Donald Mcilvane Dec. 19, 1925 - Feb. 16, 2014 Catholic Priest and Outspoken Rights Activist

By Smith, Peter | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 18, 2014 | Go to article overview

Donald Mcilvane Dec. 19, 1925 - Feb. 16, 2014 Catholic Priest and Outspoken Rights Activist


Smith, Peter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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. …

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