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My brief brush with Dorothy Day University

In memory of Deacon Tom Cornell, a close associate of Servant of God Day, a deacon of the Archdiocese of Hartford, and a key figure in the world of the Catholic Worker movement.

Deacon Tom Cornell is seen at the Vatican March 20, 2007. Co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and Pax Christi USA and an editor for The Catholic Worker newspaper, Deacon Cornell died Aug. 1, 2022, at age 88. (CNS photo/John Thavis); right: Servant of God Dorothy Day (CNS photo/courtesy Journey Films)

Tom Cornell has died. He was born in Bridgeport, served six months in the federal prison in Danbury, was ordained a deacon of the Archdiocese of Hartford, and spent many years serving the poor of Waterbury.

Most significantly, he was a close associate of Servant of God Dorothy Day. Everything mentioned in the previous paragraph, other than his birth, flows out of her influence on him.

Or perhaps, in some mysterious way, his birth too. God forms us in our mother’s womb with some specific purpose in mind. Not all of us fulfill that purpose. I think Tom did.

I was much taken with Dorothy Day in my early 20s. I thought about joining the Catholic Worker Movement, which she and Peter Maurin founded. A mutual friend arranged for me to spend the day with Tom Cornell to learn more about it.

Tom was then running the Waterbury Catholic Worker. I had lived my whole life in Manchester, CT and, at 22 years old, had never once set foot in Waterbury. The purpose of my first-ever visit to the city where I would one day live and raise my family was to see Deacon Tom Cornell.

We spent the day together at multiple locations around the city. He fed the poor. He taught them Scripture. I followed his instructions, helping where I could. But I was really another one of the people he was helping.

I spent all day peppering him with questions. We talked about Dorothy. His firsthand memories of her. His history as a Catholic Worker.

We talked about a whole range of things. Our Lady of Fatima. The end of the Cold War.

He was a fascinating man. He had answers to every question. Or maybe it just seemed that way because he was genuinely interested in your questions.

In his America Magazine article on Cornell, the publisher Robert Ellsberg writes, “I would come to recognize as one of Tom’s most endearing qualities his genuine interest in young people, whether that meant sharing stories and history, helping them uncover their own gifts and talents, encouraging them in their vocations or passing the torch onto a new generation.”

It gave those young people who knew Cornell “That sense of shared status as fellow graduates of what Jim [Forest] called ‘Dorothy Day University.’”

What Ellsburg writes perfectly captures what I experienced that day. I had my own brief brush with Dorothy Day University.

(Cornell even figured out, just by looking at me, that I was Portuguese. I have never known anyone else to do that. We are an under-the-radar, hard-to-identify, ethnicity.)

In the National Catholic Reporter article on Cornell, Tom Fox mentions how “Cornell valued a mix of traditional Catholicism with radical activism.” That was the attraction of Dorothy Day University. A rare blend of fidelity and radicalism that seems to exist almost nowhere else.

You see it in Cornell’s article, “With the Down & Out in Waterbury: A Catholic Worker Community in the Brass Valley”.  Written about a year after I met him (and, alas, behind a paywall), it perfectly captured that unusual mix, and the man with whom I spent the day. Dorothy Day University was a very compelling world.

But for me, not compelling enough. I was eventually called to a very different kind of Catholic activism. Abortion was, to me, the preeminent civil rights issue of our time. That firm conviction led me into a life of conservative politics that would likely be anathema to the world of the Catholic Worker movement.

So I never followed up with Tom Cornell.

But I never forgot him either. Or that wonderfully eclectic mix of radicalism and theological orthodoxy. If there was a continuity between my early attraction to the Catholic Worker movement and my later life in the right-leaning pro-life movement, it was the belief in the dignity of the human person that was shared by both groups.

Not that either Left or Right fully embraces all the implications of that belief. Which, again, is what made people like Tom Cornell so fascinating. Who better than a disciple of Dorothy Day could speak to the failings of all political options available in our fallen world?

In the circles in which Tom Cornell moved, for instance, he knew Communists. Communism had just collapsed when he and I met. The Berlin Wall had fallen a few years before, and the USSR had gone under the previous year.

Tom told me how depressed the communists were. Their entire life’s work had just gone up in smoke. History had proven them wrong. They actually came to him for counseling, to make some sense of it all.

“I told them, look, you were right in Selma,” Tom told me. “You were right in the civil rights movement and in the labor movement. But there were things about which you were horribly wrong. You have come to terms with that.” Tom tried to point them away from “the god who failed” and, instead, toward Christ.

I asked Tom on that day, thirty years ago, if he thought Dorothy Day would be canonized someday. “Oh, I hope so,” he told me. “I think she may be too radical for the hierarchy. But I had a dream the other night. I was an old man, being pushed around in a wheelchair in St. Peter’s Square, at her canonization.”

Cornell did not live to see it. But perhaps someday she will be canonized. Perhaps someday Tom Cornell will be too.

A man who spent his life pointing everyone, especially the down and out, to the God who did not fail.

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About Peter Wolfgang 1 Article
Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut Action. He lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife and their seven children. The views expressed above are solely his own.


  1. I can’t believe that Dorothy Day had so many communist friends. The key feature for a good Catholic is that communists are anti-God and anti religion. The question with these types is whether they love the poor more or they hate the rich more. Most of the saints loved the rich as well as the poor because they came from a background of wealth, including Mother Theresa. My good friend Fr. Pierre Conway, OP gave his grave to Peter Maurin and, when he himself died, he gave his body to science.

    • There’s probably a reason Dorothy Day hasn’t been canonized but I think she’s an interesting person and we can at least emulate some of her good works.
      I have friends who hold very different views than i do and I pray for them. I imagine Dorothy Day did the same.

  2. Regarding the article’s brief reference to Pax Christi:
    An on-line article earlier this month referred to Bishop Stowe’s pro LGBTQ’s speech at the Pax Christi anniversary. He was listed as the Pax Christi bishop/president. The article also mentioned a woman who received an award also giving an LGBTQ talk. Bishop Stowe referred negatively to a Church that blessed weapons, but would not bless “certain couples.”
    It seems that Pax Christi USA has moved far afield from pacifism.

    • I think more of myself as a pacifist than the alternative bu PaxChristihas always been pretty far out in left field. Even decades ago. I’m not sure why because Anabaptists I know embrace both pacifism and traditional, biblical teachings on marriage and family. Catholic pacifists seem to lean in the other direction. It’s a puzzlement.

  3. Is there too much of the kitchen osterizer blender behind this article on radical orthodoxy(?): Dorothy Day, Pax Christi, Communism, civil rights, and tuna sandwiches for street people.

    Is it really true that the communists “were right in the civil rights movement and in the labor movement”? Or, instead, and as critics propose, were they more exploiters of the issue as part of their central cause of moving America down the road to Socialism?
    Recall that the benchmark “An American Dilemma” (1944) was written (aka distilled) by Swedish Gunnar Myrdal who barely visited America and simply reduced 15,000 pages written by others (who were clearly free of any agenda1?) into his 1,500 pages. Wrote he this about that:

    “From the point of view of social science, this means, among other things, that social engineering [a Fabian term popularized earlier by the socialist, Stuart Chase, 1888-1985] will increasingly be demanded. Many things that for a long period have been predominantly a matter of individual adjustment will become more and more determined [!] by political decision and public regulation” (pp. 1022-23).

    On the domestic scene, inspiring believers (including Deacon Cornell) were part of a very-much mixed bag, at least.

    The same complexity and confusion characterizes the world in which Cornell’s pacifist Pax Christi (in USA 1972-) dominated too much the first two drafts (but not the third) of the USCCB Pastoral Letter, “Challenge of Peace: Gods Promise and Our Response” (1983). Regarding the horrendous Cold War dilemma: nuclear weapons for deterrence versus unilateral disarmament, independence and freedom versus the slippery road into possible Armageddon, and generally the deliberate confusion of real and deformed moral principles with prudential judgments in application.

    And, also in the word games of today, why not simply quarantine moral principles (Veritatis Splendor and such) from pastoral decisions?

  4. Dorothy Day canonized? Well, if the destroyer of the Roman liturgy can be canonized, why not her? After all, she was only an unrepentant supporter of Castro, even after learning that he was executing Catholic priests and religious. (But he was right on so many other issues…)

  5. I think Dorothy Day is a hero. So I appreciated this piece. I also think it may be wrong-headed to canonize every Catholic hero… Sheen, Chesterton, Day. I recommend Kenneth Woodward’s book “Making Saints” to everyone, even if he now titles to the left.

  6. I recently realized that when I mention that I am Catholic, it says nothing about being a Catholic. It goes beyond the old “here comes everybody” to “anything goes.” There has not been a “unifying Mass” in nearly six decades. And that is only the most visible example. The ambiguity of the Faith is one of the great cheats to the poor.

  7. Despite her conversion to Catholicism, Dorothy Day remained a communist or communist sympathizer for her entire life. More than just a pacifist, she supported a communist government in Spain that was responsible for the murder of many priests and sisters. Later on, she admired Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh. I consider the USCCB’s promotion of her cause for sainthood to be a great scandal.

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  1. My brief brush with Dorothy Day University – Via Nova Media
  2. My brief brush with Dorothy Day University | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers

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