Father Bill O’Donnell, often described as one of the last activist priests, died suddenly Monday morning while carrying out his duties at St. Joseph the Worker church. He was 74 years old.
O’Donnell had been pastor and parish vicar at St. Joseph’s since 1973.
“The paramedics were called by Father Crespin, who found him at his desk” shortly after he celebrated the 8:30 mass, said Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio. “Father Crespin said he died as he wanted to, at his desk, doing the work that he loved, in the community that he loved.”
The cause of death has not yet been determined, but O’Donnell was known to have heart trouble. He had major heart surgery in 1993 and suffered a stroke in 2001.
O’Donnell, who usually wore faded black jeans and a tattered leather jacket over his Roman collar, was well known in Berkeley and news of death shocked officials, activists and residents.
As word of his death spread through the community Monday afternoon, parishioners and community members began to show up at the church offices to offer tearful condolences and pay their respects.
“He was a great man, and I’ll miss him dearly,” said Federico Chavez, a Berkeley resident who came to know the priest through his work with Federico’s uncle, United Farm Workers Union founder Cesar Chavez.
The late labor leader often stayed at the St. Jospeh Rectory during his visits to Berkeley, where he cherished the camaraderie and spiritual inspiration, said the younger Chavez, who had known the priest since childhood.
“He had a passion for social justice and was the epitome of the activist priest,” said Father Jayson Landeza, the pastor of St. Columba’s in Oakland. “For Father Bill, the Kingdom of God was the Kingdom of Social Justice.”
Over the last 30 years, O’Donnell’s passion for social justice resulted in nearly 300 arrests for civil disobedience at peace, labor and anti-nuclear protests.
Last year, at the age of 73, he served six months at Atwater Penitentiary, a high security federal prison in Merced County for trespassing on the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security in Fort Benning, GA. Formerly known as the School of the Americas, the institute is alleged to train secret police in anti-revolutionary tactics in Central and South American countries.
Over the years, O’Donnell’s sense of justice had led him to scale the barbed-wire fence at the Indonesian Consulate in San Francisco, march arm-in-arm with Cesar Chavez for farm workers’ rights and regularly protest nuclear weapons development at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
O’Donnell was associated with dozens of civil rights and human rights organizations both in Berkeley and nationally.
He volunteered regularly at Options Recovery Services, a nonprofit organization that works with the most hardcore alcoholics and drug addicts who are often homeless and suffer from mental illness.
ORS Director Dr. Davida Coady knew O’Donnell for 25 years. “He called me early (Monday) morning around 7:30 a.m. just to chat,” she said. “He was in a good mood and talked about getting more active with Options.”
Coady was protesting with O’Donnell when he was arrested with 43 others at Fort Benning in November, 2001. “We had been warned that we would do jail time if we crossed the line and I reminded him “Bill their going to put you in jail,’ and he just barreled ahead.”
O’Donnell was also a mainstay for the Hispanic community in Berkeley. He fought hard to bring Spanish-speaking priests into the county parishes.
“He was a pillar of strength to us,” said Federico Chavez, who recalled with a breaking voice O’Donnell’s fearless confrontation with screaming anti-union mobs during the Coachella Valley organizing effort of 1973.
“There he was, standing up to the goons who were ranting and raving, standing right out in front, not afraid of suffering physical violence, inspiring confidence in the workers,” Chavez said. “Father Bill sincerely believed that if Jesus Christ were here today, he would be there with those who were putting their lives on the line. He was a great man.”
“He was an icon,” said Mayor Tom Bates, who keeps a framed photograph of O’Donnell in his office. “He was like the saint of the labor movement. He inspired hundreds of people to stand up for what they believe in even if it meant getting arrested.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington said his presence will be sorely missed in Berkeley. “He dressed and lived like the common person,” he said. “Father Bill never put on airs and made himself available to everybody.”
Councilmember Maio hailed the priest as “a wise, courageous and loving soul.”
Father Landeza said that O’Donnell was his inspiration to go into the priesthood. “I had a job working for the parish when I was 12 years old and it was Father Bill’s passion for justice that made me want to become a priest,” he said.
“He saw the sacred in the downtrodden and never tired of fighting for their rights.”
Landeza said that O’Donnell was one of the last of the activist priests who were known in the 1930s and 1940s for putting their collars on the line for labor issues in eastern cities and Chicago. He said that O’Donnell often found himself at odds with the Oakland Archdioceses for his activism. “If he thought someone was being treated unfairly, he would stand up to anybody,” he said.
Coady said O’Donnell was kicked out of four parishes before finally finding a home at St. Joseph’s in 1973.
O’Donnell’s Irish Catholic parents owned a farm in Livermore, where he was raised. He grew up with three brothers, one his twin, and two sisters.
“My mother used to drive us to a small Catholic school in Livermore,” O’Donnell said in an interview with the Daily Planet shortly after he was released from prison last May. “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.”
O’Donnell began studying for the priesthood when he was 13 years old and completed his studies 12 years later. He was first assigned to Corpus Christi in Piedmont but by 1965 his constant political activism got him removed to St. Joaquim’s in Hayward where he met Chavez and became involved with the farm workers movement.
For more information about services for Father Bill O’Donnell, contact St. Joseph the Worker Church at 843-2244.
Richard Brenneman also contributed to the story.