Order of Premontre, Premonstratensians, Norbertines, and White Canons

R.D. Robert John Cornell, O. Praem., U.S. Congressman

Birth: December 16, 1919

Death: May 10, 2009

House: St. Norbert Abbey

Father Cornell was born on  December 16, 1919, in Gladstone, MI, to Ralph and Veronica (Sullivan) Cornell.  In 1928 the family moved to Green Bay where Robert became a member of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral parish. He attended Cathedral Junior High School and was very active in parish affairs. In 1937 he was named the outstanding Catholic boy of Green Bay.

In June of 1937 Father Cornell graduated from St. Norbert High School, De Pere, WI.  He received a B.A. degree in philosophy and sociology from St. Norbert College, De Pere, WI in June, 1941; was awarded an M.A. degree in history in 1945 and a Ph.D. in history in 1957 – both from Catholic University, Washington, D.C.

Father Cornell entered St. Norbert Abbey where he was vested as a novice on August 28, 1938.  He professed Simple Vows on June 17, 1940, and Solemn Vows on June 17, 1943.  He was ordained to the Priesthood on June 17, 1944.

Academic assignments for Father Cornell include serving on the faculty at St. Norbert High School and later Abbot Pennings High School, De Pere, WI and Southeast Catholic High School, Philadelphia, PA where he was also Vice-Principal.  Father Cornell was a Professor of History and Government at St. Norbert College throughout most of his long teaching career and was the Dean of Students at the college for five years. He also taught history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and in San Antonio, Texas.

Father Cornell was honored to serve in the United States Congress as the Eighth District Representative from 1975 to 1979. He was only the second Catholic priest to be elected to the U.S. Congress where he was a member of the Education and Labor Committee as well as the Veterans Affairs Committee. He was particularly involved in efforts to reform the welfare system and to get more educational benefits for Vietnam vets. Most of his salary as congressman was used for internships in his Washington office for residents of Northeastern Wisconsin and for student aid at all the schools of higher education in the Eighth Congressional District. In the Sesquicentennial supplement in the Wisconsin diocesan papers in 1998, Father Cornell was included among “45 Who Made a Difference” in the first century and a half of Wisconsin Catholic history.  In 1984 in recognition of Father Cornell’s service in Congress, his contributions to education, and his community activities, the Governor of Wisconsin on the occasion of Cornell’s 65th birthday, proclaimed December 16th Bob Cornell Day in Wisconsin.  He was also included in the list of the “100 most interesting” people in Northeastern Wisconsin published by the Green Bay Press-Gazette in the year 2000.

For about 20 years Father Cornell assisted on weekends at Corpus Christi Church in Sturgeon Bay where he directed activities for the youth of the area, especially rock concerts with nationally famous entertainers. Later he handled country and rock shows in Green Bay with the proceeds being used for scholarships for St. Norbert College students and graduates. In his late years Father Cornell served as chaplain at Nicolet Terrace in De Pere.

Father Cornell is the author of the standard work on the role of Theodore Roosevelt in the great anthracite coal strike of 1902. He has also written his political memoirs (Is There a Priest in the House?) as well as numerous articles on historical and educational topics for encyclopedias and magazines. He co-authored a book on the history of St. Norbert College as part of the Centennial celebration in 1998.

Included among the positions held by Father Cornell are chairman of the Eighth Congressional District of the Democratic Party, member of the State Administrative Committee of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, vice-president of Scholarships, Inc., member of the Board of Trustees of Gallaudet College, and member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court Commission on Judicial Ethics.  He was a founding member of Labor Historians and is listed as a Distinguished Member of the Organization of American Historians.

Father Cornell is survived by the Norbertine Community; a niece, Patti (Cornell) Heil of Centennial, CO; a nephew, William Cornell of Arlington, VA; several cousins; and many “adopted” sons.    His parents and his brother, Paul, preceded him in death.

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