Everyday Activist: Father Louis Vitale

by Steve Shih on February 23, 2005

Deep in the back offices of the St. Boniface church is a cluttered office where a San Franciscan, in the true sense of the word, is working long hours to bring peace and good to the world.

Father Louis Vitale, a native of Los Angeles, came to San Francisco in 1992 to fill in, temporarily, for a fellow priest as St. Boniface’s pastor, but what was supposed to be two months eventually became 13 years and the long time social activist found himself shepherding a community that he says ten years ago was more family friendly and without any homeless.

“I’m looking into the idea of coming to an end of being pastor here and going back to working full time in the social justice movement,” Vitale said. “That’s been my avocation, is working in non-violence, the non-violence movement, and teaching non-violence.”

At 72 years old, Vitale has the stooped and gentle mannerisms of a kindly grandfather who falls asleep while talking to you, but like his surname the Franciscan monk has done his best to remain vital and active in protesting against violence and social injustice.

Besides his work as pastor, the father can often be found working with striking workers, helping to organize anti-war demonstrations, advocating for the homeless, as well as teaching classes at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, but often times his avocations can make it difficult to minister to his flock.

“On Good Friday when we have a service at noon and the church is packed, I go out to Lawrence Livermore Labs in the morning get arrested and for the last three years I’ve made it back for noon service and that is not an easy thing to do I admit,” said Vitale.

His office is filled with books concerning important issues like nuclear proliferation and social injustice, but they all have a prophetic witness, that is they appeal to what he sees as the higher law of God.

Much like Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order, Vitale came from a middle class life of privilege and didn’t find his heart for the less fortunate and God’s work until he was graduating from Loyola Marymont University and going into the Air Force.

“My family wasn’t really wealthy but I was very spoiled. When I went into the Air Force I had a Jaguar roadster but when I joined the Franciscans I couldn’t have anything like that,” said the priest.

After the end of his service, Vitale went to seminary and he found himself in the midst of an age of social activism.

“When I came out of seminary in the mid-sixties it was just that heyday of civil rights movement, Vietnam War, Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement; all of that coming full force. The Catholic Church had very few priest involved and I had a big interest in it,” he said.

By the turn of the century, the father had been arrested hundreds of times for acts of civil disobedience, but never imprisoned.

Finally in 2001 at Fort Benning, Georgia during a protest of the School of Americas, which trained many of the death squads involved in the murders of Latin American clergy such as Archbishop Romero of San Salvador, he was finally arrested and forced to serve a three-month prison term at Nellis Federal Prison Camp in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“That was a big strain on the church which is why I’m considering leaving the pastor position here,” he said.

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