Friends, fellow activists gather at memorial service for Tacoma priest Bill Bichsel

Nearly 1,000 people turned out Saturday for a memorial service for the Rev. Bill Bichsel, the radical Tacoma priest who spent much of his life demonstrating for peace and the rights of vulnerable people.

Bichsel, a Jesuit known widely by his nickname,“Bix,” died Feb. 28 at age 86.

Friends, supporters and fellow political activists filled Tacoma’s St. Leo Church to capacity for the service. Latecomers spilled over into a large tent set up in the church parking lot for the occasion.

Eulogies and stories painted a picture of a man remarkable for his fierce adherence to New Testament principles and decades of protest against “the establishment.”

“When you take the road that the Spirit demands of you, you will find aching and weariness within your bones,” the Rev. Pat Twohy, a fellow Jesuit, said during the memorial ceremony. “Father William Bichsel took such a road.”

“Bix imagined and lived an impossible road, and he asked us to walk it with him,” Twohy added. “He lived the life of Jesus in his body, his blood, his sinews and bones.

“His love for everybody burned him up,” Twohy said. “There was nothing left for him to give, and the Father came for him.”

By his own count, Bichsel was arrested 46 times for his political activism, most often for trespassing during protests.

He chained himself to the doors of the federal courthouse in Tacoma after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He repeatedly protested at the Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia, alleging that it trained Latin American soldiers involved in human rights abuses.

In 2011, Bichsel and four other war protesters used bolt cutters to cut through three chain-link fences on the Bangor Navy base in Kitsap County to enter an area where nuclear warheads were stored. A federal judge called his actions “a form of anarchy” and sentenced him to three months in prison.

At his memorial service, political activism played a prominent role, even in prayers. A series of prayers advocated ending the death penalty, better care for the mentally ill, an end to war, and parity for women in the Catholic Church.

Along with programs at the door, attendees were handed a pamphlet urging people to “Carry the “Bix” torch forward: Oppose nuclear proliferation in Washington state.”

Dotti Krist-Sterbick, a pastoral assistant at St. Leo Church and an associate of Bichsel’s, fondly recalled him as “the one who was always there ... but maybe a little late.”

She remembered Bichsel as “an ally who would not back down,” citing political struggles that over the years included marching for civil rights in the South, protesting the Vietnam War, and advocating for the mentally ill and homeless.

Bichsel most passionately protested against the atomic bomb, she said, which he regarded as the ultimate symbol of the military industrial complex.

“He knew it is the vulnerable who pay the price,” Krist-Sterbick said.

After the memorial service, several hundred people walked in light rain behind a hearse carrying Bichsel’s pine casket to the street in front of the Tacoma Catholic Worker, the homeless-assistance community he helped start in 1989.

Walkers were accompanied by musicians with guitar, banjo and Japanese drums.

In the lead was a giant fabric replica of a flying dove with a 20-foot wingspan, carrying an olive branch in its beak.