A safe harbor
“Nonviolence first and foremost, with its fiery trail of implication: compassion for the adversary, care for one another, community discipline, prayer and sacrament and biblical literacy. It was easy to set down a formula, and devilishly hard to live by it, even in minor matters.” Those words are from Father Daniel Berrigan’s memoir, “To Dwell in Peace,” one of many facts from Berrigan’s long life that are now on display at the Island Free Library’s new exhibit, “Seeking Shelter from the Storm.”
Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and antiwar activist, evaded the FBI, who was seeking his arrest for burning draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, by hiding under disguise inside a giant burlap and papier-mâché puppet of an apostle after appearing onstage at Cornell on April 17, 1970.
Four months later, FBI agents disguised as birdwatchers, arrested him at the Block Island home of William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne. A three-year prison stay did not deter him from his cause. And so went the intriguing life of Daniel Berrigan, who dedicated himself to the church and to promoting nonviolence and antiwar sentiment.
In tribute to Berrigan, who died on April 30, 2016 at the age of 94, a crowd of about 80 people assembled in the basement of the Island Free Library on July 11 to honor his life and view the newly unveiled exhibit. The exhibit, which was designed, researched and detailed by curator Ken Yellin, features the life of Berrigan, and the “Rebel Priests,” who spent time seeking refuge on Block Island during the 60s. Berrigan passed at the age of 94 in 2016.
The exhibit, the brainchild of island resident Ann Tickner, includes posters with information about Berrigan, Stringfellow and Towne, noting the “state of Block Island” during the turbulent 60s, as well as “American unrest.” Tickner told The Block Island Times that, “It’s a Block Island story that hasn’t really been told on Block Island.”
“The exhibit tells a little bit about the history of Block Island,” she said. “I hope people will come away from the exhibit thinking about it in relation to their own lives. It’s about the importance of non-violence. Berrigan had a message that covers all of this country’s history.”
Resident Elliot Taubman said the history of Berrigan and his fellow priests on Block Island draws a similar parallel to the island’s early settlers who sought refuge from persecution on Block Island in the 1600s. “It’s a nicely done exhibit,” he said.
Library Director Kristin Baumann praised the creators and said of the exhibit, “This is my vision: I believe that libraries are the keepers of our history. So, thank you for making this happen,” she said to the creative team. “It’s been fun working with you on this exhibit.”
Dennis O’Toole, who has guided the project since its inception, said, “I hope the exhibit engages people to pause, read, reflect, and talk. My hope is that it informs people. This has been an enrichment for me to tell the story, and work with these people.”
During his speech, O’Toole said, “The inspiration for the exhibit came from Ann (Tickner), and Amy Jaffe had the idea for a museum like exhibit.” He said Jim Reale, and website designer Brian Jones, were also instrumental. O’Toole noted that the creative team wanted a “traveling exhibit.” The exhibit will be visiting other venues around Rhode Island, including Brown, and Salve Regina Universities.
Jaffe said that she felt it was “a great honor” to be in attendance at the event, before introducing Berrigan’s niece Frida Berrigan. Frida is the daughter of Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest, who promoted antiwar activism alongside his brother, and was thrown in jail for participating in the burning of draft records as part of the Catonsville Nine.
Frida spoke with a lighthearted candor at times, recounting experiences from her childhood, and read some of her uncle’s work. “I would like to express my family’s gratitude to everyone who worked on the exhibit,” she said. She noted that it was difficult for her family when her father was serving time in jail. Two copies of her book, “It Runs In The Family,” sat on a table beside her as she spoke.
“My uncle just loved this place,” said Frida, who was wearing a big “RESIST” pin given to her by someone at the event. “It was his respite, and his muse. It’s a place that is meaningful to my family.”
Frida told The Times that her father and uncle’s resistance to the Vietnam War, and unfaltering activism, evolved out of “prayer and a deep-rooted feeling of community.” She said, “How do we resist? By resisting,” noting that she witnessed people who came up to her dad and said, “You burned my draft card,” referring to the hostility that was present during the war.
Attendees at the event, while viewing the exhibit, became engaged in deep, philosophical discussions with one another about what Berrigan meant to the antiwar movement. Baumann, who hosted the event, had to supply extra chairs retrieved from the storage room to accommodate the large crowd in the book sale room. One attendee said: “They didn’t expect this many people.”
Island resident Jules Craynock said he attended Cornell University from 1966-1970 when Berrigan was chaplain and heard him speak. “He affected my life there,” said Craynock, who displayed a binder full of articles and information on the notable priest. “Cornell was the Berkeley of the east back then.”
Gloria Redlich told the story of how she had a brief brush with Berrigan on Block Island, noting that she gave him a ride home from a party they both attended. “I wish I had recorded the conversation,” she said.
The Berrigan exhibit, and its accompanying programming, will remain at the Island Free Library until Oct. 9.