Tom Cornell, who was introduced to the Catholic labor movement in 1953, is shown at the Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro, New York, in June 2019. Cornell died August 1 at age 88. (Courtesy of Robert Ellsberg)
Tom Cornell, whose actions and writings for more than six decades placed Christian nonviolence and resistance to war at the forefront of Catholic life, died peacefully August 1, his two adult children at his bedside and his wife, Monica, nearby, at the Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro, New York. He was 88 years old.
Like Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic labor movement, Cornell enjoyed a blend of traditional Catholicism and radical activism and dated her involvement in the movement to 1953. It was then, as an unstable student, that he came across the then newly published. book, The long loneliness, Autobiography of Day. He quickly fell in love with Day and his mission.
Cornell attended a Friday night discernment at the New York Catholic Workers’ House and heard Day speak. “She got me,” Cornell would tell friends, said longtime friend Michael Baxter, a theologian who teaches Catholic studies at Regis University in Denver.
It would be the start of a seven-decade-long Catholic worker association and the beginning of a decades-long friendship with Day, the spiritual mentor. Cornell eventually became editor of the movement’s penny-year-old newspaper, The Catholic Worker, from 1962 to 1964, and was just beginning to dip her feet into peace activism.
“He embraced the logic of evangelical nonviolence at a time when it was considered near heretical.”
Cornell staged what some believe to be the first public demonstration against US involvement in Vietnam in July 1963. It was a demonstration outside the apartment of Vietnam’s UN observer. At first, only two people marched: Cornell and his compatriot Christopher Kearns. They marched up and down the sidewalk, holding a sign that read, “Catholic Worker Protests American Support for Diem’s Tyranny. Cornell called many peace organizations in New York and invited people to join them on the final day of the protest. After nine days, 250 people showed up.
Cornell was among the first group to burn draft cards in 1965, for which he eventually served six months in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut.
This was just the beginning for Cornell of years of counseling young men who linked Catholic teachings on nonviolence to personal conscience as the basis of their moral objections to war. Resources for these young Catholics were few. Cornell and Jim Forest, who co-founded Catholic Peace Fellowship, decided to change that.
Baxter recalled that Cornell liked to say, “We don’t advise conscientious objection, non-cooperation, resistance, interference with Selective Service, or anything else. We advise young men.”
Said Baxter: “In the context of the rapidly changing teaching of the Catholic Church on nonviolence and conscientious objection to war, Cornell brought this teaching to many through teachings at parish conferences, weekend workshops, national conferences; but above all, he brought this teaching to the level of practical action. Tom was active and central in the Catholic peace movement long before he was has great credibility in the Church in general.
Tom and Monica Cornell at Catholic Worker Farm in Marlboro, New York in June 2019 (Courtesy Robert Ellsberg)
In 1967, Cornell signed a public statement declaring his intention to refuse to pay income taxes in protest of the Vietnam War. Later, he became one of the sponsors of the War Tax Resistance project, which advocated denial of taxes in protest against war.
He was program director of Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization, from 1965 to 1979.
Cornell was one of dozens present at the July 1972 meeting known as the “Pax Christi Affiliation Discussion,” which gave birth to Pax Christi USA. Cornell was also an early member of the Pax Christi USA National Council beginning in 1976, and has been a speaker, mentor, and guide for many Pax Christi USA members, regions, and local groups for many years. Cornell was named a 2021 Pax Christi USA Peace Ambassador for his contributions.
“All of Pax Christi USA mourns the loss of Tom Cornell. His spirit and wisdom, his prophetic side and his inspiring testimony have been gifts to the Catholic movement for peace and justice for more than half a century,” said Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA. . “I had the opportunity to speak with Tom and share his company on a few occasions and always came out of that time invigorated by his spirit and more deeply rooted because of his criticisms of society and government, but also of the Church and our own movement.”
After Dorothy Day’s death in 1980, Cornell began lobbying for her canonization, eventually serving on the executive committee of the Dorothy Day Guild, founded in 2005 in the Archdiocese of New York, to further her canonization cause.
Cornell studied to become a deacon in the Archdiocese of New York and was ordained in 1988.
“He embraced the logic of evangelical nonviolence at a time when it was considered near heretical,” said Robert Ellsberg, editor and publisher of Orbis Books. “In the spirit of the Catholic worker…he embraced a life of hospitality, voluntary poverty, care of the land and restoration of peace.” Ellsberg said Cornell lived “a modest but profoundly consequential life”. Ellsberg, Forest and Cornell edited A Penny a Copy: Readings from the Catholic Worker in 1995.
Asked to describe the Catholic labor movement, Cornell once wrote that it was a society, in tune with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and Catholic teachings “that would have no place for the economic exploitation or war, for racial, sexual or religious discrimination, but would be marked by a cooperative social order without extremes of wealth and poverty and a non-violent approach to self-defense and conflict resolution.”
It was through the Catholic Worker movement that Cornell met his future wife, Monica Ribar, the daughter of Catholic Worker activists. They married in 1964, spending much of their married life at the Peter Maurin Farm, about 70 miles north of New York, a shelter for formerly homeless people and for men recovering from illness. have an addiction or who live with physical or mental problems.
“He will be sorely missed as a living link to those revolutionary days when we talked about peace in times of war – cold war, war in Vietnam, nuclear war, war on terrorism – and for us who had the privilege of know him closely, as good and faithful friend,” Baxter said.Requiescat in pace.‘ “
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