Tom Lewis, 1940-2008

posted by Mike on April 5th, 2008

Tom LewisMy friend Tom Lewis died at home in Worcester yesterday, apparently in his sleep.

Sunday, May 4th, 3pm, there was a mass in memory of Tom at the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker, 93 Piedmont Street, Worcester. Photos and audio from the memorial.

Tom’s Wikipedia page.

Photos of Tom from Jonah House.

Photos of Tom and his art.

Obituaries: Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Baltimore Sun

Other remembrances: HBML, WCCA TV13, Alice’s Grand Adventures, Bruce Russell (Tom’s housemate at the time of his death)

Video: Democracy Now (Text version)

There’s a podcast with memories of Tom:

Tom Lewis: An Artist-Activist

By Scott Schaeffer-Duffy
On April 4, 2008, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Pahl Lewis died of natural causes at his home Austin Street home in Worcester, Massachusetts. His commitment to justice and peace flowed out of his love and art and began with civil rights, continued with opposition to the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the current US war in Iraq. He was arrested many times for nonviolent civil disobedience, serving more than 4 years of his life in jail for his acts of conscience, including a multi-year sentence for his part in the burning of draft files in Catonsville, Maryland in 1968.

Tom was born on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. He is survived by his daughter Nora Marie Borbely-Lewis, his mother, Pauline, his brothers Donald and John, and his sister, Paula Ann Scheye. When he was 17, his family moved to the suburbs of Baltimore where Tom won a football scholarship to Mount Saint Joseph Xaverian High School. Upon graduation, he joined the National Guard “because we never had an anti-war discussion in any Catholic school I attended. I didn’t even know what a conscientious objector was.”

In a 1997 interview in The Catholic Radical Tom said that it was during his military service that he started “a slow process of waking up to the problems of war.” He said, “We did ABDC (Atomic, Biological, and Chemical) training…. When a tactical nuclear weapon was shot, we were trained to go to ground zero immediately after the weapons exploded to clear out any surviving enemy. The theory was that the radiation hadn’t fallen to the ground yet. At worst, you might lose some hair and if it were too dangerous, the badge you were wearing would turn a particular color.”

Simultaneously, Tom was developing into a talented artist who became involved in the liturgical movement of the early 1960s. He took courses to improve his skills and found work in churches that were looking for new forms of sacred art. This work also brought Tom into contact with dynamic clergy and the works of people like Teilhard de Chardin. In his own words, Tom “had the opportunity to listen, talk to, and question people in the liturgical renewal.”

About this time, a friend named Fred Nass took Tom to a German bar saying, “I want you to meet this priest I know.” The priest was Philip Berrigan (a World War II veteran, Holy Cross College graduate, and Josephite). Of the meeting, Tom said, “I was very impressed with how human this person, Phil Berrigan, was; how he was willing to sit down and eat some pretzels, drink a beer, and talk about some important things. This was pretty different from other people in the Church I had known… I was touched by how human and knowledgeable and special he was. It was through Phil that I started to wake up to civil rights issues and nuclear issues.” Phil would also be the one to take Tom to New York City to visit the Catholic Worker house on Christie Street where they met Dorothy Day.

But Tom also stresses that his art itself drew him to activism. He described this dramatic examples of how that happened: ” I heard about a demonstration at Gwynn Oak Amusement park in Baltimore (where Black people were barred), so I went there to do some sketches. I was hoping to get some in the Catholic press because they had been using some of my artwork…. I thought they might want some civil rights drawings. I was there sketching with the group all around the demonstrators and as the demonstrators were hauled to the police van, the people I was standing with got uglier and uglier, yelling at the demonstrators, throwing little rocks and firecrackers. I had this awful feeling that even though I was sketching, I wasn’t really separate from them. Even though I was there as an artist, a reporter, I really wasn’t separate from the crowd and what they were doing. I was frightened by that, and stepped back, looked over the at the legal support demonstration. It was very clear that anyone who sat down or got near the people at the entrance would be dragged away and arrested. So I went over to carry a sign in the legal demonstration. I think it said, ‘Jim Crow Stops Here.’ This was quite frightening to do for the first time. I think I was in a cold sweat the entire time.”

Following this demonstration, in 1964, Tom joined the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) where he met “a wonderful Black organizer” named Walter Carter who “had the patience to move people along slowly.” With Carter’s help, Tom started joining marches and was eventually arrested in a protest for housing integration. Tom and five others, three of whom were black, attended a public open house at a Baltimore apartment complex. When told by the manager that rentals were only open to whites, Tom and his comrades sat down and refused to leave. Six hours later, after many management threats, including one to fumigate the apartment, they were arrested.

It was only natural that Tom would become involved in opposition to the Vietnam War with friends like Phil Berrigan, but added to those relationships was the fact that his own younger brother was sent to Vietnam. By 1968, Tom would be a central character in two draft board protests, The Baltimore Four and The Catonsville Nine, which would capture the imagination of the entire country. He would eventually serve three years in jail without being deterred from his commitment to peace.

Mike Benedetti, Bruce Russell, and Michael True interview Tom in 2008 about his art and the 40th anniversary of the Catonsville Nine

Since moving to Worcester in the late 1970s, Tom has been a leader in the peace movement. He organized a long and successful campaign to end work on the MX nuclear missile at GTE in Westboro. He vigiled at the plant faithfully for years and was arrested there 4 different times. In 1989, after civil disobedience at the GTE plant, he and his 4 codefendants were acquitted by a Worcester jury of six who agreed with Bishop Bernard J. Flanagan who said, “There are times and situations where civil disobedience is not only justifiable, but may actually be a duty.” The MX contract was withdrawn and the plant converted to civilian use.

Tom was also a participant in two demonstrations which involved symbolic damage to nuclear weapons and a nuclear weapons carrying destroyer. These protests called “Plowshares actions” after the Prophet Isaiah’s call that swords should be beaten into plowshares, often resulted in long jail sentences. Tom was unafraid of those consequences and continued to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience until his death.

Remarkably, Tom continued an active career as an artist even during his jail terms. He was never seen without his sketch pad. He made countless sketches of inmates and jail scenes, as well as woodcuts, paintings, etchings, and murals. He illustrated a number of scripturally-based books about resistance to war. In the foreword to Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.’s book The Nightmare of God, the author describes Tom’s art as “…a poignant and powerful witness to the survival of the endangered conscience…. He heals the ancient split between ethics and imagination.” And although Tom could well have made a comfortable living teaching art classes full time, he chose to live among the poor in a such a way that he was always free to go to jail for nonviolent civil disobedience. Tom said that prison keeps “our minds sane and our direction clear… The nuclear age is calculated to dull our senses with false security and an illusion of hope, a hope which in fact is death. I believe that to stay alive, one must risk or enter jail for non-violent resistance to the Nuclear Beast. Otherwise we are dead before the very first strike is made.”

Tom also challenged other injustices besides racism and war. In 2005, Tom was arrested with 6 others at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC to call for an end to genocide in Darfur. He was also arrested years earlier protests nuclear power at Seabrook New Hampshire and, last January, protesting against torture and calling for the closure of the US prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. After that, Tom traveled with a collective of international artists to protest the construction of the Israeli wall inside the occupied West Bank. With his typical artistic calm, he taught Palestinian children his technique of non-toxic etching and printing in Ramallah.

On top of all this, Tom’s home, christened Emma House after a deceased African American women who once lived there, has been home to many other activists, friends, and even the homeless. Tom also helped out at the Mustard Seed Catholic Worker across the street.

Despite his focus on serious issues, Tom was also known for a fine sense of humor. Just after his codefendant Father Phil Berrigan was sentences to six years in jail for his part in the Baltimore Four, the judge asked Tom if he had anything to say before sentencing. Tom said, “No, your honor.” The judge pressed him, “These are serious charges, Mr. Lewis. Don’t you have anything to say?” Tom said, “No, I’ve said all I want to in my testimony.” But, when the judge persisted, “You could be sent to jail for years Mr. Lewis, are you absolutely sure there’s nothing you want to add?” Tom began to suspect that the judge wanted to scapegoat Phil as the priest mastermind of the protest and hoped Tom would make a last minute appeal for mercy, so Tom said, “Since you press me your honor, there is one quote which is important to me.” The judge leaned forward and said, “Yes, yes.” Tom straightened up and said soberly, “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead. That’s from Laurel and Hardy, your honor.” The furious judge gave Tom six years too.

When asked in 1997 what sustained him through all these years, Tom said simply, “My faith and my art.” He also credited his father’s deep love for the Bible. Long-time peace activist Elizabeth McAlister said that when she met Tom in 1967 she knew that he was “thoughtful, committed, and real.” She said “Tom is moved by conscience and friendships.” His brother Don said today, “Tom did everything possible to share his love with us, his family, but he belonged to a much wider family community.” His Catholic Worker friend, Claire Schaeffer-Duffy said, “Tom epitomized fidelity. As a young man he saw the truth of the evil of war and stayed with that truth all his life, even when it cost him to practice it.” Her husband Scott said, “Tom was a saint, plain and simple. He’s finally able to practice his art with all the masters in a place where there is no violence, war, or injustice. His joy is well-earned. He will be enormously missed.”

Tom was in an Alexandria, Virginia court on Good Friday this year for his part in protests at the Pentagon. His case was dismissed and he was set free. His spirit was set free yesterday.


Tom’s middle name, “Pahl,” is his mother Pauline’s family name.

The bar where Tom met Phil Berrigan was the Deutches House, a German gasthoust, in Baltimore, no longer existing.

Tom’s funeral

Tom Lewis’s funeral was April 11, 2008, at the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley, Maryland.

From Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy’s funeral mass homily:

Indeed, I’d say probably the most prophetic symbolic action of my whole lifetime–Catonsville.

…They not only questioned [the Vietnam War], they condemned it. They not only condemned it, they condemned it with a piece of performance art as powerful as the cleansing of the temple.

…Tom followed his Lord. He believed in Him in faith, solid faith, and followed Him as great cost to himself. Because mercilessness is normalized.

…Mercy is not simply mentality. Mercy is living in God, who is mercy. And that’s what Tom did at Catonsville.

…It’s not hyperbole, it’s not politics, it’s not hagiography when I say Tom Lewis was a hero of mercy who was as faithful . . . to the struggle to live the task, to live the mission that God assigned him from all eternity.

Above: a clip from Nora Lewis-Borbely’s eulogy. Also, Paul Gingris took much better pix, which we hope to link to.

Tom’s remains, at the funeral mass

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24 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On April 6, 2008 at 10:33 michael bottis said:

    Tom. A wonderful inspiration of a man.

  2. On April 6, 2008 at 12:19 Mauro said:

    Sincere and deepest sympathy and prayers. +
    He was inspirational model to many. We will all miss this peacemaker.

  3. On April 6, 2008 at 15:07 Cha-Cha said:

    I was really sad to hear this.

    Tom was great and inspirational to many activists in Worcester. Personally, I can say that he once sold a painting so that I could pay court costs after a protest, for which I was really grateful and which is pretty cool coming from a guy who got jailed so many times for what he believed in.

    He’ll be much missed.

  4. On April 7, 2008 at 00:52 suzanne rowe said:

    Very sorry to hear about his death. I haven’t seen him since he was a young man and was going into prison the next day. He was a young art student of my father, Tom Rowe, back in the 60’s in Catonsville, MD. Dad used to talk about him all the time and thought very highly of him. He was a very sweet man. Sue Rowe

  5. On April 7, 2008 at 09:38 Paul J. McNeil said:

    Tom Lewis was a man of small stature and giant Christian faith. He will be sorely missed. Adieu, Tom.

  6. On April 7, 2008 at 11:12 Jane Rowe said:

    Yes, I too remember Tom Lewis with great fondness. My dad, artist Tom Rowe loved Fig Newtons and Tom Lewis, when he came to visit always had them in hand–and at least once, a full case. After moving to Southern Maryland, Tom visited us a few times. He was always filled with passion for his art work and his activism and it was lovely that, despite his busy schedule, he never forgot his old art teacher Tom Rowe. Jane Rowe

  7. On April 7, 2008 at 12:02 Rudi Cilibrasi said:

    I was very glad to be able to meet Tom. I enjoyed seeing him on your video and appreciate his noble and enduring contribution to pacifist history.

  8. On April 7, 2008 at 17:18 Sue Malone said:

    I was honored to be part of one of Tom’s actions in 1983 and to see him at frequent demonstrations in the Worcester area. It will not be the same without him. His presence will be with all who continue his work for peace.

  9. On April 8, 2008 at 14:32 Adam Villani said:

    He lived in peace and died in peace; may he rest in peace.

  10. On April 8, 2008 at 14:45 Adam Villani said:

    I should also note that the amusement park in Baltimore was spelled Gwynn Oak Park. It closed in 1972. Here’s a reference:

  11. On April 8, 2008 at 14:51 Mike said:

    @Adam: Correction made. Thanks!

  12. On April 8, 2008 at 17:57 Sharon Smith Viles said:

    Tom was dear person, and artist of great passion! I first met him in the early 80’s when an old cohort of his John Brennan came to Worcester to work in the mental health field and I was involved in developing community mental health opportunities. I discovered that we had been in several places at the same time in the sixties, mostly protesting the Viet Nam War. Much later when I retired early and began to develop my own art, I ran into him again and over the past several years have grown to appreciate his art, his passion for just and his deep faith. I and many other artist types will miss his quirky smile and his uncanny ability to urge exploration of new media, and his knowledge of print making.

    Unfortunately I will not be back in Worcester in time on May 4th for a 2 PM Memorial service, I am really disappointed about that.

    Tome will be missed by all of us who have experienced his sweet presence.

  13. On April 8, 2008 at 18:25 Sharon Smith Viles said:

    I noticed a typo in my comment. I meant to type justice in the seventh line. A reminder that perfection is always elusive!

  14. On April 9, 2008 at 18:52 Lewis Randa said:


    Your kind of leadership in the peace movement was so gently low key, yet so needed; valuable and precise in its rooted-style and statement; so creative, yet available to even those who were programmed to miss the point; so wonderfully clear in its intent and passion and love and commitment to artistic and personal service.

    Getting arrested with you, Tom, as part of PeaceChain 18, was an honor and special memory to me and all PC 18 participants.

    If I’m finger printed when I die, I will always remember being finger printed with you following our arrest at the Natick Biological and Chemical Command Center at the Army Base in Natick, Massachusetts the day after the war on Irag began.

    When I arrive to my final destination after taking my last breath, I’ll try to assume the good nature, style and spirit that I witnessed from you here on earth when your fingers rolled across the cool ink-covered glass while being booked for disturbing the peace. Imagine calling what we did, that!

    See you on the other side my friend, to continue the work peace.


  15. On April 14, 2008 at 07:15 Emma Katrina Katzberg said:

    I remember Tom’s artwork the most. Whenever our paths would cross, that would be the first conversation.
    His imagery was absolute. No room for misunderstandings.
    Thank you for the inspiration.
    All my love, respect and appreciation,

  16. On April 15, 2008 at 17:53 Andy V said:

    I had the pleasure of meeting with and working with Tom at Printmaking classes at Worcester Art Museum. Having a ‘military history’ interest, one could imagine the interesting conversations we would have. Never a heated argument, no mud or stone-flinging, but shared opinions and different viewpoints. Although we never did have in-depth talk on such matters, we were too busy immersed in art and printmaking. He was always helpful with suggestions, encouragement. Kind, patient, friendly…I did find it quite a shock to learn of his peace protests, he even handed out a printout of a story on the Catonsville Nine in one class, and on two seperate occasions, would have to miss a class or two, to appear for court hearings. I never thought I’d meet such a ‘busy’ person for an Art teacher.

    I’m sad to hear of his passing, I had been unable to attend classes for the last couple of years, and was looking forward to take them again soon, perhaps with Tom.

    Tom – with respect, appreciation, you shall me missed. Non Omnis Moriar. Perhaps our paths will cross again in the ‘next life’, whichever or whatever that may be.

  17. On April 19, 2008 at 08:15 Maxine McDonald said:

    I shall miss Tom very much. He both inspired me with his art and his life. He was one of the very few people i know who didn’t just complain about the injustices in life but actually stood up for his beliefs and did something about it! He was a real christian, not a Sunday-go-to-mass christian but one who really lived the life even though it often cost him dearly. I knew Tom as a fellow instructor at the Worcester Art museum. He also taught me non-toxic photo-etching and many other printmaking techniques which I have gone on to share with my own students in public high school art classes. I took several classes with Tom and was hoping to take more! I will certainly be at the memorial. Tom, your life was too brief but your amazing art will live forever!

  18. On April 21, 2008 at 08:57 Patrick Hogan said:

    It is said there is no such thing as a Christian tragedy.As true as that is, we as human beings are deeply lessened by the loss of this great saint.Tom Lewis was everything that is a saint, and in times of great darkness, he shined light for the rest of us who simply could not, or would not see.I am deeply honored by his life and witness, and feel great sorrow for his wife and children, friends and community.Pray for us,Tom, cowards and fools that we are.

  19. On April 21, 2008 at 16:18 Becky Bishop said:

    At times like this the distance between Montana and Massachusetts becomes unbearable. I wish Rich and I could be with all of our friends there to talk, laugh and cry with our wonderful memories of our friend Tom. I remember singing with him at street masses and talking art and music together. His gentle presence was always so encouraging.
    I had hoped he would come to Montana sometime and had looked forward to seeing him this summer. Well – we will be there with you all soon and then we will again feel his presence among us.

  20. On April 23, 2008 at 06:59 Gary said:

    A dignified tribute to a dignified peace campaigner. Jesu dona nobis pacem. R.I.P.

  21. On March 20, 2009 at 15:13 Paul Clark said:

    In honor of Tom–and in the face of war and economic crisis–the Phil Berrigan Institute for Nonviolence is organizing a BAIL OUT THE PEOPLE–NOT THE BANKS, BAIL OUT THE PEOPLE–NO MORE WAR! demonstration on April 5th in Reading, PA. I really miss him. But, he’d want us to resist.

  22. On May 8, 2010 at 05:48 david eberhardt said:

    a moving tribute to my ole friend- please visit my web site by googling david eberhardt poetry and prose and in the chapter entitled “Farewell to Phil” find my description of Tom’s funeral and the prose poem i composed in his honor

    best to all

    dave eberhardt, baltimoore 4 (co-consiprator w Tom)

  23. On May 21, 2012 at 13:18 david valentine said:

    Good day,

    I never had the honor of meeting Mr. Lewis but my family has been personal friends of the Berrigans for many years. I received and artists proof of one of Mr. Lewis’ work that was given to me by the Berrigans, in honor of a religious event. I received this in 1970 but I am not sure when the work was created.If there is interest, I would be happy to submit photos ( I have the artwork in a museum frame )and possibly consider putting it out for loan, if there is interest in this as well. Thank- you.

  24. On May 3, 2016 at 17:31 Joseph Girard said:

    a quiet and gentle man…never guess what a trouble maker he was in the cause of peace, obstinate and unrelenting
    …’for they shall be called children of God ‘ no greater lineage for sure.

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