The National Catholic Review
George M. Anderson
Tom Cornell describes a vocation inspired by Dorothy Day
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There are not many of them left, those who worked closely with Dorothy Day, the founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker Movement. Among them is Tom Cornell, still vigorous in his mid-seventies, with only a cane to suggest his advanced years. During a July visit to America House, Cornell said, half seriously, half in jest, “My two children gave me my fiftieth wedding anniversary party five years early, because they were afraid I might not make it to the actual date.”

Cornell had come down that morning from Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro, New York, a two-hour train ride south to Manhattan. He was reflecting on his life as a long-time Catholic Worker, which began during his college days at Fairfield University in Connecticut. He read Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and began to visit the Catholic Worker headquarters on weekends to minister to the many needy men and women on the Lower East Side and to probe questions of war and peace with older Catholic Workers. That ministry together with a commitment to non-violence in all its forms continues to this day, both in New York and in Worker houses around the country and abroad.

In the early 1960s, Cornell became managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper, all the while heavily involved in the peace movement. He spoke of spending 14 years with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and over 30 with the Catholic Peace Fellowship, of which he is a co-founder. He also noted in our conversation that the U.S. bishops appointed him, along with Dorothy Day, to attend the 1967 Third World Congress of the Laity in Rome. Having become a permanent deacon, at the Fourth World Congress in 2000 he served as Pope John Paul’s deacon at the Mass of Christ the King in St. Peter’s Square. In addition, Cornell said, “I was a consultant for the 1983 peace pastoral and I’ve visited 16 nations on various peacemaking missions.” Much earlier, in March 1965, he was one of Martin Luther King’s marshals on the March to Montgomery.

Cornell recalled the first time he set eyes on Dorothy Day. “I was nineteen. I took the train from Bridgeport to Manhattan to attend one of the Friday evening clarification-of-thought meetings. Once I got there all the chairs were taken, with some people sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall,” he said. “I noticed a woman up front with gray hair arranged in braids on top of her head, sitting cross-legged on the floor. ‘That’s Dorothy Day,’ the person beside me whispered.”
   
During the question and answer period, someone said that young people need a sense of security. Day, Cornell remembered, stood to challenge that assumption. “‘I don’t want to hear any more about security’, she said. “‘There are young people here tonight and they don’t need to hear about security. Peter Maurin reminded us that there are great things to be done. Who will do them but the young, and how will they do them if all they worry about is their own security? Young people have generous hearts, hearts for adventure, and they want to do great things.’ And then she strung several Bible passages together, like ‘Consider the lilies of the field,’ ‘Think not of the morrow, what to put on what to eat.’ She finished with the passage from John, ‘Unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone, but if the grain of wheat fall in into the ground and die, it will bear a great harvest.’ At that point,” Cornell said, “she had me!” Over the years, he observed, she gave valuable advice to troubled young seminarians and priests, including Thomas Merton and others, often with the advice: “Pray, and stay close to the poor.”

“After college,” Cornell said, “I shared a cold-water apartment with Bob Lax, the poet friend of Thomas Merton, in order to be near the Worker. Dorothy herself was there only about only half the time, because she was on the road a lot giving talks around the country. But we got to know each other. After a year,” he continued, “I went back to Connecticut to get high school teaching credentials in order to be able to support a family. As soon as that was done, I resigned my teaching job to come back to the Worker full time and to find a bride.” Having held down his job of managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper for two years, Cornell left to marry Monica Ribar, herself a live-in volunteer with Catholic Worker roots through her parents in Cleveland. Dorothy sometimes stayed at Ribar's parent’s home during her travels.

During the Vietnam War, Cornell and four others burned their draft cards in New York’s Union Square on November 6, 1965. Union Square, then as now, was a famous rallying place for protests and also the site where the newspaper was first sold for a penny a copy in May 1933. The draft card burnings led to a trial in a federal court. “We had ACLU lawyers, the best,” Cornell said. “We wanted a trial by the court not a jury trial, so that we could explain why we did what we did, and defend ourselves on purely Constitutional grounds to overturn the law.” The judge, Cornell said, “understood our motivation and gave us the shortest sentence he could, six months.” Of these he served five at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Monica and their two children spent that time at Tivoli, the predecessor of the present Peter Maurin Farm. It was not an easy time for any of them. On release they returned to their home in Brooklyn. Cornell said that the separation was especially difficult for the youngest of their two children, Tommy, only three at the time. “After my release from prison, if I left the house on a local errand, Tommy would hang on to my hand, because he was afraid that if I went out, I might never come back.”

Tommy and his younger sibling, Deirdre, are now long since grown up, with lives of their own: Deirdre Cornell has five children. She and her husband, Kenney Gould, live not far from Peter Maurin Farm. Both follow in their parent’s Catholic Worker footsteps. Gould, Tom Cornell said, was a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, and now works in a local health clinic near Newburgh that reaches out to mostly Hispanic immigrants working in local orchards. Deirdre Cornell, having earned a masters degree in theology at the Jesuit theologate in California, has written a book about growing up in Newburgh in a Queen Anne style house that overlooked the river, appropriately called, A Priceless View: My Spiritual Homecoming. A second book, American Madonna, explores popular Marian devotion in Mexico. Fluent in Spanish after serving for several years with her husband as Maryknoll lay missioners in Oaxaca, Mexico, Deidre Cornell now teaches a course in Spanish in the local parochial school in exchange for tuition for four. Tom Cornell noted that she and her husband also staff  “Reaping the Harvest,” a program of religious education that brings the sacraments to the migrant camps.

Tommy Cornell, who lives at Peter Maurin Farm with his parents (though in a different house) is the chief gardener of the fifty acres. More than half the acreage are designated wetlands, protected by law from development. Having spent a weekend at the farm in 2002 (see America 8/12/02), when Tom Cornell gave me a walking tour of the property, I could easily visualize those acres again as we spoke at America House, especially the nature trail. Only two acres are under actual cultivation, but they produce large quantities of fresh produce. Periodically Tommy Cornell loads up a van with fresh organic vegetables and drives them down to St. Joseph House in Manhattan, where they are used in the meal preparations for those living there and in nearby Maryhouse, the two Worker houses in Manhattan. The result is nourishing food both for the residents of the two houses and for neighborhood people, many of them elderly and debilitated by years of life on the streets.
           
Tom Cornell has played a significant role in promoting Dorothy’s beatification. She is already a “venerable.” On the hundredth anniversary of her birth in 1997, then-Archbishop John O’Connor called together a group of people who had known Dorothy well. He asked them: “Should I submit her cause to Rome?” “There were nine of us who met with him in his office at the Archdiocesan center in mid-Manhattan,” Cornell said, “and he listened to us for a whole hour as we shared stories. Then he told his secretary, ‘Cancel my next appointment,’ and he spent another hour listening us as we told more stories about her. But he wasn’t hearing what he wanted to know,” Cornell said. “Should he or should he not submit the request for beatification to Rome? He went around the room and asked each of us in turn. All said yes except for one who remained silent. Then, Cornell continued, “long-time Catholic Worker and current Commonweal managing editor, Patrick Jordan, summed up for all of us, speaking as if genuinely inspired. He ended by saying that Dorothy was ‘the genuine article.’”

In the course of our conversation at America House that morning, Tom referred to Dorothy Day as “my spiritual mother.” And so she has been a spiritual mother for many others as well, with her example continuing to lead many young people to follow her example all over the world.

George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor at America.

Comments

C JENSEN | 2/28/2011 - 6:21pm
We need the spirit of Dorothy Day and Tom Cornell more than ever today to remind us that the it is the poor who suffer directly from the failures of our society, the sins of greed and violence, both personal and institutional. The Catholic Worker movement stands in radical opposition to much that is taken for granted including huge military expenditures.   We are blessed by their inspiration and charity.
Randall De Trinis | 1/14/2011 - 6:06am
Dorothy Day has been a great influence in my life and  Thomas Merton mentioned her often. I knew him personally and you may enjoy this site about our relationship at: 

http://mertonocso.wordpress.com  

You may not approve of some of my statements in this article but you may enjoy reading some of Merton's letters which were first published in this article. 

richard benitez | 1/6/2011 - 5:08pm

Today's gospel reading is " He (Jesus) unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord". 

W?? ???????hy don't we hear such things from EWTN, Catholic TV and radio?

Örjan Ekman | 1/4/2011 - 5:56pm

Many thanks for the wonderful article about Tom Cornell and the movement of Catholic Worker. It reminds me of The third world congress of laity which I also attended with a small Swedish delegation. I met Tom during this congress and we remained in contact for some years. As a young catholic - 26 at that time - I felt the congress inspiring; we were supposed to make a reality out of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. During the discussions of the congress I felt, we do not nead security, we need to be radically close to the gospel and to the poor. The learnings of that period were so important to me and have been ever since as I have been working for a Swedish ecumenical movement with projects with Palestinian mentally retarded children, with comunidades de base in El Salvador and with immigrants in Sweden. Greetings to Tom!
Örjan Ekman, Stockholm Sweden

Paul Kelley | 1/4/2011 - 2:20pm

This article is a beautiful one. I am so impressed by the life and witness of Tom Cornell. In a way I am a contemporary but a little older, 78. Like him as young man in Catholic college (Boston College) I was inspired when I learned about Dorothy Day. I never met her but first learned of her by reading a profile about her and the Catholic Worker by Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker. From that I learned that there did exist in the US a person and group who were able to live a life of following the teachings of Jesus, that the Catholic Church could be relevant to the modern world and that one can often find more really spiritually useful reading in articles written by present or former communists in the secular press or at least in the New Yorker. However, unlike Tom I did not have the courage or grace to take the steps to follow the Worker path. I went on to become a lawyer, marry, raise a family and remain at home in the Boston area active in my local parish, particularly in some weak efforts to keep alive the ideal of social justice. Dorothy Day has remained my ideal of a modern American Catholic who might be deemed a saint although as I recall she discouraged such a view. I continue to be surprised at how many good Catholics still are unfamiliar with her life and work. Now that I know more about Tom Cornell I will add him to my small personal pantheon with Dorothy.

2428433 | 1/4/2011 - 11:41am
I have felt the call toward the Catholic Worker movement for a while.  I have been Catholic only a few years and find the movement very interesting.  While this story is about a personal experience of it, I find the explainations of what they do and how it has developed inspiring.  While I am not a young person and I agree that we must involve our young people with this type of organization the fact is we also need those of us who have tried other lifestyles and found them to be lacking to help give direction to the young and be willing to step out of our comfort zones to join in unity with the less fortunate who need not just our help, but our acceptance and understanding of their conditions in this life.  Hopefully out of that acceptance and unconditional affection they will see Christ.
JAMES SULLIVAN | 1/3/2011 - 3:33pm
I met Tom, Monica and Tommy about a year ago at the Peter Maurin Farm bringing along 12 students from Mount Saint Mary College.  What wonderful, committed Christians they are!  The class evaluations revealed that their experience listening to Tom and his radical commitment to peace and solidarity with the poor, feeling the hospitality and seeing the warm embracing smile of Monica, and walking the grounds with a tireless servant Tommy changed their outlook toward the Church and enlightened them to the power of love, service to others. Thank you Tom, Monica, and Tommy for bringing Christ to me and those students.