Obituary: Donald McIlvane / Catholic priest and outspoken rights activist

Dec. 19, 1925 - Feb. 16, 2014


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He took part in the epic civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1964. He helped monitor South Africa's first post-apartheid elections in 1994. And he always made sure that anyone in a seat of power didn't sit too comfortably.

The Rev. Donald McIlvane, a retired Roman Catholic priest, died Sunday after more than six decades of parish ministry, chaplaincies and tireless efforts to raise hell for heaven's sake. He was 88.

Father McIlvane lived and served among the poor in Pittsburgh for many years, sharing in their experiences -- including getting mugged, which he used as an occasion to make a public call for better police protection.

Pictures of him in his clerical garb routinely adorned news articles about protests in the 1960s and 1970s on behalf of everything from civil rights to better trash pickup and bus service in poorer neighborhoods. He protested racial segregation on hospital boards, in private fraternal lodges and in his own church -- regularly prodding Pittsburgh's Catholic schools to do a better job at racial integration. As recently as 2004, at age 74, he was arrested (and later acquitted) for civil disobedience on behalf of janitors protesting job cuts.

"He was a force of nature when it came to civil rights," said Molly Rush, a co-founder of the Thomas Merton Center, a Pittsburgh-based social-activist group. She said his regular presence at protest marches emboldened her to join in.

"Whether it was South Africa or whatever the issue was that related to human rights, he was not only active but extremely effective and very forceful, to say the least," Ms. Rush said. "I'm sure he rubbed people wrong a lot of times, but he was widely respected."

Rubbed people wrong, indeed:

In 1973: "I don't accept that you are any more moral than I am," then-Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, R-Pa., told Father McIlvane and a delegation of clergy that the priest had led to Washington in protest of the Vietnam War and the nuclear-arms race.

In 1999: "Don't you ever try to play these games with me," a glowering Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board chairman told him, upset that Father McIlvane had first gone to media with protests over minority worker levels at an authority construction project.

But he was also widely respected.

"In so many ways Father McIlvane is a contemporary legend," said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik. "He certainly is a man who had a very passionate heart, especially with regard to issues around the gospel and social justice."

Even when he challenged the church's practices and traditions, "he did it in a way that was respected and respectful," Bishop Zubik said.

Father McIlvane was an unlikely candidate for radical street priest -- raised in a well-to-do family, serving at sea in World War II and ordained a priest in the traditionalist 1950s.

He was born Dec. 19, 1925, in New York City and later moved here with his family, graduating from Mt. Lebanon High School. He served in the Naval Reserve in World War II, according to his official obituary. He attended St. Vincent Seminary and was ordained in 1952 at St. Paul Cathedral by Bishop John Dearden.

Ministry among the needy helped raised Father McIlvane's social conscience, said a friend and fellow activist priest, the Rev. Jack O'Malley, as did outside events such as the civil rights movement.

"Martin Luther King had more influence on me than any leader in my life," Father McIlvane once said. After civil-rights marchers led by King came under attack in Selma, Ala., in 1965, Father McIlvane traveled there to join them. "My participation was uneventful," he later said. "But I couldn't help but be touched."

Father McIlvane also was deeply influenced by the modernizing papacy of John XXIII (1958-63) and the reformist Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Father McIlvane took part in local efforts to enact the transition from Latin to English liturgy and to increase lay involvement.

"You might say I attempt to bring the spirit of Pope John and the [Second] Vatican Council to bear in my work," Father McIlvane told the Pittsburgh Press in 1964.

Father McIlvane's explanation for mixing spiritual with practical help for inmates could have been a template for his entire ministry: "This business of saving souls is fine -- but we don't save souls in a vacuum," he said.

Among the parishes he served were St. Richard in the Hill District, Corpus Christi in East Liberty and Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Midland. He also served as chaplain to the Sisters of Divine Providence. He retired from active ministry in 1994 and was most recently a resident of the Vincentian Home in McCandless.

His name is among local civil-rights activists honored on the Freedom Corner Memorial in the Hill. The Thomas Merton Center honored Father McIlvane in 1973 with its first New People award for helping transform the city.

In addition to racial issues, he was active on behalf of women and the poor. He signed a 1990 advertisement in The New York Times calling for the ordination of both women and married people in the Roman Catholic Church.

He regularly spoke out for economic equality and grew to love the famed murals of Maxo Vanka in St. Nicholas Church in Millvale, depicting the struggles of workers. After he began assisting in Masses there in his later years, he routinely wove their images into his homilies -- seeing them as showing "the essence of what he believed Christianity is -- that we should love one another and have respect for all individuals," said longtime friend and St. Nicholas parishioner Mary Petrich.

Long an activist against apartheid, calling on American corporations to divest their holdings in South Africa until it ended its racial tyranny, Father McIlvane considered it one of his greatest honors to work as an official monitor for the elections that made Nelson Mandela the first democratically elected leader of that nation.

In his final months, said those who knew him, Father McIlvane repeatedly spoke of his delight with Pope Francis and his combatting poverty and clerical privilege.

Pope Francis was a reminder of the pontiff who gained Father McIlvane's admiration so many years ago, said a longtime friend, Sister Mary Traupman of the Sisters of Divine Providence.

"I'm sure he had a wonderful meeting with John XXIII" in heaven, she said.


Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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