Resurrecting a cemetery, demonstrating for peace

Inspiration: From a house built near Philip Berrigan's burial site, members of Jonah House work to restore a historic West Baltimore graveyard and bring about the collapse of the `U.S. empire.'

June 14, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Philip Berrigan's grave sits inside an overgrown West Baltimore cemetery, giving inspiration to members of Jonah House who continue to protest war, violence and U.S. military spending from a house they built there.

Eight years ago, Jonah House's war resisters, led by Berrigan and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, became the official caretakers of St. Peter's graveyard, the final resting place of former parishioners of St. Peter the Apostle Roman Catholic Church, at Hollins and Poppleton streets. Working long hours, they whacked weeds and vines, restoring parts of the 22-acre cemetery to its one-time glory.

That work continues.

"She is re-sanctifying the grounds," Vincent Quayle, an officer of the cemetery's restoration fund, said of McAlister's efforts. "They are doing a wonderful job."

Despite their new tools of trade -- lawn mowers, wheel barrows and axes -- Jonah House members see defeating American empire-building as their main goal.

"We pray every morning for the swift, nonviolent collapse of the U.S. empire," said Susan Crane, 60, who taught high school in California before becoming a full-time anti-war activist.

McAlister, Berrigan's 64-year-old widow, nodded in agreement.

"It's time for the empire to collapse," she said. "Historically that has always happened. You get to the level of arrogance and hubris that indicate a lack of sustainability. The arrogance is overreaching for this country."

These are a far cry from the days in 1973, when millions of Americans mobilized against the Vietnam War and when McAlister and Berrigan -- she a former nun, he a Josephite priest -- were secretly married and started a war resister community in Baltimore. That commune, Jonah House, still survives. But four years ago, it moved from a Reservoir Hill rowhouse to the grounds of St. Peter's Cemetery, where members built a modern house next to the caretaker's stone cottage.

Those buried at St. Peter's were mostly Irish and from families connected with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad either as clerks or track maintenance workers known as "gandydancers."

There is also a "Strangers' Row," a sandy perimeter along the cemetery's border, where an unknown number of blacks were buried. If any markers ever existed, they have long since disappeared.

The cemetery's "only paying customer," according to McAlister, is Leonce Rabillon, a French-born sculptor of the rich and famous. He died in 1886. But for all these years, a payment has been made with clockwork regularity for the perpetual care of his grave.

St. Peter's Cemetery surely holds a top rank among Baltimore's best-kept secrets. At 22 acres, it is huge. But it is almost impossible to find off Moreland Avenue, west of Bentalou Street, where a tire-shredding plant hides it from the outside world with mountains of rubber and rows of trailers. Other neighbors -- a National Guard armory and several low-income housing complexes -- insulate it further.

One-third of the cemetery has been cleared by Jonah House members and volunteers. The rest has turned into a junglelike forest of ancient tulip poplars, invasive climbing vines and impenetrable brush. It takes time to realize that this area, too, is dotted with hundreds of grave stones, nearly invisible amid the ground-cover of vegetation.

Two decades ago, the entire cemetery was in danger reverting to wilderness. At that point, a restoration fund was created. Eight years ago, it hired the Jonah House group as caretakers. The arrangement was approved by the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, said a spokesman, Sean Caine.

Although no one had been interred at St. Peter's for many decades, the archbishop approved Berrigan's burial there, when he died in December 2002, Caine said. A Celtic cross marks his grave. "Love one another," urges the inscription.

In the 1960s, Berrigan, a World War II veteran, emerged as a nationwide figure in the Vietnam-era anti-war movement. He led the Catonsville Nine, who doused homemade napalm on a small bonfire of draft records in the Catonsville draft board's parking lot. After the Vietnam War ended and many activists sought new causes, Berrigan, with McAlister on his side, continued their protests, serving long sentences in prison for their actions.

Three Jonah House members are serving time in federal prisons. Carol Gilbert and Ardeth Platte, both Dominican nuns, were convicted of vandalizing a nuclear missile silo in Colorado. Gary Ashbeck was sent to prison for trespassing at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

Jonah House is part of a nationwide movement of anti-war groups.

Sarah Rose Clune, 19, its most recent recruit, described herself as one of the "young people who are curious, thoughtful, wondering what to do with their lives." Raised by parents who belonged to the Catholic Worker movement, an old social-activism group, she joined Jonah House because she felt "it has values of my own."

She has studied organic gardening in Europe and can demonstrate her skills in the Jonah House garden, where peanuts, sweet potatoes and kiwis grow. In return, she learns from such movement veterans as McAlister and Crane that the struggle is long.

"I go back to Kennedy and LBJ and Nixon and Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the previous Bush and this Bush; it's a long history," McAlister said. "But we have to fight this insatiable hole in the ground that is the Pentagon."

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