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    Tom Cornell at a protest against Guantánamo Bay

    Remembering Tom Cornell

    A pillar of the Catholic Worker movement, Tom dedicated his life to peacemaking as an activist, journalist, and Catholic deacon.

    By Fida Meier

    December 6, 2022
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    On August 1, 2022, Monica Cornell called the Fox Hill Bruderhof to let us know that her husband, Tom, had passed away. Tom, a coworker for the kingdom of God here on earth. His was the passion of Christ for the poor that enriched our own calling to live out that justice in the daily life of a faith community.

    I went to Tom’s funeral Mass, and as the story of his life was powerfully told by Father Martin Laird, OSA, of Villanova University, I felt immediately drawn into the fellowship of those mourning Tom’s passing – the many of us whose lives were touched by his generous care and friendship. Many migrant workers arrived to pay homage to a man who cared, who saw Christ in them – comrades of the road. Catholic Workers were present, along with those for whom they daily make a home, men and women trying to be free of the streets, loneliness, and addiction. Here from all walks of life, we were a tight-knit circle, sharing Tom’s passion for justice, for peace, for God’s rule here on earth.

    Tom Cornell at a protest against Guantánamo Bay

    Tom Cornell at a protest against Guantánamo Bay, ca. 2016. All photographs courtesy of Monica Cornell.

    Tom and Monica’s son Tommy welcomed us in the parking lot, and their daughter Deirdre led me to the front to stand next to Monica by the coffin where Tom was laid out, an expression of infinite peace on his face. He wore his deacon garb as a sign of his dedication to the church he loved, in spite of being considered out of step at times due to his radical stand on the teachings of Christ. His worn shoes, which he had claimed from the Catholic Worker donation bin, had taken him down many stony “highways and byways” seeking out and serving the poor.

    Monica told me about the three days’ and nights’ vigil around Tom’s bed in the ICU, praying and reading psalms with and for him. He was devoted to daily recitation of his breviary, until at last the faithful heart surrendered his spirit to join the Master he had served. I remembered three such days around my husband Andreas’s deathbed, now fifteen years ago. The lines of George MacDonald are a fitting expression for this last vigil:

    And as the childbed on earth
    Is watched by with anxious expectation,
    So the couch of the dying – as we call them –
    May be surrounded by the birthwatchers of the other world,
    Waiting like anxious servants to open the door
    To which this world is but a windswept porch.

    Tom had been laid out in a simple pinewood coffin, made by the hands of his brothers in our church community, at his request. There’s a story to that, of course.

    Invited to a Bruderhof Oktoberfest, perhaps five years ago, Tom and Monica had managed to find time to join us – a rare treat, busy as they were in the daily tasks on Peter Maurin Farm, their home and a Catholic Worker community center. Our pastor, Jakob, another friend of his, then eighty-four years old, asked Tom if there was something we could do for him. His prompt reply: “Simple pine coffins for Monica and me.” They remembered Dorothy Day, buried in one made by the Hutterites. Jakob worked with a young carpenter to build the coffins and deliver them to the basement of the farmhouse, where they stood – surely to the surprise of many a visitor – alongside bookcases containing the many volumes marking the broad interests of these seekers of truth.

    Tom and Monica Cornell with Dorothy Day at their wedding

    Tom and Monica Cornell with Dorothy Day at their wedding, July 16, 1964.

    How did our family cross paths with the Cornells? In 1982 my husband went through a time of spiritual crisis, as happens in many a serious Christian’s life. He took a leave of absence from our community and found himself in Waterbury, unable to find a job as a green-card-carrying Swiss national with no proof of education beyond ninth grade. He decided to at least use his weekends for something beyond his own needs, and looked for a soup kitchen to help out in. There were only two open on Saturday and Sunday.

    Standing in the line with many others equally poor in spirit and circumstances, he moved up until he reached the big soup pot and – yes! Tom presiding over it, ladling out the soup, looking each person in the eye. Andreas was taken aback; they had met once before in a very different setting. How to explain himself now? But when Tom raised his penetrating eyes he said with surprise and delight, “We walked together in the Selma March! What can I do for you?” Andreas explained about wanting to help, and Tom, with a twinkle in his eyes, offered, “There are always dishes!” (Andreas was impressed that the second soup kitchen was manned by Tom’s son Tommy – a teenager whose peers were surely playing soccer on a nearby field while he was heading up a soup line.)

    After the long serving line came to an end, Tom invited Andreas to his home, and in the following days, helped him find a job in a furniture shop working with undocumented Latino migrants with whom he found camaraderie and friendship, having spent three years working in factories as a young man in Uruguay.

    Tom presents himself to begin his six-month sentence for draft-card burning, August 1968.

    Tom presents himself to begin his six-month sentence for draft-card burning, August 1968.

    Tom and Andreas forged an inner bond that held throughout the years. Andreas shared with him his need for spiritual renewal. Tom never probed into details of any personal struggles. He and Monica were simply a loving support in hard times. Andreas appreciated the many meaningful exchanges about the world situation – as well as the signature humor in which Tom clad many personal ills and disappointments, and his dry comments on our country’s political leadership and social issues.

    On our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Andreas told me he wanted to introduce me to some very special people. That is how I met Tom and Monica. Over the following years we would visit once in a while, sitting on tall chairs in their tiny kitchen, savoring laughter mixed with deeper thoughts. It gave us an insight into the other guests they received into their home, folks who had often fallen between the cracks of social services. One guest came through the kitchen into the living room, talking, talking, talking. Tom looked up from under his brows with a glint in his eye, and compassion in his voice. “The poor fellow can’t hold a thought in his head without saying it – from morning till he falls asleep.” Yet, he was family.

    Another time there was heavy cannon fire in the next room – background to a war movie. Tom, the avid war-resister, looked at us, again with that amusement which could light up his whole face. “What shall I do? One of these guests is dying of cancer. Between appointments, this is what helps him deal with the end of his life. Mind you, I did try a nature film. But it didn’t go over very well!” This hospitality moved me profoundly.

    I was touched to receive an invitation for their forty-fifth anniversary. Monica was glowing, looking young with a garland of flowers in her hair. She said she felt a little uncomfortable in her new dress (she usually picked her wardrobe from donations and thrift stores). They repeated their wedding vows as a seal on forty-five years of marriage, and in hope for more years ahead. When saying goodbye, I mentioned casually that when the fiftieth came around, we would host them for a celebration at the Bruderhof.

    I did not keep track of time, so was surprised by a call from Tom five years later, saying that the coming Saturday they could make it up to our community. And what a wonderful celebration we had, with the Cornells sitting under an arch of sunflowers as the music and entertainment flowed. All of us felt honored to mark this milestone with them.

    We thought back over the many touchpoints in our lives. There was the Selma March of March 7, 1965. Like Tom, our community answered the call of Martin Luther King Jr. for a second crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Bloody Sunday, when the marchers were beaten down by the home guard. The Bruderhof sent a contingent to Selma, including Andreas. And in Manhattan, there was a young mother like me with a newborn baby in arms – probably also glued to the radio in fear and prayer that there would not be a reprise of the violence, that husband and father would come home safe. That was Monica with three-week-old Tommy; my daughter Francisca was the same age.

    Both Andreas’s father and mine had served prison sentences in Switzerland because of conscientious objector convictions. Andreas’s mother brought her baby boy to the prison, along with some food, so father could meet son. In much the same way, Monica brought her two small children to Danbury prison, where Tom was serving time after burning Vietnam draft cards. Deirdre learned to walk – as Tom told with humor – in the visiting room, though Tommy, then three years old, was somewhat traumatized by the surroundings.

    Tom and Monica found their purpose in the Catholic Worker movement with Dorothy Day. Though she respected radical actions in the form of civil disobedience to draw the attention of the public to a wrong, Dorothy Day was convinced that Christ’s intention for this world should be demonstrated in daily life. And the Cornells lived out this vision.

    Tom and Monica Cornell

    Tom and Monica, on the one hundredth anniversary of St. Mary’s Parish, Marlboro, New York, 2000.

    I can’t imagine it was easy to raise a family while living as dedicated Catholic Workers, supporting networks such as the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Pax Christi, and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, with Tom frequently traveling the country to speak at universities and high schools.

    It was Monica, his faithful life companion, who held things together at home. She juggled the donations to cover the daily needs of her own family as well as the family that God placed at their doorstep. Monica created the place that provided Tom with inner and outer care. Both of their children could have turned their backs on such a precarious, self-sacrificing life and embraced the American Dream. Yet Deirdre with her husband Kenney have continued the vision, serving the migrant worker community in our area. And Tommy returned from youthful wanderings to take on the farm as well as care for the guests. It comforts me to know that Monica now has them both at her side.

    Tom and Monica chose a life of practical adherence to Christ’s preference for the poor, not because poverty is a virtue in itself (they could see the scars in the souls of those they welcomed, inflicted by the unjust distribution of goods on this earth), but because they saw Christ in them. Together, they made a space at Peter Maurin Farm to demonstrate that other justice – that of the kingdom of God.

    In recounting our friendship, I know it only echoes the many encounters others had with them. Tom had an incredible gift to connect with each one on a personal level. All you can say at the end of such a fruitful life is already said in the words of Revelation 14:13: “Happy are the dead who died in the faith of Christ! Henceforth, says the Spirit, they may rest from their labors; for their deeds follow them.”

    Contributed By FidaMeier Fida Meier

    Fida Meier is a teacher, avid reader, and grandmother who lives at Fox Hill, a Bruderhof in Walden, New York.

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