Priest, poet, and Vietnam war protester Fr Daniel Berrigan dies, aged 94

Fr Daniel Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest and peace activist who was imprisoned for burning draft files in a protest against the Vietnam war, has died. He was 94.

Fr Berrigan died peacefully at Murray-Weigel Hall, a Jesuit healthcare community in New York after a “long illness”, according to Michael Benigno, a spokesman for the Jesuits USA Northeast Province.

Fr Berrigan and his younger brother, the Fr Philip Berrigan, emerged as leaders of the radical anti-war movement in the 1960s.

The Berrigan brothers entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, on May 17, 1968, with eight other activists and removed records of young men about to be shipped off to Vietnam.

 The group took the files outside and burned them in rubbish bins.

The Catonsville Nine, as they came to be known, were convicted on federal charges accusing them of destroying US property and interfering with the Selective Service Act of 1967. 

All were sentenced on November 9, 1968, to prison terms ranging from two to three-and-a-half years.

Rev Fr Daniel Berrigan and some friends participating in a fast and vigil to protest the bombing in Cambodia, on the steps of St Patricks Cathedral in New York City.
Rev Fr Daniel Berrigan and some friends participating in a fast and vigil to protest the bombing in Cambodia, on the steps of St Patricks Cathedral in New York City.

When asked in 2009 by America, a national Catholic magazine, whether he had any regrets, Fr Berrigan replied: “I could have done sooner the things I did, like Catonsville.”

Fr Berrigan, a writer and poet, wrote about the experience in 1970 in a one-act play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which was later made into a movie.

Fr Berrigan grew up in Syracuse, New York, with his parents and five brothers. 

He joined the Jesuit order after high school and taught preparatory school in New Jersey before being ordained a priest in 1952.

As a seminarian, Fr Berrigan wrote poetry. 

His work captured the attention of an editor at Macmillan who referred the material to poet Marianne Moore. 

Her endorsement led to the publication of Berrigan’s first book of poetry, Time Without Number, which won the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1957.

Fr Berrigan credited Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker newspaper, with introducing him to the pacifist movement and influencing his thinking about war.

Much later, while visiting Paris in 1963 on a teaching sabbatical from LeMoyne College, Fr Berrigan met French Jesuits who spoke of the dire situation in Indochina. Soon after that, he and his brother founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which helped organise protests against US involvement in Vietnam. 

Fr Berrigan travelled to North Vietnam in 1968 and returned with three American prisoners of war who were being released as a goodwill gesture. 

He said that while there, he witnessed some of the destruction and suffering caused by the war.

The Berrigan brothers continued to be active in the peace movement long after Catonsville. Together, they began the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear weapons campaign in 1980. 

Both were arrested that year after entering a General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and damaging nuclear warhead nose cones.

Philip Berrigan died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 79.


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