Jonah House logo


   A Presentation by Jerome Berrigan: December 9, 2004

I feel grateful for having been invited to speak here today in company with Sue Keeter who worked faithfully and with skill to design the likeness of Phil we have here before us. Initially my words will portray my brother in notable aspects of his life; following that I'll attempt to detail the rationale and reality of the International Plowshares Movement.

To Phil then: between the years 1913 and 1923, six sons were born in Minnesota to our parents, Frida and Thomas Berrigan. The youngest, Phil emerged into life in 1923.

My memories of him through our joint years of consciousness and awareness was of a lad happy, full of curiosity and life. At St. John the Baptist Academy on Syracuse's north side to which we trudged 4 miles round trip daily, he was bright and attentive in his studies and a skilled, enthusiastic athlete in baseball and basketball. High school over in 1941, he briefly attended St. Michael's college in Toront.o. Then in 1943 he was drafted into the U.S. military of World War II. Sent to fight in Europe, he became in his own words "a skilled and remorseless killer." So much so that he was chosen from the enlisted ranks and enrolled in officer candidate school near Paris. Graduated as a second lieutenant,, he fought across Belgium and into Germany until Hitler was defeated in May of 1945. Returned home to the U.S. on furlough, he expected reassignment to attack Japan. Then however the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended that war on August 6 and 9th of 1945, and Philip again became a civilian.

The next phase in the life and growth of Philip Berrigan was his enrollment in Holy Cross College from which he graduated in 1950. Following that he entered the seminary of the Society of St. Joseph, a group of Catholic clergy devoted to the well being of African-American people in the deep South of the U.S. As a priest of that order he was ordained in 1955.

His first assignment was to teach in an all-boys highschool, St. Augustines's, in New Orleans. Of his students during his seven year stint there he later wrote in his autobiography, "They were simply great kids and I loved them unconditionally. They trusted me. I trusted them.

During these early days of his priesthood Phil was learning for the first time as he put it, the perniciousness of racism, its pervasiveness, its effect on himself, on his students, on the black and most of all the white community, its source.

Suiting actions to words, he undertook to march at Selma and Montgomery, to foster the fight for civil rights. He read and grew to reverence Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Vietnam war came on. Phil, now returned North to Baltimore, began meeting with peace people of like mind and concern, persons dedicated to end the slaughter of the innocent. In their group sessions it was pointed out that draft boards fed human male bodies to satisfy the unquenchable hunger of the American military machine. After prayer and planning Phil and three other men entered a Baltimore draft board, poured blood on files and awaited arrest. Following a trial they were sentenced to prison.

From this action despite his being on parole Phil linked up with Dan, then teaching at Cornell. Together they joined five other men and two women; traveling to Catonsville, Maryland they, on May 17. 1968, carrried draft files to a parking lot, drenched them with homemade napalm and ignited them. Praying, they awaited the police. At trial they were given terms in prison: three years for Dan and the seven others, six years for Phil.

Later Dan dramatized the event in a prize-winning play which he entitled "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine." Playing for years on Broadway, it won prizes, is still in print and being enacted today.

In 1968, Phil and Elizabeth McAlister married, they exchanged vows and made a commitment, each to the other, not only "to love, honor and obey, but to live lives of peacemaking until death." (At the time Elizabeth was a nun who had worked for peace, devotedly, for years.) From this marriage three children were born: Frida, who is today a perceptive and skilled writer for the World Policy Institute in New York; Jerry, who with his wife Molly Mechtenberg and newly born son Amos Philip, live and serve in a Catholic Worker community in northern Wisconsin, and Kate, living in California, involved with care of aged, disabled persons.

Briefly out of prison Phil, together with Liz founded Jonah House in Baltimore. This place adheres to the philosophy of Dorothy Day : despite Phil's death, Liz, communally and non-violently, together with the members serves the poor, resists government unjust laws and wars of the empire, prepares talks to be given nation wide, writes articles, meditates on scripure, prays.

During his active life and days of resistance Phil wrote five books, two with his wife Liz as co-author. All, comprised of his personal experiences and detailing their similar days in prison, are on biblical meditations, on studies of and rejection of the American thrust toward Empire, on the Christian message of non-violence.
Phil's death from cancer came on December 6, 2002. I am convinced that it resulted from his prison diet. Eleven years of meals permeated with drugs and chemicals intended to pacify prisoners, to forestall inmate rebellionsness, took a life's toll. He is buried in Baltimore close by Jonah House, the place he and Liz planned, built and loved.

Now I'd like to detail what I've known and have learned about events known as Plowshares. First however I'd like to interject the following comments. So far I think my account has been mainly anecdotal. Perhaps given constraints of time that fact could not be avoided. Trouble is, what's left out of these words relating thought, planning and action, is reference to Phil's spiritual life. But in his total dedication to the cause of peace, he intensified his prayer, daily and hourly. Reverence for scripure, the very word of God became the heart of his writing, of his thinking, of his speaking, of his acting to break lawless laws, of his submitting to more than a decade behind bars.

Phil in his deepest conviction came to consider every phase of his life quite empty, except that devoted to peacemaking. Spoken near the end of his days his words require to be heard and pondered: "The greatest need of humankind today is peace. Unless peace can become a reality from which all persons inevitably will benefit, humanity itself will flounder, will gasp and will die out..."

PLOWSHARES ACTIONS (in US, England, Ireland, Australia)

On September 9, 1980, the first of at least 60 subsequent Plowshares actions occurred. To a G.E. plant located at King of Prussia, PA., Phil and Dan Berrigan, together with six other men and two women went, entered a testing room. With hammers they battered two missile nose cones, and were arrested. Their trial was a travesty before an incompetant judge. Dan and Phil received terms of 3 to 10 years.

A second Plowshares action; this time at Rome Air Force Base, Liz McAlister joined three women and three men, went into a hanger and poured their own blood on and hammered at B-52 bombers laden with nuclear weapons, ready to take off for Russia. (This is Thanksgiving, 1983). Arrested they are tried in Syracuse, and sentenced to three years in prison.

The dozens of Plowshares actions since those at King of Prussia and Rome partake of the same rationale and motivation. Participants state that their actions, their breaking of laws which legalize wars and violence against humanity is justified in the Book of Isaiah:".. .they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruniing hooks. . .nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Those who call themselves Plowshares, who act nonviolently in the name of peace, are thus authorized. If Scripture they say, is truly divine in origen, then its words like God its creator are true and timeless. Thus the Bible passage in Isaiah must be obeyed as much in the here and now, as much in the present, today, as in the past or in the future.

I am going to conclude now by saying this: in his autobiography entitled Fighting the Lamb's War, Phil makes an observation about himself which I think forms a worthy obituary: "I would like to be remembered as a Catholic who tried to be a Christian..." I think he succeeded.