National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  December 19, 2003

Longtime activist priest dies Dec. 8; attended SOA protest

Longtime peace and social justice activist, Fr. William “Bill” O’Donnell of the Oakland, Calif., diocese who attended this year’s SOA Watch protest, died Dec. 8 while working at his desk in St. Joseph the Worker rectory in Berkeley, Calif., where he has served on the staff for 30 years.

A spokesman at the rectory said O’Donnell, who had a history of heart problems, died of a heart attack.

A lifelong supporter of the antiwar movement, labor unions and workers’ rights campaigns, O’Donnell, 73, was arrested more than 300 times for acts of civil disobedience, many of those in support of California farm workers.

A jolly man who was always ready with a joke, O’Donnell was also a serious resister. He was released in March after serving a six-month federal prison sentence for a November 2002 arrest for crossing the line onto Fort Benning. At this year’s protest O’Donnell was a featured speaker outside Fort Benning’s main gate.

O’Donnell’s close friend, Franciscan Fr. Louis Vitale, pastor of St. Boniface Church in San Francisco, said O’Donnell was a courageous priest who spoke the truth.

“He’s one of those people that had a real thirst for justice, and he believed absolutely that’s where the church should be,” Vitale said.

O’Donnell, who grew up on a farm and worked as a farm worker as a young boy, was “always right there in the streets. He was ready to picket,” Vitale said. “He was ready to go on delegations. He was ready to go to jail. He was always ready; one phone call, and he’s there.”

St. Joseph the Worker pastor Fr. George Crespin, who lived at the rectory with O’Donnell for 23 years, said he initially asked to come to the parish because he admired O’Donnell’s commitment to peace and justice. O’Donnell served as St. Joseph pastor from 1973 to 1995. He remained at the parish as senior pastor until his death.

“The 23 years that I spent living and working with him only increased that admiration of what a fantastic priest he was,” Crespin said.

In an interview published in the June 16, 2002, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, just before O’Donnell went to trial for the SOA arrest, he reflected on his struggle to find a place in the Catholic church that meshed with his political activism.

“When I went out of the church structure and worked in the labor, peace and civil rights movements, I finally heard a voice that responded to my need to be a priest,” O’Donnell said. “I struggle with my faith all the time, but I find it with the people. I don’t find it with the bishops or the pope. I count on that strength.”

Crespin said O’Donnell died in the morning while sitting at his computer preparing his weekly column for the parish bulletin.

-- Patrick O’Neill

National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 2003

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