Death of an Idealist Proud Catonsville Nine member remembered

July 14, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

Mary Moylan always was the most elusive of the Catonsville Nine, that tiny band of anti-war resisters who ignited one of the most dramatic protests of the '60s with a small bonfire of draft records.

Her name echoes out of the Vietnam era like a half-remembered lyric by Phils Ochs or Country Joe and the Fish, emerging from that time when anti-war protest was expressed in a kind of numerology: the Milwaukee Fourteen, the Baltimore Four, the Chicago Eight, the Harrisburg Seven, the Catonsville Nine.

Most famously, she eluded the FBI for nearly 10 years after the Nine were convicted of torching Baltimore County draft records with homemade napalm in a Catonsville parking lot on May 17, 1968.

But she was so successful in her Orphic descent underground she lost contact with old comrades and her friends and her family. Some of the people who loved her most never saw her again. Lots of people knew a little bit about her, not many everything. She became a cherished, shadowy memory.

Mary Moylan died sometime in late April in Asbury Park, N.J. No one knows quite when; no one wrote an obituary.

She was 59, alone, and infirm at the end. She'd lost her sight to two degenerative eye diseases. But nobody who knew her thinks she had lost her pride in her Vietnam War resistance or her uncompromising commitment to her ideals.

"Mary was the kind of person who stood on her own two feet and developed her own positions and stuck by them stubbornly," says Suzanne Ross, an activist in the women's movement, who arranged a memorial for Ms. Moylan in New York City.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Mary Moylan will be remembered again tonight in a 7:30 service at Viva House, the Catholic Worker soup kitchen and shelter at 26 S. Mount Street. She spent her last night at Viva House before fleeing underground in 1970.

Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh, the couple who have devoted their lives to serving soup and love at their Viva House table, did keep in touch with Ms. Moylan during the years of her underground exile and afterward.

They remember her as a pioneer of contemporary feminism who took pride in evading federal agents longer than any of the Catonsville Nine men who went underground on April 9, 1970, the day when they were all supposed to begin prison sentences. She was a strong woman in a movement pretty much dominated by men. And she knew it.

Soon after disappearing, she wrote in Hard Times, a radical journal of the time, "When I realized four of the men were going underground, I did some re-thinking and decided because women's liberation is one of the most important issues being raised, I felt I had to do the same thing -- and do it with sisters, and with the help of sisters."

Mary Moylan remained underground as draft-record burning +V spread across the country like an epidemic of anti-war arson. Catonsville was the touchstone of protest that eventually helped end the war. She was still underground when the last helicopters lifted off the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon in 1975.

She was still underground long after the brothers Berrigan, Philip, the patriarchal ex-priest, and Daniel, the Jesuit poet, and all the rest of the Nine had served their time and been released. She was underground when Daniel Berrigan wrote his play "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine."

Ms. Moylan basically lived a life of nomadic poverty, dependent on the commitment of friends and the kindness of strangers.

"The women's community was her support underground," Willa Bickham says.

Ms. Moylan gave herself up in Baltimore in June 1979. She eventually served about a year in the federal woman's prison in Alderson, W.Va.

"She was tired of hiding," says Ms. Bickham, who helped arrange Ms. Moylan's surrender. "Underground was very difficult for her and she just wanted to end it. She had no contact with her friends and family."

Unmarried all her life, Ms. Moylan became the godmother of Willa and Brendan's daughter, Kate Walsh-Little, who is 26 now. Mary Moylan was not a conventionally generous godmother, Ms. Walsh-Little wrote in a letter for the New York memorial. She was a godmother who showed you how to live your life.

Mary Moylan grew up in a very respectable, very Catholic Irish family in West Baltimore and in Parkville. Her father was a court reporter and her mother was a secretary at Johns Hopkins Press. vTC She went to school Mount St. Agnes and trained as a nurse at Mercy Hospital.

But she got irritated when people labeled the Catonsville Nine "Catholic pacifists." She didn't feel very Catholic and not at all pacifist.

"I'm much too Irish to be a pacifist," she said long ago. "I have no relationship with the Catholic church nor do I want one."

Her faith in the institutional church began crumbling when she went to Africa as a nurse for a Catholic group. She asked why few Africans were involved, and she was sent home. She left the church and her younger sister, Ella Moylan, also a nurse, says she never recanted.

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