The illustration on the program for the funeral Mass for Thomas C. Cornell said it all. A colorful mandala by Commonweal and Catholic Worker artist Rita Corbin declared—and illustrated—“Pray, Study, Work for Peace & Justice.” Tom Cornell, who died on August 1, had done precisely that nearly every day of his eighty-eight years.
A graduate of Jesuit schools with a New England upbringing, Cornell arrived at New York’s Catholic Worker headquarters in 1962. He had read Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness in college, had heard her speak, and had applied for his conscientious-objector status, which he finally received after a four-year delay. (It took that long because, at the time, “Catholic conscientious objector” seemed an oxymoron to his local draft board.)
On coming to New York, Cornell was immediately dragooned by Day into editing the Catholic Worker paper, an on-the-job training assignment at which he quickly excelled. But life at the Worker included far more than correcting galleys and laying out the pages. It required living with the poor in poor circumstances, serving countless meals, welcoming waves of guests and seekers, and publicly demonstrating against war and other injustices. As an editor, Cornell interviewed striking mine workers, traveled to Alabama to cover civil-rights developments, demonstrated at a nuclear submarine base, and personally inaugurated the first public protest against the Vietnam War—all in his first year and a half at the Catholic Worker.
Still, there was community life to be lived—and redeemed—on a daily basis, and Tom had an eye for reporting on that as well. As he noted, the atmosphere at the Chrystie Street house was “tremendously dynamic.” To prove his point, he begins a 1963 column by describing the sound of shattering glass from the Worker’s first-floor storefront window, “a window we replace often.” The column then transitions to a scene at New York’s Centre Street courthouse. Here Tom accompanies a young Beat poet to a court hearing. The man’s name is Szabo. An illustration accompanying the article—unusual for the Catholic Worker paper—highlights the young poet’s Elvis-like features and Fonzie-like carriage. Significantly, he sports a large crucifix around his neck.
Tom reports that the first thing he hears walking through the marble corridors is the booming voice of a red-faced Irish cop. “Hey kid,” yells the officer at Szabo, “What are you wearing that crucifix for?”
“Well, it’s like I feel an identification with Jesus,” the young man replies.
Policeman: “What do you mean by that?”
Szabo: “I believe in the Beatitudes.”
Policeman (laughing uproariously): “It sounds like a pretty shitty organization to me!”
Whether writing or speaking, Tom would often offset his ingrained “New England conservative instincts” with a wry—and sometimes ribald—humor. At the end of that “Chrystie Street” column, he returns to the scene of the shattered window. But now he describes a different sound: “There’s quite a racket downstairs,” he relates. “The fellow who broke the window just came back and kicked down the door.”