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The Aggressive Pacifist 

Former students recall Father Philip Berrigan, whose road to anti-war activism began at St. Augustine High School.

For Father Philip Berrigan, the road to radical protest began at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans.

Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest in the Josephite order, taught English and religion at St. Augustine from 1956 to 1963, when the school was a segregated all-African-American high school for boys. There, Berrigan later said, he "commenced a lifelong study of the connections between militarism, racism and poverty."

"I was a racist when I arrived at St. Augustine's because to live in America is to be a racist either by commission or omission," Berrigan wrote in his 1996 autobiography Fighting the Lamb's War: Skirmishes With the American Empire. "Our government's domestic and foreign policies are determined, to a large extent, by racist assumptions. Racism influences where we live, whom we choose to have for friends, whom we marry, where our children go to school, where we work and worship. Racism fills our morgues every day with murdered black children. It jams our prisons with black men and women, crowds our death rows and keeps the executioners busy. It poisons the hopes and kills the dreams of poor, disempowered Americans. I didn't know these things when my superiors transferred me to New Orleans. The students of St. Augustine continued my education. Gently, but firmly healing my blindness."

Berrigan, 79, died of cancer Dec. 6 in Baltimore. The New York Times eulogized him as "one of the most radical pacifists of the 20th century." During the Vietnam war, his draft-card burning protests put him and his brother Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, on the cover of Time magazine. Philip Berrigan's four decades of anti-war activism cost him 11 years in prison for such acts as pouring blood on Vietnam era draft records and nuclear warheads; he was acquitted of separate charges alleging a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up tunnels leading to the U.S. Capitol.

"One of Father Berrigan's favorite sayings was, 'You are either a champ or a chump,'" recalls former student Ron Nabonne, now a political campaign consultant. "If you were a champ you did the right thing, even though you didn't always win. A chump was someone who always complained and saw himself as a victim and didn't do anything about it.

"He viewed Christianity as an activist religion," Nabonne continues. "If you saw a wrong, you didn't just sit on your backsides and pray -- you did something about it. He was a tough guy. He always taught pacifism in terms of making change, but aggressive pacifism."

A tall, physically imposing World War II combat veteran, Berrigan often wore an artillery field jacket over his priest's cassock. St. Augustine alumni recall that his lectures strayed into current events like the ongoing civil rights movement and the omnipresence of war.

"He had a very profound effect on a lot of lives, including my own," says former state Sen. Hank Braden, who had Berrigan as a teacher for two years before graduating in 1961. "During that time, he taught us a hell of a lot more than English."

As a faculty advisor to Sodality, a school chapter of a Catholic social action organization, Berrigan charged his students with tutoring poor, black students from other schools who lived in the St. Bernard housing development. He also encouraged students to attend civil rights demonstrations downtown -- but only if they secured parental permission first, Nabonne recalls.

Berrigan's opposition to racism did not initially distinguish him from other white priests in the Josephite Order, whose mission was the advancement of African Americans. In fact, Berrigan had been transferred to New Orleans from Washington D.C. at the request of Father Joe Verrett, a black priest and socially active teacher at St. Augustine, says a retired Josephite.

Other Josephite priests, such as St. Aug teacher Father Eugene McManus, were already pressing then-Archbishop Joseph Rummel to expedite the desegregation of Catholic institutions in New Orleans, according to historian Adam Fairclough's book Race & Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972. "Father Berrigan might have been more militant than others, but they all believed in desegregation and integration as a means to societal benefit," says Henry Julien Jr., an attorney and former St. Aug student.

In their affectionate 1997 biography of the Berrigan brothers, Disarmed and Dangerous, authors Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady wrote that Philip Berrigan was "initially reluctant to challenge publicly New Orleans' status quo" -- until one attack affected him personally. In 1957, Berrigan encouraged a group of St. Augustine football players to take it upon themselves to integrate an all-white Catholic church in Algiers. "[O]n their way home after the service, they were jumped and beaten by whites with tire irons," the authors said of Berrigan's students. Infuriated, St. Augustine principal Matthew O'Rourke convinced then-Archbishop Joseph Rummel to temporarily close the church in the offending parish. Rummel agreed and told parishioners: "You'll get Mass and the sacraments when you stop this barbarism." The church later re-opened as an integrated place of worship.

"The whole thing shook me," Berrigan later said, "and left me deeply troubled."

In the minds of some St. Aug students, however, Berrigan's progressive stance on racial matters was offset by his liberal use of corporal punishment at the school. Berrigan recalled his approach in his autobiography: "Of course, from time to time, we had disciplinary problems in our classroom and I was not reluctant to paddle a student in front of the class or whack them on the back of the head. The parents wanted us to do this, though they asked us not to strike their sons in the face. We never did.

"Sometimes we sent a student to the principal's office for a paddling, and I have seen a marvelous clearing of the air with a simple whack on the butt. The offending student realized without resorting to guilt or subterfuge, the seriousness of his transgression."

Nabonne recalls that most St. Aug teachers "used the paddle frequently" and Berrigan's use of corporal punishment may have affected his popularity among the student body. "Again, you were either a champ or a chump in his class," Nabonne says. "If you came in and he started calling you a chump, you knew you were going to get your ass kicked with the paddle. So some people probably didn't like him because of that."

But Berrigan's fervent opposition to war -- both the Cold War and the simmering conflict in faraway Vietnam -- also left a lasting impression on many students. Julien recalls that Berrigan denounced the Vietnam War as early as 1963, when he and his classmates were no older than 14. "Father Berrigan said Vietnam was a war of oppression. It was the first time I had ever heard that word. He said Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people wanted to be independent of the French and now the U.S. colonial leaders. He said we shouldn't be over there." It was a viewpoint many students would not hear publicly until after the Vietnam War divided the nation in the late 1960s.

"He thought that sensible men ought to be able to talk their differences out," recalls Paul Beaulieu, director of public relations at St. Augustine. "He said, put economics aside you may not have any more wars. He was the first guy I ever heard say that and I often thought about that. I think about it more today."

Among his peers, Berrigan also distinguished himself as not only a good English teacher who encouraged students to consider the priesthood, but also as a former professional house painter. "At the end of the school day at 3 p.m., he would get on a ladder and he re-caulked all the windows at St. Augustine High School," says Father Vincent Keenan, a retired Josephite priest who taught at St. Augustine from 1952 to 1966. "And if you have ever been by the school, you see it is all windows. He did it day after day until dinnertime. It was amazing."

"He was probably one of the better teachers we had at St. Aug," state Sen. Lambert Boissiere Jr. recalls.

But in his autobiography, Berrigan remembered his St. Augustine years with less relish than perhaps his former students -- and he exaggerated the poverty of his students, roughly half of whom then came from the city's black middle class.

"In retrospect," Berrigan wrote, "I know that much of what I thought we Josephites had to offer our black students was an illusion. I did believe (out of a sense of justice, I think) that we could offer them something. We could offer them good literature, the opportunity to discuss ideas, and a theology that transcended the nonsense they were learning in some parishes. During the seven years I spent at St. Augustine High School, I taught a theology of contribution and involvement.

"These kids came from very, very poor families, but they brought canned foods, packaged foods and even money to people who were worse off than themselves."

Berrigan said his writings for Catholic magazines on racism in the South, in which he said that racism "is a white, not a black problem," led to constituent calls to Josephite officials in Baltimore for his removal from the South to more liberal parishes in the North. However, Father Keenen, acknowledging the passage of 40 years has softened the details, recalls that Berrigan's transfer from New Orleans originated when St. Augustine principal Matthew O'Rourke asked Berrigan to head a program to raise money from national foundations for the struggling school. While based at seminary in Newburg, N.Y., for that purpose, Berrigan instead became embroiled in the anti-war movement, Keenen says.

The rest is history. By 1967, Berrigan, his brother, and other clergy members were pouring blood on draft files to protest the Vietnam war. The Berrigan Brothers -- as they came to be known -- and others burned draft records in Catonsville, Md., and were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison on federal charges.

In 1970, Philip Berrigan married Elizabeth McAlister, an activist nun from the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Both were excommunicated from the Church. Philip Berrigan was out on appeal, but became a fugitive when his appeals failed. He was soon captured and returned to prison.

In 1971, based partly on intercepted letters Berrigan smuggled out of prison to McAlister, a federal grand jury in Harrisburg, Pa., charged the former St. Aug instructor with plotting to kidnap then­Secretary of State Kissinger and to blow up the utility tunnels of the United States Capitol buildings. Berrigan was later acquitted on all major charges. He wrote that the indictment stemmed from jailhouse discourse with other activists to make a "citizen's arrest" of "war criminal" Kissinger in order to stop the bombing of North Vietnam. Berrigan said he vetoed the planned "action" as impractical because he himself was in prison and Kissinger was always surrounded by bodyguards.

In the early 1970s, Berrigan and McAlister had two children but continued their anti-war activities. "He and his wife took turns going to jail so one could be with their children," Keenen recalls.

With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Berrigan and other peace activists turned their attacks on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. They went to jail for digging "graves" on the grounds of the White House and the Pentagon, resulting in jail terms of up to six months. From 1980 to 1999, Berrigan and other members of the International Plowshares Movement were convicted of striking nuclear warheads and military hardware with hammers -- which the protestors viewed as their symbolic attempt to fulfill the Biblical prophet Isaiah's proverb of beating swords into plowshares.

"Father Berrigan was a patriot," says attorney Harry Tervalon, a St. Augustine graduate and former New Orleans police officer. "He believed in America. He believed in the Constitution. He violated the law. But when he did he believed was conducting acts of civil disobedience."

Julien says he called Berrigan several years ago when the former priest was between prison stints and recalled his teachings at St. Augustine. "I told him he was one of my heroes," Julien says. "He had a great impact on a lot of people's lives, and I wanted him to know it."

Berrigan was released from an Ohio prison on Dec. 14, 2001, at the age of 78, after serving one year in prison for an anti-war demonstration. In October, he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and kidneys. At Jonas House in Baltimore, surrounded by family, friends and fellow peace activists, Berrigan's dying words, according to McAlister, were a final denouncement of nuclear weaponry: "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."

Hank Braden says he wished his former teacher would have ended his fierce activism sooner and spent his last years differently. "I had hoped he would have stopped in all honesty," Braden says quietly. "This last time, [the authorities] really threw the book at him. It was someone else's turn. He had done enough.

"I wanted him to spend his last years comfortably," Braden says. "But by nature, he was an ascetic. That was the role that God had in mind for him and it played out to the max."

click to enlarge BALTIMORE SUN
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