Community

In Berkeley, a church congregation is dismayed

Demonstrators outside St Joseph The Worker Church on June 19 expressed disappointment rather than anger. Photos: Tracey Taylor

A congregation that has run out of patience on Sunday demonstrated passively outside its own church while three morning masses were being held inside. The protest, about 150-strong, was directed at Father John Direen, leader of St Joseph The Worker Church at 1640 Addison Street, and it represented the culmination of many months of frustration and disappointment at actions taken by Direen, who has been in the post for two years.

The protests were timed to coincide with a visit from the Bishop of Oakland, the Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, who met with Father Direen and a select number of parishioners on Saturday.

“We are asking the Bishop to change the priest,” said Mario Ibarra, who has worked at the church for many years, including with Father Direen, and says the protest has been a long time coming. “This is an explosion of emotions because everyone is tired of him,” he said, speaking of Direen.

Ibarra said actions by Direen that have upset the community include dissolving several key committees, and closing the church doors to groups such as the Virgin of Guadalupe Committee and the Consejo Latino, as well as firing several members of the church staff.


“Since Father Direen’s arrival there have been many changes including dismissing many if not all of the Latino ministries and organizers in the church,” said Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, one of the organizers of the protest and the weekly Tuesday meetings that preceded it.

Direen’s recent dismissal of Rev. George Crespin, who is retired but was still working at the church, was seen as particularly egregious, as he was very popular among parishioners.

“That was when this tipped over. Father George did not appear to be part of Father Direen’s new direction but he is not communicating what direction that is to his congregation,” said Leyva-Cutler.

Jose Raiz from Hayward has been attending mass at St Joseph’s for 35 years and he joined in on Sunday afternoon as the parishioners, many of them wearing white t-shirts with the image of the Virgin Mary, sang a soulful song. The chorus was “Listen to your people Signor”. [Watch video of the singing.]

Protestors included the old and young, and spanned different ethnicities

Raiz said he wasn’t sure whether he would continue to come to the church if it continued to be the focus of such unrest. He said donations from parishioners had plummeted. “Father Direen has a new sign-up system for donations. Before we would organize dinners and festivals to raise funds.”


St Joseph The Worker was founded by Irish immigrant nuns in 1876 and has a legacy of harboring immigrants, in particular Latinos, and fighting for social justice. It provided sanctuary for farm worker advocate César Chávez in the 1970s when he was facing death threats and sheltering from the police. In 2001, the parish co-founded Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) and three years ago co-founded Berkeley’s 2020 Vision education program.

Ralph Nagel, a candidate for Diaconate at the church, watched with tears in his eyes as the protesters sang. “It’s a sad day,” he said. He described the congregation as diverse, with approximately 50% Latinos, and the rest made up of Anglos, African Americans, many from Louisiana, and a small but significant group from Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Several organizers pointed to the fact that two previous churches where Father Direen served have been closed down and said this contributed to their fears for the future of the historical church.

Ibarra said they are asking for new leadership because of Father Direen’s “non-communication, non-direction and conservatism”. He said the demand for dialogue has been ongoing since at least last August, and he has copies of 262 letters that have been sent to Direen and Bishop Cordileone requesting an audience with the parishioners.

Leyva-Cutler said that after Sunday masses, Father Direen does not stay to talk to the congregation, instead locking the church door and leaving.


On Sunday, after the final 11:00am mass, the protesters remained outside the front of the church talking, holding placards, singing and partaking of snacks provided by parishioners. A member of the congregation announced that Father Dineen had refused entry to the protesters into the church, unless they were attending mass. The group opted to go back into the church, ostensibly to attend a non-scheduled mass. This did not materialize, and, at around 12:45pm, two police officers came into the church and spoke with Direen near the altar. Eventually the congregation dispersed and people began to make their way home.

An email and voicemail left for Father Direen had not been returned at the time of going to press. We will update the story if we hear from him or more news develops.