May Day 2002: From Tom Cornell
- MAY DAY 2002
The Catholic Worker, New York City
Last year Father George gave me the assignment of preaching
homily at the last minute. I had no time to prepare, so I preached on
antiphon to todays Psalm, Lord, give success to the work of our
This year he gave me week to prepare, and that makes it a lot harder.
I told Joanne Kennedy, maybe Ill just name all the people who have
made the Catholic Worker, created this community. Not just Peter
Maurin and Dorothy Day whose memory is with us all the time, but
everybody. That would make a nice hour long sermon, just the names,
but I would leave some out, thats the problem, and I'd have to ask
each one of you to say your own name out loud, and any names not
One year many years ago, Eileen Fantino stood near the door
here at St. Josephs House during one of these May Day celebrations.
She looked around and said, Everything changes, all the time. But
not this place. Its the same, always the same. Then she added,
So much heaven, and so much hell.
I brought a group of high school students from the Boston area
here a couple of weeks ago. They had come to the Farm to work and for
indoctrination during their spring break. We took one day for a brief
introduction to the work here in the City and a walking tour of Lower
Manhattan. Matt Vogel showed them around this house. Someone asked
him why he is here. I found it and I fell in love with the place,
Thats what I said, the very same words, fourty-nine years ago
month when I first came to 223 Chrystie Street. So very much has
changed. So many people have passed through. So many have died. The
neighborhood has changed. It doesnt look the same. But Eileen
Fantino is right, and Matt Vogel tells the real reason why we are
Catholic Workers, because we love it. Were in love. How else could
we take it?
Dorothy reminded us often that we are a family, a large,
family, with all the problems families have, the dotty aunt, the
uncle. Thomas Merton reminded us that even in our protest and
resistance against the prevailing society, we mirror it. And yet, and
That first night in April, 1953, my first Friday Night Meeting
the Clarification of Thought, Dorothy recalled Peter Maurin saying,
There are great things that need to be done. I wanted to do great
things. Im a romantic at heart, just like you! So I came. And what
did we do? We scraped carrots and peeled potatoes, washed dishes and
bundled papers. Oh, there was the talk! Great talk. We had running
seminars the like of which they didnt have at Fairfield University or
at Yale either.
And yet, we did great things, they just seemed to happen as we
there talking. Ammon said Im not going to take shelter for the
drills. Im going to sit in City Hall Park until the cops take me
Dorothy said Ill sit with you, then Eileen and Pat and Mary Ann
Ammon went over to the War Resisters League and said, why not come
along. That was in June, 1955. That event proved to be a major
stimulus in the disarmament movement.
We were sitting on the third floor of the 175 Chrystie Street
building when Bob Steed came in with a newspaper article in his hand
and a photo of a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, sitting in the lotus
position engulfed in flame in a public square in Saigon. What are
you going to do about this? he demanded of Monicas sister, Carlotta
Ribar, Chris Kearns and me. What are WE going to do about it? Thats
Bob Steed for you! We thought about it for a while and then Chris and
I came up with an idea for what turned out to be the first
demonstration against the war in Viet Nam, just the two of us, July
16, 1963. In ten days we had two hundred and fifty. In five years, a
million. Remember the song, .... if two and two and fifty make a
million, well see that day come round, well see that day come
I happened in at 175 Chrystie Street one morning just to say
Dorothy. She said sit down, have a cup of coffee. Cesar Chavez will
be here in a minute. I want you to talk to him. Soon enough he came
in, alone, no driver, no secretary or traveling companion. He looked
like Cesar Chavez so I knew who he was right away. He headed for us.
Then he spotted the Guadalupe on the wall, the one over there. He
stopped, crossed himself and said a brief prayer. Then he joined us.
There was no small-talk, no breaking the ice. Dorothy simply said
what can we do for you. In twenty minutes it was agreed. Dorothy
would rent an apartment for his workers, a half dozen or so, they
would eat with us. I would take them to the offices of unions we
worked with, 1199, the health workers union, the distributive
workers, the butchers and the taxi cab drivers unions to free up
workers who would visit all the supermarket chains with us, their
corporate headquarters, the stores themselves, and even the
mom-and-pop bodegas. We had all the work done to set up the lettuce
and the grape boycott in New York. and it worked, the first successful
boycott in America since the tea boycott of 1776. It was great.
And the civil rights movement. We were there. We never took
leading role. That was for black people and their organizations. But
were there. We helped tear down the legal structures of racial
segregation in this country. Imagine what might have been if we had
not. We did it through nonviolent direct action, and through
networking with labor. It was the organized labor movement that paid
the bills. When Cesar Chavezs men came to Kenmare Street, it was in
a car donated by Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers. When the
buses rolled into Washington for the March on Washington and Martin
Luther Kings great I Have a Dream speech, it was the AFL-CIO that
got those busses rolling and that printed the placards. We were
there. And it was a great thing.
We reintroduced nonviolence into mainstream Catholic and
Protestant thinking. We moved the Church itself, the hippopotamus
Church, if only an inch. But when the hippo moves, all else in the
mud hole gets at least a nudge. T.S. Eliot put it more elegantly.
Thats a great thing.
Monica and I went to visit Mother Jerome at Regina Laudis
Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut, a few weeks ago. Mother Jerome is 94
years old now, still beautiful and still sharp, and graced with the
wisdom of age. We discussed the state of the world and the state of
the Church. You're doing the right thing, she said, just keep
doing it. In times like these there are only two things that make
sense to do, pray, as we do here at the Abbey, and the works of mercy,
as you do at the Catholic Worker. So keep it up.
The works of mercy. Its easy to forget the spiritual works
mercy, among them to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful and
reprove the sinner. Thats the one I like best, to reprove the
sinner. Thats what we do when we demonstrate. Carmen Trotta got
thousands of people out to instruct, counsel and reprove in Washington
on the 20th of last month. That was a great thing.
I fell in love. Half a century later Im still in love, still
scraping carrots, and still at the coffee table, talking, incessantly.
been good, even great. Lets keep it up. O
The Catholic Worker
Peter Maurin Farm
Marlboro, NY 12542-5134