Friday, January 27, 2023

Philip Berrigan, Former Priest and Peace Activist in the Vietnam War Era, Dies at 79


Philip Berrigan’s funeral was held at St. Peter Claver Church in West Baltimore on North Fremont Avenue. This is the church at which Phil served the poor black congregation in 1960s.  In fact, he used the parish car to drive across town to engage in the Catonsville Nine draft board raid.

Many of us, including members of the media, marched from the Jonah House to St. Peter Claver, and the media could see the desolation and a side of Baltimore which highlights the immense income inequality in Baltimore.  I have not done that march since then, but I do not think much change has happened in two decades.  Baltimore’s poverty rate is about 20 %. There’s always money for weapons contractors, but just small change for those suffering ills associated with poverty.

Daniel Berrigan gave the homily and made this point:  “What we had at the end was a masterwork of grace and human sweetness.  We gazed on him with a kind of awe.  Dying, Philip won the face he had earned at such cost.” Phil’s body was at rest in a simple wooden coffin.

Kagiso, Max

Philip Berrigan, Former Priest and Peace Activist in the Vietnam War Era, Dies at 79

By Daniel Lewis

  • Dec. 7, 2002

See the article in its original context from December 7, 2002, Section A, Page 18 Buy Reprints

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Philip F. Berrigan, the former Roman Catholic priest who led the draft board raids that galvanized opposition to the Vietnam War in the late 1960's, died last night in Baltimore after a lifetime of battling ''the American Empire,'' as he called it, over the morality of its military and social policies. He was 79. .

His family said the cause was liver and kidney cancer, The Associated Press reported.

An Army combat veteran sickened by the killing in World War II, Mr. Berrigan came to be one of the most radical pacifists of the 20th century -- and, for a time in the Vietnam period, a larger-than-life figure in the convulsive struggle over the country's direction.

In the late 60's he was a Catholic priest serving a poor black parish in Baltimore and seeing nothing that would change his conviction that war, racism and poverty were inseparable strands of a corrupt economic system. His Josephite superiors had previously hustled him out of Newburgh, N.Y., for aggressive civil rights and antiwar activity there; the ''fatal blow,'' he said, had been a talk to a community affairs council in which he asked, ''Is it possible for us to be vicious, brutal, immoral and violent at home and be fair, judicious, beneficent and idealistic abroad?''

He hardly missed a beat after his transfer to Baltimore, founding an antiwar group, Peace Mission, whose operations included picketing the homes of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk in December 1966. By the fall of 1967 Mr. Berrigan and three friends were ready to try a new tactic. On Oct. 17, they walked into the Baltimore Customs House, distracted the draft board clerks and methodically spattered Selective Service records with a red liquid made partly from their own blood.

Three decades later, Mr. Berrigan remembered feeling ''exalted'' as the judge sentenced him to six years in prison. From then on, he would be in and out of jail for repeated efforts to interfere with government operations and deface military hardware.

Even before his sentencing for the Customs House raid, Father Berrigan instigated a second invasion, against the local draft board office in Catonsville, Md. Among those persuaded to join was his older brother, the Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and poet, who had been one of the first prominent clergymen to preach and organize against the war.

The ''Catonsville Nine'' struck on May 17, 1968, taking hundreds of files relating to potential draftees from the second floor of the Knights of Columbus building, where the draft board rented space. They piled the documents in the parking lot and set them burning with a mixture of gasoline and soap chips -- homemade napalm.

Reporters were on hand, having been told in advance, and they were given a statement that read, ''We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but also because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America.''

When the police arrived, the trespassers were praying in the parking lot. The cameras loved the Berrigans. In the definitive photograph of the event, seven of the Catonsville Nine are nowhere to be seen. The photo includes only the striking image of two priests in clerical dress, one big and craggy, the other slight and puckish, serenely accepting their imminent incarceration.

With so many marches and campus protests going on across the country, it would have been impossible to quantify the effect of a single event on public opinion. What can be said about the Catonsville raid is that it inspired others in New York City, Milwaukee, Boston, Chicago and other cities, the tactic becoming a sort of calling card of the ''ultra-resistance.'' It also elevated the Berrigan brothers to the status of superstars. ''Father Phil'' and ''Father Dan'' were on the cover of Time magazine and illuminated in profiles by the smartest writers.

But many Americans saw them as communists and traitors, or at best naïve dupes of the Vietcong.

Philip Francis Berrigan was born Oct. 5, 1923, in Two Harbors, Minn., the youngest of six sons of Thomas W. Berrigan and Frida Fromhart Berrigan, a German immigrant. Thomas Berrigan was a frustrated poet and a bullying, tyrannical husband and father. He was also a political radical whose labor organizing activities led to his dismissal as a railroad engineer, after which he moved to Syracuse to be with his family and bought a farm.

After high school, Philip was a first baseman in semiprofessional baseball before enrolling in St. Michael's College in Toronto. In January 1943, after one semester, he was drafted into the Army.

The life of black sharecroppers in Georgia, where he had basic training, and the treatment of black soldiers on his troop ship to Europe made an indelible impression on his conscience. In retrospect, once the war was over, so did his own role in infantry and artillery battles that earned him a battlefield commission as second lieutenant. In so many words, he came to consider himself as guilty of murder as the Germans and Japanese. Along with this came the conviction that he had grown up on a diet of nationalistic propaganda in which the good -- ''white Europeans'' -- always triumphed over evil -- ''anyone else.''

As an assistant pastor in Washington in 1955 and 1956 and a counselor and teacher at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans from 1956 to 1963, the young priest became passionately involved in civil rights and antiwar activities, especially after the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

 A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 7, 2002, Section A, Page 18 of the National edition with the headline: Philip Berrigan, Former Priest and Peace Activist in the Vietnam War Era, Dies at 79.  |

Donations can be sent to Max Obuszewski, Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 431 Notre Dame Lane, Apt. 206, Baltimore, MD 21212.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski2001 [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs




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