March 1994 v.p. John Shiel p. 6

March 1994 v.p.  John Shiel p. 6


By Frank Cordaro

We recently heard that our comrade in the struggle, John Shiel, died on December 4th.  He died at the Haley House Catholic Worker in Boston, one day after ending a thirty day fast for the people suffering and dying in ongoing wars.

For many of us in the Catholic Worker and peace and justice communities in the U.S., John Shiel has been a staple for over twenty years.  This little toothless Irishman had an uncanny knack of showing up at the most opportune time to lend his support, spirit and body; to walk a mile, to cross a line; to climb a fence; to paint a sign; or to join in a fast in his efforts to promote peace and justice.

John’s entry into the peace movement was in 1973 through Ed Guinan and the Community for Creative Nonviolence.  From there he became involved with the Atlantic Life Community and Jonah House.  From his base in the Washington D.C. area, John traveled far and wide, using his favorite from of transportation, a thumb on the side of the road, to visit and work with peace and justice and Catholic Worker communities around the country.

I first met John at the Pentagon in August of 1977 during my first arrest as I joined others in pouring blood on the Pentagon pillars.  John seemed to come out of nowhere and he, too, was arrested.  At the police station, John led us in song.  I saw him talk a guard out of doing a routine rectum search, (something I would try to do at a later date with much less success).

Naturally, I was anxious about this, my first arrest, and the prospect of doing time in the D.C. jail.  John must have sensed my need for support and placed himself at my side every step of the way.  It was a real blessing to spend my first weekend in jail with John.

The next time we met was in August, 1978, when John showed up at our first witness at Offutt  AFB just in time to join three of us praying the rosary on an active runway.

In November, 1979, John and I connected again outside the White House.  John alerted the national media to my planned ash-spilling action during President Carter’s briefing on the Salt II Treaty.  The witness was covered by all the major news outlets.

John made another surprise appearance in Des Moines the night President Carter announced the reinstatement of draft registration.  He joined us in a late night painting job at the Carter re-election headquarters building in downtown Des Moines.  The last time John was in Des Moines, he showed up for the Gary Eklund trial in October, 1982.  He hitch-hiked in and just missed getting arrested with forty of us, who sat in at the entrance of the Federal Courthouse.  As soon as John realized he missed the arrest, he handed his traveling bags to Mike Sprong for safe-keeping, proceeded to the nearest police officer and insisted he be arrested.  The officers reluctantly complied with his wishes.  The above mentioned list is only a small fraction of the witnessing and protesting in which John was involved.

Catholic Worker and resistance communities across the country have their own John Shiel stories.

In addition to resistance, John had a special calling to speak the truth to Catholic Bishops.  A cradle Catholic, he never missed an opportunity to speak to bishops, either individually or at bishops’ gatherings.  John would chide them for what he called their “paralysis of the analysis” when it came to peace and justice issues.  John wasn’t always a peace activist.  We don’t know much about his life and family.  He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the fifties.  He was a tool maker and attended Notre Dame University, where he studied theology.  At one time he was a re-write reporter for the Washington Post.  John spent many years as a union organizer, traveling throughout the country.  A hardcore “Kennedy” Democrat, John worked on every Kennedy presidential campaign, much to the discontent of many Catholic Worker friends.  The reasons for his drop out of “normal” life are not clear.  Perhaps it had to do with his drinking.  John was an alcoholic and he never really got a handle on this sickness.  Rather, it plagued him his whole life.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to encourage John to write a book about his life, including the many witnesses with whom he was involved through the years.  He just never seemed to find any time to recount his life story.  He was too busy living it.

So, those of us who got to know him must recount his stories and keep his good spirit alive.  For John Shiel now rests in peace, having lived a full and faith-filled life, one more shining jewel in the crown of the nonviolent Christ.  Let us carry on the struggle he so colorfully embraced.



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