By Jack Hoffman
On the early afternoon of Easter – Monday, April 25 of this year – Father Bernie Gilgun died quietly in the company of his family and friends at the University of Massachusetts hospital, here in Worcester. To those of us who knew Bernie, as he was so affectionately addressed by many of us, he was a legend in his time. His battles in the 1960s for civil rights, the anti-war movement and within the hierarchy of his own church will never earn him a statue at Newton Square. Or a light shining on a bust of him in one of the local churches. Bernie used to say the battles he fought were what freedom and democracy were about. And most important, they were some of the basic tenets of the religion he took and oath to obey and practice.
I once sat down with him to do an interview for my book — Run Run Run The lives of Abbie Hoffman. I must have run out of tape at least three times. You see, if Bernie was in the mood, he could win the prize for being loquacious. And when he got going, you could hear the walls of Jericho beginning to crack.
One of the first questions I asked was about a story my brother told me. Now Abbie Hoffman was no slouch for telling some bubba misters -especially with his kid brother. It was a Sunday morning when Father Bernie was giving a sermon on marrying for love – not religion – at the Blessed Sacrament Church on Pleasant Street – so the story goes. I think he already knew about our disdain for that particular church and many of its bullies who always tried to find a good opening for a fight or to blame us for killing Jesus. Although the latter was propaganda spread throughout the years by Mel Gibson (Sorry! Mel wasn’t born yet!) Finally, we were taken off the hook in the late 1960s by Pope John. Amen.
Back to my Bernie story: It didn’t take long for the church elders and Worcester’s Bishop Wright to hear about this one particular Bernie sermon. Bernie soon found himself transferred to a parish in Leicester.
The powers that be were already upset at Bernie for his extra curricular activities e.g. demonstrating with a group of 50 of us against the Vietnam War. I can still see Bernie leading the march holding palm leaves; leading us in prayer and singing “We Shall Overcome” as we began to get pelted with eggs from the Holy Cross students in front of City Hall.
Back to the interview. I asked Bernie about that sermon. With that usual arm gesture Italians and Jews use when they want you to forget about what the conversation is about – swinging your left arm out from your chest – You don’t have to say it. You just end that conversation now.
The first encounter with Bernie before the demonstration was at the old Phoenix house on Worcester’s lower Main Street where luminaries of the Worcester area would come and speak on the problems of the day. Money raised would go to Prospect House and payment for educational toys for the kids of Prospect House. There was Father Bernie preaching on something I can’t remember, but he had you mesmerized. All of a sudden, Abbie, no stranger to controversy even in those days, yelled out: “You are full of shit.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship – a friendship between two of Worcester’s infamous rebels that lasted nearly 40 years.
Abbie and Bernie went on bus trips to the South registering blacks just a few miles down the road where Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed. Before they would leave, Bernie would show up at the backdoor of the old Worcester Medical – “Got some med supplies? Make sure your father doesn’t see what you are giving us.” (my dad owned Worcester medical – a pharmaceutical supply store). It was just a few weeks before at the old Moore’s club where a group from the Phoenix held a dance to raise some money. Abbie introduced Bernie to my dad and Bernie said “Oh! You’re Abb’s father”?
With a grumpy old dad’s tone my father said, “He isn’t Abbs or Abbie. His name is Abbott.” It was the first and only time I heard someone call my brother Abbott. That’s if you don’t count the F.B.I. – and Mr. Fenner, the principal, at Worcester’s old Classical High.
At the memorial to Abbie at the Temple two weeks after his death, I asked Bernie to give one of those famous eulogies. And did he ever. He said, “Abbie was on the side of the angels.” The crowd roared.
I asked Bernie for a good passage for the end of my book. He countered with what a radio caller once said to Abbie: “Wait until Jesus gets his hand on you.” I won’t repeat the rest of the caller’s comments.
Rest in Peace, Bernie