A Worker's Life: Tom Cornell describes a vocation inspired by Dorothy Day
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.