Priest and Rock Music Fan, Former Rep. Robert Cornell Dies

Posted May 11, 2009 at 6:30pm

Correction Appended

Former Rep. Robert Cornell, a Catholic priest and college professor, died Sunday after a battle with cancer. He was 89.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Democrat lived a full life even before he was elected to represent northeastern Wisconsin in 1974. He was born in Michigan but grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and earned his undergraduate degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. He later earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Cornell joined the Norbertine Order in 1938 and became ordained in 1944.

Much of Cornell’s career was spent in education. He began teaching social science classes in private schools in Philadelphia in 1941 and returned to St. Norbert to teach history and political science in 1947. There he became known for bringing in pop and rock bands such as Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, REO Speedwagon, Merle Haggard and the Carpenters to perform.

During that same time, Cornell also became active in politics. The professor and priest became chairman of the 8th Congressional District Democratic Party of Wisconsin in 1969.

He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1970 and 1972, but finally found success in 1974 after then-Rep. Harold Froehlich became the only Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of President Richard Nixon’s impeachment.

The conservative district re-elected Cornell once before giving victory to Republican Toby Roth, then a state assemblyman.

Cornell returned to the district and tried to reclaim his seat in 1978. Having failed, he gave up completely after Pope John Paul II declared in 1980 that no priest should run for public office.

Cornell had been only the second priest to serve in Congress; the other, Massachusetts Democrat Robert Drinan, retired after the pope’s directive.

In 2000, Cornell published his memoirs, “Is There a Priest in the House? A Brief Memoir of the Too Brief Political Career of Robert J. Cornell.— According to a review of the book in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, he remembered praying over which Members to ask to co-sponsor his welfare reform bill and wrote those Members a letter.

“During my daily meditation period yesterday I sought inspiration for the names of colleagues who … would want to cosponsor my Tax Credits and Allowances Act of 1975. Yours was one of the names that came to me,— he wrote. “He explained the proposal and concluded with Don’t disappoint me! Not only will the American people be the losers but I may lose my faith in the efficacy of meditation.—

The priest continued to follow up with his friends, but the bill never made it out of committee.

Correction: May 12, 2009

The article incorrectly noted that no Democrat won Wisconsin’s 8th district until Rep. Steve Kagen was elected in 2006.