Catonsville Native Pens New Book on Catonsville Nine
University of Wisconsin Professor Shawn Peters talks with Patch about his new book.
Shawn Francis Peters, a native of Catonsville and professor at the University of Wisconsin, has finished a book on the history of the Catonsville Nine.
"The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era" is published by Oxford University Press. Peters talks to Patch about his fascination with the topic and how the book came about.
Patch: What do you remember about the events and trials after? Was it discussed in the community?
Peters: I was born and raised in Catonsville; I attended St. Mark School and Catonsville High School (Class of 1984). I can't claim to have any direct memories about the protest of the Catonsville Nine or their subsequent trial in federal court in Baltimore, but I certainly heard plenty about those things while I was growing up in Catonsville in the 1970s. The draft board raid often was discussed by the priests, nuns, and parishioners at St. Mark, and my parents and siblings talked about it as well. Hearing those conversations, I was struck by how people held such passionate feelings about the Nine. Some folks revered them, but others felt that they were traitors to their country and their church. As a kid, I found that interesting; I knew that the Nine must have done something provocative.
Patch: How did you become interested in the topic?
Peters: Even as a child, I was intrigued by politics. (I can remember being on a family vacation to Ocean City in 1973 and watching the Watergate hearings with my dad in our hotel room.) So the story of the Nine grabbed me as soon as I started hearing about it. Here was a major antiwar protest that had happened right in the middle of my hometown, at the Knights of Columbus hall on Frederick Road. What's more, I was a Catholic, and all of the demonstrators were members of the church, so that gave the story additional resonance for me. As an elementary school student, I was writing little reports and essays about what had happened with the town's draft files, and why.
Patch: When did you decide to write a book about it?
Peters: I guess I always knew that at some point I was going to write a book about the Catonsville Nine. It's a great story that happened in my hometown, and I'm scholar of law and religion; the fit could not be any more perfect. But I put off writing the book for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it's a little bit of a cliche for historians puff up events that occurred in their hometowns. (It is like a weird form of scholarly boosterism.) And, to be honest, it was an intimidating task: basically, I had to write a group biography of nine people centered around a single event (the seizure and destruction of the draft files at the Knights of Columbus) that probably didn't last more than half an hour. So I delayed committing myself to writing the book until after I had published my previous work with Oxford University Press (a book called When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law) in 2007. At that point, I decided that I couldn't put it off any longer.
Patch: How long did it take you to write the book?
Peters: I've been collecting material for the book since I was a kid. I have clipping files with articles dating back to the 1970s. As I moved around the country for my academic career, I kept gathering stuff -- things like archival materials, books, and recordings. By the time I started to make serious effort at drafting the book in 2008, I already was pretty well organized and comfortable with the material. All of it had been coalescing in my mind for many years.
Patch: Tell me how did you go about doing the research? How many documents did you look at? People that you talked to?
Peters: I'm a big believer in casting a wide net in research. I reviewed tens of thousands of documents that were generated by the Catonsville Nine themselves and the law authorities who were trying to monitor and convict them. Over the course of several years, I obtained files on the protesters from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the Freedom of Information Act. I also consulted a variety of archives. The main collection of documents relating to Dan and Phil Berrigan are housed at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and I spent a great deal of time reviewing those. I also interviewed a great many people, including the surviving members of the Nine and people who knew them. The resulting study is (I hope!) a very thorough and fair assessment of the protest and its meaning.
Patch: What was the most fascinating part or angle of the Catonsville Nine story that you found while researching the book?
Peters: A lot of people already know the basic outlines of the stories of Dan and Phil Berrigan, the brothers who probably were the most famous members of the Catonsville Nine. But I was fascinated to learn about the lives of their seven compatriots, activists who did some extraordinary things in their own right. I was especially interested in the lives of Brother David Darst and Mary Moylan; they weren't widely known, but I found their stories to be compelling and really quite tragic. I was particularly intrigued by the time Moylan spent as a fugitive in the 1970s.
Patch: What was your favorite part about writing the book?
Peters: My first three books were about somewhat far-off people and places -- Jehovah's Witnesses in Pennsylvania, Amish farmers in Wisconsin. It was really fun for me to write about events that had taken place in a familiar spot. (I've been on the property of the Knights of Columbus hundreds of times. We even held our 25th high school reunion there.) Also, doing the research gave me the chance to reconnect with a lot of people in town.
Patch: What was the most challenging part about writing the book?
Peters: It was difficult to organize everything coherently. There were a lot of narrative strands that had to be woven together into a seamless fabric. And it's always difficult to determine what should be left out. As a writer, you want to include every cool detail and address every important theme, but you have to remember that no one is going to have the patience to read a 2,000 page book. There's a lot of pruning, and that's always a challenge. Finally, there were over 1,200 reference notes to compose and format.
Patch: How often do you come back to Catonsville? Do you have family in the area?
Peters: I try to come back a couple of times every year. I still have a lot of friends in the area, and some family as well. My mother (Frances Peters) resides at Charlestown, and my sister, Noel Lassise, lives in Ellicott City with her husband, Craig.
Patch: What's the next project you are working on?
Peters: This is my fourth nonfiction book on religion and law. I've got some ideas for the next one, but I have quite decided what I'm going to do. (My son, who is seven, wants me to write a graphic novel, and my 11-year old daughter wants me to write a young adult book.)