The Death of Philip Berrigan: The Lost Chapter

“I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the Earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the Earth itself . . .” – Philip Berrigan, 2002.

It took me five years to write A People’s History of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, commissioned by William Cardinal Keeler when I left The Sun in 2001 and published during my Hollywood apostasy in 2006.

When the book finally appeared — with the help of literary soldiers like Rosalia Scalia and the photographer Kirsten Beckerman — two things were missing:

1. My name on the cover, which I am convinced was done out of spite because I made the publisher — Editions du Signe of France — wait so long for the manuscript.

2. The chapter on Philip Berrigan, a World War II veteran who – not unlike fellow soldier Kurt Vonnegut – became one of the nation’s great voices for peace, spending years in jail for his various and ingenious protests.

The book’s long, braided vignettes on Berrigan — who with his brother Daniel was one of the Catonsville Nine: Roman Catholic antiwar activists who destroyed draft records during Vietnam — accompanied stories on St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore.

The Berrigans were on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list during the 1970s for committing acts of vandalism — including destruction of government property by burning and pouring blood on draft records.

Defrocked in 1973, Berrigan saw his post-clerical ministry as a righteous thorn in the side of the mainstream death machine. My profile of the former Josephite – anchored by his death and funeral - was deemed inappropriate for a history (Baltimore through a Catholic filter) sold in parishes throughout the archdiocese.

Because the Cardinal was signing the checks (and thus calling the shots, Keeler even gave notes on grammatical lapses) I complied.

You don’t forget a man like Philip Berrigan – or the shadow he casts on your own decisions (and lapses) – as a believer. I was most recently reminded of the chapter that wound up on the cutting room floor while appearing as a Spanish conquistador in a recent production of Howard Zinn’s “Voices of a People’s History” at the Patterson Theater in Highlandtown.

Based on Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, the play was co-written by Anthony Arnove and did not include any of the Catonsville Nine testimony from the book.

I played Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican priest from my ancestral Iberia. In the wings after leaving the stage as Bartolomé – known as the father of anti-imperialism because of his witness to atrocities committed by his countrymen – I was particularly moved by Mama Kay Lawal-Muhammed’s portrayal of Cindy Sheehan.

[Sheehan, the best known antiwar activist of the past decade, went public after her soldier son Casey was killed in Iraq 2004. “I told him not to go,” she said. A fierce critic of George W. Bush - whose perceived cheerful callousness to the carnage enraged her – Sheehan lost a bid for Congress in 2008.]

On stage in Highlandtown, Mama Kay gave powerful voice to Sheehan’s indictment of perverse logic: that it is necessary to send more young men and women to die in futile wars so those who died before them will not have been lost in vain.

And in that moment decided to dust off the tribute to Phil Berrigan, who made Baltimore his home from the 1960s until his death at age 79 in 2002.

Here it is, resurrected as it were.


Philip Berrigan was most closely associated with two Baltimore institutions: the Jonah House antiwar community, founded in 1973 with his wife, Liz McAllister; and St. Peter Claver parish, 1546 North Fremont Avenue.

(Established in 1888 for African-American Catholics, St. Peter Claver was named for a Spanish Jesuit (1581-1654) who fought for and ministered to black slaves in the West Indies.)

“Berrigan was an associate pastor here during the time of the Catonsville Nine,” said the Rev. Joseph Del Vecchio, pastor of St. Peter Claver at the time of Berrigan’s death.

The 1968 raid on the Catonsville draft board made world news and outlaw celebrities – in the mold of Dorothy Day – of Phil and his brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest who survives his brother.

[Daniel and Zinn arrived in Hanoi in 1968 as representatives of the antiwar movement to welcome three captured American airmen released by the North Vietnamese government. Daniel’s autobiography – published by Harper & Row in 1987 – is To Dwell in Peace.]

The faces of Philip and Daniel and the headline — “Rebel Priests: The Curious Case of the Berrigans” — made the cover of TIME magazine in January 1971.

“I was the traffic cop on the altar for [Berrigan’s] funeral Mass because there were so many people who wanted to honor him,” said Del Vecchio. “It was an amazing day.”

The funeral, with Daniel celebrating the Mass, took place on Dec. 9, 2002, three days after Phil Berrigan’s death from liver and kidney cancer. It drew hundreds of people, friends, admirers and others committed to the struggle against war, poverty and violence, to the sanctuary and streets outside of St. Peter Claver.

Gibbons was one of Phil Berrigan’s jailers. After the funeral, the former warden — now deceased — wrote to friends and associates to share his pride that day in being a member of the Catholic faith.

“What an awesome assemblage of deeply committed souls still determined to disrupt the political war machine,” said Gibbons, who marched in Memphis in the “garbage man’s strike” the weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder and tended to wounded rioters in the chaos that followed King’s assassination.

St. Peter Claver Church

“The church was filled to overflowing and flooded with the wonderful spirit of Phil,” said Gibbons. “The procession from Jonah House to the church was much like an ancient Christian pilgrimage.”

Gibbons later told this story from his days as warden at Lorton, where he worked from 1976 to his retirement in 1996.

“One night I was advised by the director that I had a ‘celebrity’ coming [into the prison population] and to be on alert for trouble,” he remembered. “When I was told he was [Phil] Berrigan, I released a huge smile. Fortunately I was on the telephone so my reaction could not be seen.”

Gibbons was raised in a strict Irish-Catholic home in upstate New York and attended Catholic schools through his second year of college.

He had a grandmother who was a third-degree Franciscan (a lay order); two of his aunts were Sisters of the Holy Name; and a family friend close enough to be considered an uncle was a Jesuit priest.

Gibbons’ views on the ways of the world — and what he came to see as Christian hypocrisy in the house where he grew up — began changing in the early sixties when he began reading widely about racial injustice, marched in demonstrations and started to work for voter registration.

I was filled with the zeal,” he said, “of a soul committed to righting wrong.”

Gibbons was especially anxious to make the acquaintance of Berrigan and did so the following day in the prison yard.

“Over the next several months we would accidentally ‘bump into each other’ and talk about the courts, the criminal injustice system and the ratio of black inmates to white,” said Gibbons. “He had lived with that fact in each prison where he was incarcerated.”

One morning before dawn, Gibbons was awakened by a call from the Lorton shift commander reporting a problem.

“Phil had to be transported to D.C. General Hospital for treatment of severe abscesses on his legs, yet refused to cooperate with the staff,” said Gibbons.

Berrigan balked at wearing leg shackles, which, policy held, were standard — along with handcuffs - for all movement of prisoners outside the walls. Gibbons said he’d be over right away.

Entering Berrigan’s room, he instinctively knelt down and asked to look at the injured leg.

“With that I gently pulled up his pajama pant leg,” said Gibbons. “It stuck a bit from the oozing of the sores, and I winced at the discomfort I believed I must be causing. It was a hell of a sight. He never flinched.”

A hospital was necessary but Berrigan refused the shackles because of the severe pain they caused his wounds. And he didn’t want to wait in an emergency room like that.

Gibbons, who in the past had seen corpses removed from the prison in shackles in order to comply with regulations, proposed wrapping Berrigan’s ankles with strips of towel. Then he widened the shackles to their loosest notch to be placed over the towels.

“Some prison adventures have good outcomes,” remembered Gibbons not long before his own death at age 58 in early 2004.


Philip Berrigan was born on the Minnesota Iron Range in 1923 and served as an artillery officer in Europe During World War II. A decade after Hiroshima, he was ordained as a Josephite, the order that ministers to the poor of America’s inner-cities.

So maddening could that ministry be — not to mention the world at large, which Berrigan apparently did not wear as a loose garment — that Phil once asked Willa Bickham of the Viva House Catholic Worker in West Baltimore to make a banner for St. Peter Claver.

It read: “The sting of death is all around us . . . O Christ, where is your victory?”

Brendan Walsh — husband of Bickham, co-founder with her in 1968 of Viva House, and the man chosen to give voice to Howard Zinn at the Patterson just before Thanksgiving 2009 — said this at Berrigan’s funeral:

“Philip Berrigan was a friend to all the poor of Baltimore City, as well as to all the people of the world who are bombed and scattered, who are starved, trampled upon, imprisoned, tortured, humiliated, scoffed at, dismissed as nobodies.

“He was that rare combination where word and deed were one. Always. Everywhere. Steadfast. Rock solid. Hopeful. One in a million. He was that tree standing by the water that would not be moved.”

Altogether, Phil Berrigan spent about 11 years in prison and was briefly a fugitive in 1970 when appeals on his conviction for the Catonsville Nine action failed.

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, he began to focus on weapons of mass destruction and U.S. nuclear policy.

In September 1980, Berrigan and seven others poured blood on warheads — as well as banging on them with hammers — at a General Electric nuclear missile plant in King Of Prussia, Pa.

They were charged with conspiracy, burglary and “criminal mischief,” in the first of a series of anti-nuclear actions that became known as the Plowshares Movement.

Berrigan wrote, lectured, and taught extensively. His six published books include The Lamb’s War, an autobiography.

In December 2001, he was released from prison in Elkton, Ohio after nearly a year in lock-up for his final action with Plowshares.

In an essay called “The Trial of Depleted Uranium,” written a few years before his death, Berrigan wrote: “The volume of silence over these hellish weapons is surreal, numbing, stupefying. How to explain it?

“Certainly, in their 55-year love affair with the bomb, Americans have not measured the cost of this idolatry: spiritual numbing, social denial, moral paralysis . . . a $19 trillion price tag since 1940 for past, present, and future wars reveals our addiction to war and bloodshed.”

And then he quoted Our Lord and Savior: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also . . .”


Rafael Alvarez can be reached via observed@alvarezfiction.com.

About the author

Rafael Alvarez has lived in Baltimore his entire life except for a brief and cautionary exile in Hollywood. A former City Desk rewrite man for the Baltimore Sun, his best-known works include "The Fountain of Highlandtown" and the on-going "Orlo & Leini" stories, each detailing life in Crabtown, USA. Alvarez also worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun prior to starting a career in television. He has worked as a writer and story editor on the Home Box Office drama series The Wire and a writer and producer on the crime dramas Life and The Black Donnellys. He has written several books including a guide to The Wire, a non-fiction guide to the archdiocese in Baltimore, a short-fiction anthology and two collections of his journalism.

9 Comments

  1. Caryn says:

    Woe, this was just what I needed to read today,(a snowy day when the hard copies of the newspapers weren’t delivered.) Saw this before I even got to the NYT online and am so glad I did. Well done, sobering, TRUE and thanks for posting.

    Reply
  2. Dyane Fancey says:

    Amazing. I think that folk should not have a hard time realizing that the Fifth Commandment has no qualifying language:”Thou shalt not kill,” is pretty clear-cut. So is, “Thou shalt not steal.” As an Irish Catholic from a very Joycean family, we regarded the lock step of Roman Catholicism to be what my Nana called, “priest-ridden”.

    Reply
  3. Priest-ridden . . .

    not at Jonah House

    thanks to all of my readers. Please follow me in 2010.

    Reply
  4. Valerie Sklarevsky says:

    Thank you for writing about Phil Berrigan. I am moved to tears remembering my friendship with this man. May he somehow fill us with just a bit of the courage he always displayed! Blessing for the new year.

    Reply
  5. Wayne says:

    Somehow I didn’t know of his World War II service. I’m even more impressed with all at that he stood for.
    Fascinates me that so many WWII veterans were gung-ho about Vietnam in my youth, but it’s the Vietnam-era guys who avoided service who are the fiercest warmongers today.
    As always, good work, Rafael.

    Reply
  6. Rosalia Scalia says:

    thank goodness this finally found a home! As usual, this piece sings arias. Berrigan is one of the true saints.
    Rosalia

    Reply
  7. marc says:

    What a wonderful and profound piece and the same for the man. I was a young kid living outside Baltimore when all the napalm was hitting the fan and remember my father’s outrage as we watched the local t.v. news. Reading his book “A Punishment for Peace”, what one might think as outdated I find 1969 too close to the world we are living in today for comfort – it’s interesting – he made the prediction that computers would be the next form of technological “enslavement” a new ‘need”….

    Reply
  8. Ben says:

    Excellent article. I highly recommend Phil’s autobiography:
    Fighting the Lambs’ War
    Skirmishes with the American Empire
    by Philip Berrigan
    Whenever I’m asked which books served my “political awakening” greatest, it tops the list. Phil’s narrative gracefully & seamlessly traces his experience from fist fights in the kitchen as a youngster with his brothers and his military training in the Deep South for WWII right through every single arrest to one of the most enlightened and dedicated characters the 20th century ever produced.

    Reply

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