Jerry Zawada, quiet, powerful presence in peace movement, dies

Franciscan Fr. Jerry Zawada at a Pacific Life Community anti-nuclear demonstration at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Lompoc, California, March 6, 2016 (Felice Cohen-Joppa)
Franciscan Fr. Jerry Zawada at a Pacific Life Community anti-nuclear demonstration at Vandenberg Air Force Base, in Lompoc, California, March 6, 2016 (Felice Cohen-Joppa)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Twenty-five years to the day that Fr. Jerry Zawada took his solemn vows as a Franciscan friar, he wasn't in a church celebrating the anniversary but instead sitting on top of a nuclear missile silo in northwest Missouri.

It was August 1988, in the midst the Missouri Peace Planting campaign against nuclear weapons. Shortly after he and another activist broke into the silo site — the priest celebrated a liturgy on the hatch — armed soldiers escorted them away and ordered they lay face-first on the ground with their arms outstretched until they were handcuffed. The experience, Zawada later recalled, triggered a sort of muscle-memory event to a quarter century earlier when in making his vows he lay prostrate before the altar.

To Zawada, it reaffirmed that this was the place he belonged, where his vocation as a priest had called him.

A quiet but persistent presence in the anti-nuclear and peace movements of the past three decades, Zawada died peacefully July 25 at the Milwaukee Catholic Home continuing care facility. He was 80 years old.

"He was a Franciscan and follower of St. Francis to the end," his longtime friend Franciscan Fr. Louie Vitale told NCR, the two frequent companions during protests against nuclear weapons, drones and wars and conflicts.

"He greatly loved Jesus and the chance to follow a nonviolent Jesus and exemplify Franciscan values of living simply and sharing resources," said Kathy Kelly, a Chicago peace activist and co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence.

Zawada's belief in nonviolence led him across the globe: Guatemala, Iraq, the West Bank, the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona and Texas, and numerous military bases and facilities across the country.

His friends and fellow activists remember Zawada as a humble servant of humanity with a droll sense of humor, a gentle man with a heart large enough for all and incapable of offense, a priest who most identified with the down and dejected. Whether Central American refugees at the U.S. border, those caught amid war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the poor and gang members of Chicago, the imprisoned and others decades-deep in the peace movement, Zawada was a friend to all.

Franciscan Fr. James Gannon, provincial minister of the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption BVM Province, in Franklin, Wisconsin, called his fellow friar "a prophet for peace and justice."

"He always would say he believed what he did was God's will. And that was his faith, that he was following God's will," Gannon said.

Zawada's convictions also led him to believe that women had a right to ordination in the Catholic Church — a belief that resulted in his removal from public ministry by the Vatican after he concelebrated a liturgy with a woman priest during a 2011 protest of the School of the Americas.

"He just didn't believe in second-class citizens … so in terms of the Catholic Church, the idea that women would ever be treated as unequal to men was unacceptable to him," Kelly said.

"Wherever he heard of a cause, he was there," Vitale said. "And wherever there was somebody in need of somebody to stand by 'em, he was there, even in prison. … He was always there for the underdogs."

A Franciscan life

Zawada was born April 28, 1937 outside Gary, Indiana, the second oldest of seven children to his Polish immigrant parents. In a 2006 interview conducted by The Nevada Test Site Oral History Project at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, he said he felt called to the priesthood from an early age, drawn to the compassion and values of Jesus, as well as the example of St. Francis of Assisi. Later in life, Blessed Archbishop Óscar Romero became another of his heroes.

In 1955, Zawada entered the Franciscan community. He made his first vows a year later, his solemn vows in August 1963 and was ordained a priest on June 13, 1964. His first assignment took him to the Philippines. In the early 1970s, he lived and worked among the poor and gang members on Chicago's North Side. The stresses of that work brought about severe clinical depression for Zawada, and he ultimately took a year-and-a-half leave of absence from the priesthood.

He returned to the Franciscans in 1983 and soon headed to San Antonio to study Spanish. While in Texas, Zawada said his life changed, as he shed his discomfort and fear in working with people of need and discovered a way to serve them. In his oral history, Zawada credited his newly inspired outlook to Maria Alicia Rivera, a Salvadoran school teacher who shared her story of torture by the military in El Salvador as she fought for the rights of the poor and fellow teachers.

"And it dawned on me almost like a light, I could not not do something," Zawada said. "I didn't have to take away anybody's pain. I just needed to walk with them and learn from them and maybe somehow, I describe it in my religious terms as seeing the face of Christ, and working along those lines just learning from them, accompanying them in their plight and then hopefully to work with others for some type of resolution and relief."

That also meant becoming more political. Initially, he helped transport people fleeing conflicts in Central America across the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Texas. He was arrested for the first time in Chicago in 1984 while protesting CIA involvement in Nicaragua. In the following decades, the Franciscan friar by his count would be arrested more than 100 times, and he served the cumulative of roughly five years in prison for his various acts of civil disobedience.

IMG_6369 ccc.jpg
Zawada joins hands with other peace activists in a demonstration action the construction of a new nuclear weapons production facility in Kansas City, Missouri, on August 16, 2010. (Allison McGillivray)

At times, Zawada's involvement in protests led to clashes with other clergy and his superiors. But he viewed his obedience as to God and the Gospel, and saw the work as following God's will.

One of his first major involvements with the peace movement came with the group Missouri Peace Planting '88, in which 14 activists visited some of the 150 nuclear missile silos in northwest Missouri, outside Kansas City, and prayed and planted corn and crosses over the sites.

"We sang. We prayed. We joined hands," Zawada recalled of the actions. "When the military did come to take possession of us, we even invited them to join us if they so felt, to pray. And it was very meaningful, the whole thing; we did a lot of good things, symbolic things."

Zawada was arrested five times throughout the effort — the fifth time on the feast of St. Francis — and was sentenced to 25 months in prison.

"Jerry was just unhesitating in saying after we would be released that he was ready to go right back. And he did that again and again, knowing that this would certainly occasion prison time," Kelly said.

The time in prison served not as punishment to Zawada but as the place of his greatest ministry.

"For him, going to prison wasn't a bad thing," his Franciscan provincial Gannon said.

In the times he was behind bars, Zawada befriended those sentenced to life, led prayer services and started Bible studies for fellow inmates, and became their advocate.

"He found that [those in prison] felt that they were not worth it, that they were bad people, and I think Jerry reassured them that they weren't, that they were good people and they were God's people," Gannon said.

Outside his prison stints, Zawada joined the likes of Kelly, Jesuit Fr. Dan Berrigan and others in protesting the Gulf War and the Iraq War. In April 2009, Zawada was among the "Creech 14" — along with Kelly, Vitale, Fr. John Dear, and Sr. Megan Rice — who held a prayer service at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada against the military's use of drones.

Throughout the years, Zawada was a regular at the annual SOA Watch protests of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. He was arrested three times at the protests, held in Columbus, Georgia, north of Fort Benning that houses the school, and served a total of 18 months in prison.

More: "SOA Watch marks 25th year of speaking out against 'School of Assassins'" (Nov. 18, 2014)

But it was an SOA Watch liturgy in November 2011 that would lead to Zawada's formal removal from priestly ministry. That year, he joined woman priest Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who was ordained in 2008 through the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, in a liturgical service for more than 300 people. He later told NCR that he also concelebrated with Sevre-Duszynska, a close friend and fellow activist, in 2010.

Following the 2011 liturgy, Zawada said that the service presented him the opportunity to "support the movement" for women's ordination, an issue he said he has given consideration to for "quite a long time," adding that the structure of the church "needs reshaping."

"Whatever consequences come for me, I'm willing to accept," he said of possible punishment for his participation.

Recent years

In March 2014, he received a letter from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that removed him from ministry and directed him to "a life of prayer and penance." As part of his removal, he was restricted from presenting himself in public as a priest or celebrating the sacraments publicly, something his provincial at the time Franciscan Fr. John Puodziunas said he hadn't done in recent years.

The letter didn't deter Zawada's support of women priests, or married priests, and he took comfort in supposed remarks from Pope Francis to a group of Latin American nuns and priests that should they find themselves under doctrinal scrutiny, "do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward."

Even as age weakened his body, his spirit to continue his vocation remained strong.

"Every single one of my dreams at night are dreams about living and sharing life with the poor, with people who are destitute, and I sense I have a strong calling for that," he told NCR in March 2014.

Zawada demonstrated in 2013 against construction of a nuclear weapons facility near Kansas City, Missouri. In the span of five days in March 2015, he was among those arrested at protests against nuclear weapons and drones in California and Nevada. In recent years, he desired to return to the border to assist immigrants.

IMG_1264 ccc.jpg
Zawada kneels in the road to pray and sing during a March 2015 protest outside a Lockheed Martin facility in Sunnyvale, California, which produced Trident nuclear missiles. (Felice Cohen-Joppa)

This February, Zawada suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes. He spent the final weeks of his life on hospice, with friends and family paying visits and making calls.

Throughout his time in the peace movement, Zawada developed a reputation for his quiet yet powerful presence. Perhaps less known than other activists to the public, within the peace movement he was "loved and regarded highly for all this," said Brian Terrell, a lifelong Catholic Worker and fellow member of the Creech 14. At one point, several Catholic Workers formed a "Jerry Zawada Fan Club," an honor he declined, uncomfortable with the attention.

"I have a hero who is everything a hero needs to be: he's kind and loving but at the same time just and humble; he takes his vocation seriously and has given his whole life to the cause of peace. His name is Jerry Zawada," Mariah Klusmire, a Catholic Worker living in Albuquerque, wrote in 2009.

"The man has given his whole self to God and his fellow brothers and sisters, and refuses to take any praise for it in return," she said, adding that he has inspired those around him "to live a more humble and loving life."

Klusmire concluded: "Even though he hasn't written hundreds of books on faith and action, and even though he may not be the head attraction at a rally or vigil, he is truly what Jesus intended when he called us to serve his people."

A Mass of Christian burial for Zawada is scheduled for Aug. 2, at 1 p.m., Central time, at St. Clare Church in Wind Lake, Wisconsin, with a visitation preceding it.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the August 11-24, 2017 print issue under the headline: Zawada, quiet force in peace movement, dies.

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters