Every August our family gathers in a house we rent on the top of a hill on Rhode Island’s Block Island, an hour ferry ride from Point Judith. This is the story of Daniel Berrigan, anti-war activist and federal fugitive, from a May, 2016 issue of the Block Island Times.
Father Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest who died on Saturday, April 30 at the age of 94, was an author, a man of faith, and a peace activist who had global influence, but Block Island was very much part of his life.
It was here that Berrigan spent countless dinners and quiet time with friends that included William Stringfellow, Jim Reale, Joanne and John Warfel, Mary Donnelly and her family, and Nancy and Malcolm Greenaway, among others.
Block Island is also where Berrigan was arrested in the cottage that the Associated Press called a “former stable” on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 1970 by a phalanx of FBI agents that had come here disguised, as some remember, as birdwatchers.
Berrigan was part of what became known as the “Catonsville Nine,” a group of activists, including his brother Philip, that had burned draft records in Catonsville, Maryland in May 1968 and were wanted on federal charges.
“I don’t know the first year that Dan came to Block Island, but it surrounded his friendship with [William] Stringfellow and [poet] Anthony Towne. Bill was a lawyer and theologian, published author, and who was indicted for harboring Dan when he was arrested by the FBI,” said Reale.
Reale said he met Berrigan in 1984, during a time when he was taking care of Stringfellow, who was very ill at the time.
“Dan would come out for summers. A very interesting guy, a priest, an author, who worked with AIDS patients and was really an amazing man.” Reale said that, at the time, he personally was not a peace activist, but Berrigan “took a shine to me and we developed this great friendship. That was how I got into the peace movement.”
He said that he felt Block Island offered Berrigan “a retreat center, solitude for him. He could write here.”
In fact, Berrigan published a book of poems called, simply, “Block Island.”
One of the poems offers this view of island people and their habits:
Mutual island greetings; understated, telegrammatic.
I’d grin like a banshee, riding the jitney to town
Passing conveyances, their mode of greeting.
Exuberance, aus mit! Not a hand lifted.
Anthony gazed straight on,
Forefinger barely lifted from wheel’s round.
Monotone, monochrome. Landscape, seascape,
Befitting gestures. These Yankees
Know when to leave one alone!
Reale said he has been participating in a documentary produced and co-directed by Sue Hagedorn, who previously produced and directed “Island Nurse,” about the life of Mary Donnelly.
Hagedorn said she has been working on the film for about a year. It includes footage of Berrigan, and interviews with Mary Donnelly and her daughter Marguerite, Martha Ball, John Henry Tripler, John Gasner and others. She hopes to have it ready for film festivals by the fall.
Reale is participating in a documentary produced by island resident Sue Hagedorn, who previously directed “Island Nurse,” the story of Mary Donnelly.
One of the stories told in the film is about Berrigan’s arrest, Reale said. One interviewee remembered that there were a bunch of people sitting at the bar of the old National Hotel, and in came three strangers dressed in suits carrying walkie talkies. These were some of the FBI agents out here to arrest Berrigan.
Reale said it is his belief that Berrigan was not on Block Island to hide, but to seek solace among his friends, Stringfellow and Towne.
“He had a very good suspicion he was going to be caught by the FBI and he was here because of his good friendship with Bill and Towne. He wasn’t going to stay underground forever,” Reale said.
In the Associated Press story of the arrest that was published in 1970, Stringfellow is asked why he gave safe haven to Berrigan, and Stringfellow is quoted as saying “Where is a person in his situation to turn but to his friends?”
Berrigan had a profound effect on Reale’s life. When he started to think he should move off-island for other life experiences, Berrigan suggested he move to the Bronx. Reale did, and ended up rehabbing a soup kitchen for three months, and also witnessed a moment of “resistance work,” at the Riverside Research Institute where work was being done on the military program that was colloquially known as “Star Wars” during the Reagan Administration.
“I went back to Block Island and Dan asked me what I thought of the Bronx. I said I really liked it but the resistance work speaks to me very deeply,” Reale said. He eventually went to work and live at the Jonah House in Baltimore, and participated in the Ploughshares peace movement.
“One of the amazing things about Dan was that he wasn’t just an intellectual, which he was, or that he was animated by the heart, which he was. He was animated by both. His heart really gave direction to his mind,” said Reale. “That’s what I got out of his friendship. He was so natural, so down to earth — a world-class peace movement Jesuit, but so ordinary when you were with him.”
Mary Donnelly said she had been invited to dinner one night by the Breydert family, who said they were “going to have Daniel for supper and you’re coming with us. I went and that was the beginning of a long friendship. Everytime he was here he came over for supper.”
Donnelly said Berrigan was a “holy, strange man. He was his own person.”
Echoing what Jim Reale said, Donnelly said Berrigan came to Block Island for “peace and quiet. It was certainly a retreat. The people here left him alone. Of course, he was captured here. He was up at Stringfellow’s house. The ‘bird watchers’ were here, all dressed up,” she said.
When Donnelly and others held small peace rallies against the Iran and Iraq wars, Berrigan would sometimes stand with them. He did a poetry reading to raise funds for The Mary D. Fund.
When asked what she felt when she heard that Berrigan had died, Donnelly said, “He hasn’t died as far as I’m concerned. He’s always been a presence. I’ve had so many good things happen in my life, and one of them was Daniel.”