Who ever thinks of Uruguay? One of the smallest countries in Latin America, it receives scant attention in the media. Much about Uruguay, however, is noteworthy. Uruguayan Bishop Luis del Castillo, right, visited America House and pointed out, for example, that his homeland has a 97 percent literacy rate. “We had universal free education as early as 1880,” he said, “and the school system extends even to remote rural areas.” He added that the state university is also free. “You can get a degree in law, engineering, medicine and even a veterinarian degree.” On the down side, however, he noted that the quality of public education has been deteriorating over the past few decades on both the high school and the university level.
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.