Have been mulling over your suggestion (made with half-seriousness, I guess) that the future ought to include…a coupla kids (adopted) and our own movement. I guess, Liz, we’ll be called upon to make many critical decisions…
Thus wrote Father Philip Berrigan to Sister Elizabeth McAlister in a letter of casual courtship and family planning in 1972. And—if their romance were not unthinkable enough to Roman Catholics—it was a communication smuggled out of the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa., where antiwar priest Berrigan was serving a six-year term for destroying Selective Service records. Still worse, other intercepted communications between them led to their federal prosecution, along with four other Catholic leftists and a Pakistani professor. The “Harrisburg 7,” as they were called, were charged with a bizarre plot to blow up the U.S. capital’s heating systems and to kidnap Henry Kissinger. After 10 headline-making weeks a mistrial was declared.
The case only deepened their commitment to each other (they had held hands in court) and to their cause. In May 1973, five months after Berrigan was paroled, they publicly announced their marriage after their third (and first legal) ceremony. The man called Father Phil was 49; Sister Liz was 33. Next, as their prison correspondence pledged, came the development of their movement. “We operate basically from a biblical point of view,” explains Phil. “There is a summons in the gospel to take a position on the side of the oppressed,” meaning on the side opposite the established system. And “because there can be no resistance without community,” continues Liz, they opened a communal residence in a poor, largely black area of Baltimore. It was called Jonah House because, says Liz, “if Jonah can make it, we all can.” Last April Liz gave birth to their daughter, Freda, and the three of them share two rooms in Jonah’s low-ceilinged basement. Upstairs live the 10 other workers of the commune, all acquaintances since the anti-war years.
Jonah House is exuberantly noisy—a mix of baby sounds, the hum of a washing machine, and the unending meetings in which Berrigan, McAlister (she has kept her maiden name) and their friends discuss plans for public protests and proselytizing.
Phil is currently on parole, which supposedly constrains him for another six months, and Freda’s arrival temporarily slowed Liz because of what she calls “the physical thing with the mother.” But this has hardly been an inactive year at Jonah House. In February Phil organized a protest for penal reform at the U.S. penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kans. In July he was arrested in front of the White House in a South Vietnamese-type “tiger cage.” If their acts of resistance resemble guerrilla warfare less than guerrilla theater, then that strategy is due to their basic pacifism and realism—and just possibly to the media-consciousness of their campaign. So far, Phil’s parole board has accepted these actions, perhaps rather than make Berrigan a public martyr again.
Jail, Phil shrugs, “is part of the life. But we don’t want to go for something trifling, something stupid.” That nearly happened to Liz last year. She was arrested for taking a $20.99 electric saw at Sears, Roebuck. “I’d had discussions with friends who talked of shoplifting in political terms, redistribution and all that. I saw it and thought, that saw is something we could really use,” she admits. “So I did it and immediately regretted it. It was a huge mistake in terms of truthfulness, of what we’re trying to do here.” She was given a suspended sentence and placed on parole for a year.
Phil describes Jonah House as a “resistance community.” Their life, Liz says, is an attempt to be “in the world but not of it.” To that end, they neither vote nor file income tax returns, and wish that they could stop smoking cigarettes so they could avoid paying any taxes at all.
Liz met Phil in 1965 at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y., where she was teaching art history. Born Maureen McAlister, the daughter of Irish immigrants and the product of a sheltered New Jersey childhood, she became involved in civil rights and peace activities in the early ’60s and was naturally drawn into the intense world of Phil and his brother, Daniel. The Berrigans are third-generation Irish-American, sons of a Socialist labor leader. When Liz switched from her nun’s habit to bright, short dresses, Phil and his friends kidded her about having “the world’s most wonderful legs.”
“Phil was an easy man to know and like,” she recalled. When Phil went to prison and Dan dropped out of sight in a cops-and-robbers game with the FBI in 1970 following their conviction for destruction of draft records, Liz stayed in touch with them both through the Catholic underground. Phil, who had once argued that celibacy is necessary because married resisters are not fully free to fight, began to temper his views.
Although excommunicated from the church, Liz and Phil consider themselves Catholics, and he frequently performs the liturgy at Jonah House. According to church law, he retains the power to administer the sacraments, but it is forbidden for those who know of his status to participate with him. Even so, Phil and Liz say they feel no bitterness. “We were excommunicated because we dared exercise our conscience with regard to one another,” Phil explains. “The church has given us everything, and we are deeply indebted to it. But we will continue to speak out against the excesses of myopia, cowardice and hypocrisy. It is probably the best service we can do the church.”