Jerry Berrigan celebrates 90 years of living the Gospel

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

Some would say that Jerome “Jerry” Berrigan has lived in the shadow of this two coveractivist brothers, Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan and the late Philip Berrigan. Others would say Jerry casts a shadow of his own. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday and spent some time reflecting on the past and his current life.

Jerry taught English and writing composition at Onondaga Community College for approximately 35 years, retiring in 2002. He and his wife, Carol, have lived and worked in Syracuse while two other Berrigan brothers garnered much attention for their protests and literary works. The walls of most every room in the Berrigans’ home in the Valley section of Syracuse are covered with framed book covers or playbills by Daniel and Philip. Carol and Jerry are clearly proud of the brothers’ accomplishments but all the book covers do not tell the more understated story of Jerry’s unshakable faith and dedication to issues of social justice.

Jerry celebrated his 90th birthday on Dec. 20 and then attended a party in his honor a few weeks later at St. Lucy’s Parish auditorium. More than 300 people attended. His only surviving brother, Father Daniel Berrigan, was there and so was Philip’s widow,  Elizabeth McAllister. It is Jerry’s quiet, sublime manner that commands attention these days. He knows he has lived a long, full life and today he is a more reticent presence.

Among all the book covers and playbills at the Berrigan home, there is a photo of Jerry and Carol reading a book to their first grandchild, Jennifer. They look like other grandparents — their attention focused completely on the child in their laps. The Berrigans have four children, all of them adopted within six years. Theirs was a full house and now is one filled with memories. Two of their grown children live on their street. Another son lives in Chittenango and another daughter in Arizona. She may be returning home however; the family clearly loves its roots.

Jerry and Carol share an office in the old downstairs bedroom first built years ago for their eldest son. Their solarium is filled with light and plants. Its design came to Jerry while he was serving one of his prison sentences for an act of civil disobedience. The slate floor of the solarium used to be the outdoor patio. The couple have matching chairs in the room, sitting side-by-side with reading lamps overhead. Books with worn covers are stacked nearby.

“Jerry thought since we don’t get much sun in Syracuse, we should let in as much light as possible,” Carol explained.

Jerry’s days of actively protesting are fewer these days yet he said he is happier now than he has ever been. Jerry fell in 2002 and hurt his hip and began what he called his “decrepitude.” His recovery meant much time to think while he recuperated.

“I became totally dependent on my dear wife,” Jerry said. “I instituted a new change of heart toward her which includes courtesy and politeness. I’m at pains to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ for all the countless acts she performs for me every day.”

Along with a new sense of gratitude, Jerry’s injuries provided the opportunity for much reflection and reading the Scriptures. He read someplace in the Gospels that “a wise man is a quiet man” and he decided to take that advice.

“I was the verbose, gabby type,” Jerry explained. “I decided I would take the Gospel seriously and pray constantly, so I attempt to follow through on that. I do a lot of praying during every waking hour.”

He said the practice of silent prayerfulness and of courtesy has turned his spiritual life around. “I can say my spiritual life has taken a turn for the better,” Jerry said.

Jerry begins his day with morning prayer and then reflects on Jesus’ mercy many times throughout the day. “Carol and I say a decade of the rosary at night before we turn in,” Jerry said. “I try to read some Scripture every day. My daughter gave me a book of meditations and I use that daily.”

The spiritual practices he has taken up the past few years has led to an inner peacefulness and has given Jerry new insight into a personal peace.

“I take the promise of non-violence seriously as any contributor to turning the world to a Christian way would,” Jerry said. “The lesson learned is the need to treat everyone lovingly and equally. Everyone deserves that by reason of their humanity, by reason of their being a child of God.”

Though some mellowing has occurred with time, Jerry is still known for his sense of humor and a pretty engaging stand-up routine. His writing is not as well-known as his brothers’ but for those who receive a note or card in Jerry’s still steady penmanship, his literary talents are evident.

Long-time friend Frank Woolever spoke at Jerry’s 90th birthday party saying, “Being in the shadow of two of his well published brothers, Daniel and Philip, Jerry has not always been recognized in this arena. Yet, Jerry had great talent in this regard also,” Woolever said. “And if you ever got a letter from Jerry, yes even a postcard, you would note his careful economy with words. His precision in choosing just the right word or the right turn of a phrase shows that he is a master literary craftsman in his own right.”

Jerry doesn’t seem to mind walking in the shadow of his brothers. He is grateful for their presence in his own life and speaks of all his family warmly. His mother grew up in a log cabin without electricity or running water in northern Minnesota. There were no amenities, Jerry explained, and she walked along the railroad tracks to go to the nearest church for Sunday Mass, which was 10 miles each direction.

His father was a railroad engineer and the two met in Minnesota. When Jerry’s father was laid off from his railroad job, he decided to move the family to Syracuse, his hometown. The family moved to a house off Old Liverpool Road between Syracuse and Liverpool. Jerry’s father got a job with the Syracuse Lighting Company which later became Niagara Mohawk.

The depression hit and there were many jobless, homeless men trudging up and down the road between the city and Liverpool.

“They were looking for work and a bite to eat anywhere so they would stop at our door and say, ‘Lady could you give me a bite to eat? I’m starving,’” Jerry explained. “This would happen frequently and my mother never turned anyone away.”

His father would come home and be told of the events of the day but it was Frida Berrigan who determined who would come through the door.

“It was my mother who stood up for principles — namely the poor,” Jerry said. “They are the favorites of Christ. She took it seriously when He said ‘When you did it for the least of my brothers, you did it for Me.’ She was a remarkable person.”

Once when Frida Berrigan was interviewed while Father Berrigan and Philip, a former Josephite priest, were in Danbury Prison, a reporter asked her what she thought of her two sons who had broken the law. Her response was, “It wasn’t God’s law.”

“That was the only answer possible,” Jerry said. “She was a woman of magnificent generosity and kindness and she exuded love.”

Jerry and his brothers attended St. John the Baptist School in Syracuse and then Jerry worked various jobs after high school graduation. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Jerry decided to enlist and spent three years in the army. He spent two and a half years overseas, most of the time in Italy.

There was an army chaplain who Jerry grew close to and one day the chaplain asked a few of the guys if they wanted to “meet a saint.” They obliged and a few of them made the trip up a country road in the army jeep to a church on top of a hill. They parked the car and started inside when Jerry remembered something he left in the jeep. The others went into the church and he ran back.

“When I came into the church I was alone,” Jerry remembered, “and I smelled the most delightful bouquet of flowers — lilies, carnations, every flower imaginable. The atmosphere was full of this aroma. I looked around for the source and there was nothing to account for it. It was an old, drab church in an impoverished village during war time.”

Jerry went into the sacristy and found the army chaplain, who could speak Italian, in conversation with Padre Pio. They were all introduced and the chaplain made arrangements for Jerry to come back to the church and serve Mass with Padre Pio.

“Two Sundays later I went back to the church. I knew enough Latin to make the responses and I served Mass with him,” Jerry said. “During Mass, especially at the consecration and Communion, I could see the blood seeping at his hands and feet. It was truly miraculous.”

Jerry described Padre Pio as “smiling, affable, genial, kind and loving — all you would expect of a living saint.”

Jerry participated in three invasions in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. “I saw quite a bit of action but came through it, thank God, without a scratch,” he said.

He took advantage of the GI Bill and went to Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Jerry decided he had a vocation to the priesthood and joined the Josephite order reporting to the minor seminary on the Hudson River. After seven and a half years of study, Jerry decided to leave the seminary. He returned to Syracuse and finished up his bachelor’s degree at Le Moyne College.

He met Carol at a small dinner party given by a mutual Le Moyne friend. Their courtship was brief but their marriage has lasted nearly 55 years. Carol taught at Syracuse University for many years and was an integral part of the Center on Human Policy there. She keeps busy today in her retirement. There are boards and causes to work for and the children and grandchildren to keep them company. The couple has traveled extensively but are most comfortable in their home which is filled to capacity with mementos including much art work that would be equally at home in a museum.

A dear friend, Dan McCann, was one of the organizers of Jerry’s recent birthday party. He describes Jerry as never having any expectations regarding anything.

“He has absolutely no expectations when he walks into a room,” McCann said. “He loves going to breakfast at a diner after Sunday Mass. If he could order half a poached egg on toast he would. We went out to one of the award dinners not so long ago and I told Jerry he looked great, really sharp and he said, ‘Dan, these pants were taken out of Dan’s [Berrigan] apartment at Cornell 40-something years ago.’ That’s Jerry.”

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