after this great man. I love you Bill.” 

The event also included a slide show and short movie clips showed Father Bill as a child and during some of his more notorious arrests. Crowd favorites included the shots of him in the back of police vans and behind bars with activist friend Martin Sheen. 

What some found especially moving was the movie made about the UFW grape boycott. Unknowingly, many in the crowd discovered that the sweeping shot of the priest standing on the line with Chavez decades ago while they confronted Teamsters Union thugs was none other than Father Bill. 

Testifying to the death of that old animosity was Teamsters International Vice President Chuck Mack, who with Dolores Huerta in the front row, openly admitted his union had been in the wrong. He along with Huerta, Arturo Rodriguez from the UFW, Judy Goff from the Alameda Central Labor Council, and Fred Ross Jr. from the Service Employees International Union all recalled Father Bill’s work with labor and his dedication to the working people. 

Also present both in the crowd and among the speakers were those who had worked with Bill on anti-nuclear campaigns and Dr. Davida Cody who worked closely with Bill in Berkeley and on his several trips to South America and the Middle East. 

Rounding out the speakers were Martin Sheen and the often-arrested Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the movement working to close the School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security. As Bill’s friends, both were present to watch Bill trespass last year during a protest at the Institute of Security, an action that landed him in the Atwater Penitentiary for six months. Bourgeois also watched as Bill called the sentencing judge a “pimp for the Pentagon,” a statement Bourgoisie said defined the life of a man who was never afraid to speak truth to power. 

Following the ceremonies at the Community Theater, a candlelight procession headed from the theater to Father Bill’s church, St. Joseph the Worker. Carrying pictures of the priest and following his coffin, the throng filled the streets singing songs as they went.  

“Que viva Father Bill!,” shouted walkers. “Father Bill, Presente!” 

At the church, the throng passed by the open coffin where with Father Bill lay in his cassock, a simple wooden cross in his hands. Viewers shed tears silently and gathered together to remember the man that touched so many of them, one last time. 

“This was a celebration, that’s the only way it could be,” said Sheen as he made his way out of the church. “Someone like Bill only comes once in a lifetime.”  

John Geluardi contributed to this story.