THE PROTESTING PRIEST
Frank Cordaro has spent his life working against the establishment. He’s got a few stories to tell
Words by Angela Ufheil
Photos by Hannah Little
Frank Cordaro wants to make one thing clear. He chose this life.
We’re standing in the foyer of the Bishop Dingman House, one of four structures that make up the Des Moines Catholic Worker. A cart filled with plastic-wrapped packages of bread and bagels takes up space in the already-cramped room, as does a shelf lined with boxes of cereal. In the kitchen, a team of volunteers is preparing spaghetti and meatballs. A few dozen members of Des Moines’ homeless population watch the news, play chess, and chat while waiting for dinner. They’ll take some of those bagels with them on the way out.
The Catholic Worker Movement is made up of 240 communities around the world, all united by a mission to serve the homeless and protest injustice. Frank co-founded the Des Moines, Iowa chapter in 1976, and he lives and serves the community now. In the years between, he was a Catholic priest, a non-violent protester, and a prisoner of the state.
Frank is 66 years old, with a snowy-white beard and gut that’s probably caused a few kids to wonder what Santa is doing in Des Moines. He wears black glasses that shift around his face to accommodate dramatic facial expressions. He gets right in my face and gestures broadly when he’s making a point. I’ve never once seen him sit still.
He can relate most anything to the New Testament. He’s chosen poverty to better understand the people he’s trying to serve. And his controversial protesting methods get people talking. He’s inspired a lot of the people he works with: “For me, one of the most significant things about Frank as a person is that he, for many decades now, has been very committed to struggling for peace and justice,” said Aaron Jorgenson-Briggs, a resident at the Catholic Worker. “And he has taken on personal risk and made personal sacrifices to do that.”
He’s also pissed a lot of people off. “Logic sometimes goes out the window with Frank,” said Bishop Richard Pates, the current leader of the Des Moines Diocese. “I think he lives in his own world sometimes.”
Frank won’t confine himself to one identity. I find myself returning over and over again to Frank’s favorite description of the Catholic Worker community. “We do heroic and noble work here,” he said. “We’re not always heroic and noble people. And that’s OK.”
The True Believer
Frank doesn’t do anything halfway. “I’ve believed in a lot of things, but at any given time, I believed in them strongly,” Frank said.
During his childhood in Des Moines, those strong beliefs had an all-American edge. “If I was anything, I was a true believer. In America, patriotism, the valor of war and the necessity of the Vietnam war,” Frank said.
His father, George Cordaro, was a Marine in World War II and won two Purple Hearts. He enrolled his daughter and five sons in Catholic school and raised them to be God-fearing patriots. Like any good, red-blooded American, Frank got into football. He captained and played linebacker for the undefeated Dowling Catholic High School team, and it’s easy to tell that he’s still proud of it. He was inducted into Dowling’s athletics hall of fame last year, a distinction his father also claimed.
Frank’s brother, Joe Cordaro, is two years older than Frank and remembers him as a straight arrow. “You’d never look at him and predict what he is now,” he said, laughing.
He might be talking about Frank’s first time getting political. His senior year at Dowling, four classmates put out an “underground” newspaper criticizing the Vietnam War. “I’m embarrassed to say it, but I was part of the group that went after these guys publicly,” Frank said. “I was really blinded.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, Frank’s fierce beliefs, his classmates gravitated toward him. Joe said others loved his brother’s sense of humor. Frank’s popularity earned him a spot on the student government each year. But Joe also remembers that popularity didn’t blind Frank. “He defended the defenseless and always helped those in need,” Joe said. “His inside, his heart, really has always been the same.”
He defended the defenseless and always helped those in need. His inside, his heart, really has always been the same.”
– Joe Cordaro
Joe thinks that willingness to help the less fortunate comes from their parents. Both men remember their mother, Angela, as a giving woman who couldn’t help but root for the underdog. Their father was the same. George made his sons shovel others’ sidewalks after blizzards and at times literally stopped his car to help people in need. “He taught us things that go beyond athletics. How to treat people, how to take care of your neighbor,” Joe said. “I always think in the back of his mind, he knew he wasn’t going to be around very long.”
George was not a healthy man. He emerged from the Second World War as a chain smoker, and he had his first heart attack the day of Frank’s First Communion. Heart problems put him in the hospital several more times before he passed away during Frank’s senior year of high school at age 47.
Losing George was painful for the family. His personality had defined much of their life, and his absence left Frank searching for a father figure and something new to believe in. Frank had no idea that he’d already found the former in Maurice John Dingman, who became bishop of Des Moines in 1968.
George wasn’t far from his final heart attack when he invited the bishop to dinner. There, Frank and Bishop Dingman clashed. Frank wanted Dowling Catholic High School moved to a wealthier part of town. Bishop Dingman said he couldn’t make that change so quickly. “I used to call him Bishop Ding-a-ling. Thought he couldn’t make a decision,” Frank said. “I was pretty hard-headed. Later on, I’d die for that man.”
But Frank had to meet someone before understanding all the good Bishop Dingman was doing for the Catholic Church. That someone was a radical named Jesus.
In Matthew 5:39, Jesus tells his followers, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
It’s the Bible verse where we get that saying “turn the other cheek.” Most of the time, we say it to someone who’s been wronged, to encourage them to react to the injury with forgiveness instead of violence.
Turns out, there’s another interpretation. Scholars have pointed out that, during Jesus’ time, slapping a person across the face with the back of the hand was a statement of power. A member of the upper-class might backhand a lower-class person, or a master might do the same to a servant or slave.
A punch or open-handed slap was a whole different story. This kind of strike was seen as a statement of equality. So if slaves “turned the other cheek” after a backhand strike, they were demanding their attacker treat them like an equal.
That’s the Jesus whom Frank discovered while reading the New Testament in college. He attended the University of Northern Iowa on a football scholarship, and admits that he didn’t spend much time on his studies. “I didn’t have real respect for the academics,” he said. “When I left college, I didn’t know how to find a reference book at the library.”
But it’s clear Frank’s done some studying since. “I found this new way to read the Bible,” he said. “I read it as first-century literature. I need to know where, when, why these things happen. Then I can construct what the author is trying to tell me. That’s what allows me to make these sweeping statements.”
For Frank, the historical context makes the message clear. “If you want to walk like Jesus, you gotta act like Jesus. If you want to act like Jesus, you go to the book and see what he did,” he said.
Jesus healed the sick and restored the blind. He told his followers to shed their wealth. And, in Frank’s interpretation, he pissed the Romans off so much that they had him executed. That’s where Frank sees the radical Jesus who’s inspired him through his life. “I’m telling you, he’d be against war in this country,” Frank said. “If you can’t read that book, any of those Gospels, and come up with that understanding of who Jesus was, you just can’t read.”
With a new understanding of the Bible came a new understanding of Bishop Dingman, the man Frank used to make fun of in high school. These days, Frank raves about the bishop: “I’m telling you, the guy was extraordinary. Progressive, pro-woman, pro-peace, pro-Jesus.”
Bishop Dingman became Frank’s mentor, and inspired him to speak out against the United States’ role in the nuclear arms race. He was also the one to ordain him as a Catholic priest.
Before entering the priesthood, though, Frank had to take care of a few things. He started the Des Moines chapter of the Catholic Worker. He kept studying the New Testament, which he said is easy to read, but hard to live. It also appears to have put him into some unusual situations. Like poised in front of the Pentagon with a bucket of blood in his hands.
It was 1977 when Frank saw the painting in the Pentagon. It was hung in a small room being used as a chapel. In the painting, a young man in a soldier’s uniform was sitting in the pews. Above the soldier’s head was a quote from Isaiah 6:8. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
Steve Jacobs, a Catholic worker from Columbia, Missouri who was with Frank that day, remembers Frank’s reaction well. “He was just livid. He kept saying, ‘That is so blasphemous.’”
Jacobs found the painting blasphemous, too. “It’s a quote from the Old Testament about a young man who worked in the temple, who acquiesced to be the Lord’s follower,” he said. “They changed the meaning. They seemed to be using the Scriptures, taking them out of context to justify the war (in Vietnam).”
Frank almost abandoned the plan that had been developing all week. “He wanted to go and throw blood at the painting, because it was so manipulative that they would use the Scriptures in that way,” Jacobs said. “We had to redirect Frank’s attention toward the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture, Jacobs said, was essentially a piece of political street theatre. The performance planning was done at a faith and resistance retreat held at Jonah House, a faith-based community in Baltimore, Maryland. A dozen activists stuck needles into their arms, draining their blood into bags and storing it for the show. Five giant signs were made, each with one letter: D-E-A-T-H.
“The Pentagon is the place where military violence is planned,” Jacobs said. “So we were laying that blood down on the steps and pillars of the Pentagon so the people who were planning it could see the results of their work.”
After taking the tour of the Pentagon, the activists grabbed their supplies and approached the Pentagon’s steps. It was August 9, the anniversary of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.
Just as Frank reached the steps, a familiar figure exited the Pentagon: one of his high school football coaches, wearing an Air Force officer’s uniform.
The coach would have seen a very different boy from the one he directed on the football field. “Do you really know what you’re doing?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Frank said. “I really do.”
His former coach nodded, climbed into a waiting car, and was gone. The curtains went up. Frank reached into his pocket for his packet of blood. He screamed, “The Pentagon is the temple of death!” and threw the blood at the building.
Frank said being arrested for the first time under the Pentagon’s pillars was one of the most authentic experiences of his life. “That’s where real liturgy takes place, in the public domain. At personal risk,” he said.
During his first trial, he admitted to the charges, saying life is valuable and must be protected. He would use a similar argument each time an act of civil disobedience landed him in front of a judge. All of them put him behind bars for sentences ranging from 30 days to six months.
Somewhere between his activism and subsequent prison stays, Frank found time to attend St. John’s Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. He was ordained in 1985.
Frank woke up early in Sarpy County Jail for his morning routine. It was 1990. He climbed out of his bunk and checked for guards, then grabbed the small toilet paper-wrapped package he’d hidden. He stuffed it in the top of his sock, just in case. He didn’t want to risk punishment.
He knelt for his morning prayers. Frank prayed for the parish he’d left behind. He prayed for the broken people in prison with him. He prayed for the soul of America. He said “Amen.”
With a furtive glance, he pulled the package from his sock. Of all the habits he’d developed in prison, this one soothed his soul the most. He peeled back the toilet paper to reveal a delicate wafer. He partook in the Eucharist each morning on days when the jail had no official mass.
Frank doesn’t tell me this story. When I ask about his time in prison, he gives me a sentence or two before changing course to conversations about the military-industrial complex or his theory about the God of Empire and the God of Creation.
No, the holy contraband story comes from a letter written to his parish on June 17, 1990. He sends me more than 60 documents via email, each a series of letters written between 1988 and 2014. Volunteers typed them up and printed them in his church’s bulletin, so his parish could keep tabs on their jailbird priest.
Frank sees jail as a chance to lead a more disciplined life. He writes, prays and reads more consistently, spends more time studying the bible. “In jail, I can be selfish and take care of my own personal, spiritual needs,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s in the middle of an environment that’s absolute chaos all the time.”
His letters reflect that chaos, and some sadness, too. Sadness for the broken people the prison system takes in and spits out. “Almost all the men here were victims first of broken homes and dysfunctional families before they started breaking laws,” he wrote in 1990. “The relationship between dysfunctional families, drug and alcohol abuse and poverty and the people who occupy this jail is almost absolute.”
Those broken people sought Frank out when they learned of his priesthood. “They were really ready to talk to anybody who represented somebody with a listening ear and a connection with faith,” he said. “Jail was an honorable place to be for a Catholic priest.”
Jail was an honorable place to be for a Catholic priest.”
– Frank Cordaro
Not everybody agreed with him, including his own family. “It was hard for me to understand what he was doing and why he was doing it,” Joe said. “Our mother was not convinced really quickly, either. She was just angry with him for a really long time.”
Criticism was harsh. The Catholic Mirror, the newspaper of the Diocese of Des Moines, printed a letter to the editor in 1992. “How does he find time to organize these protests when he has a full-time job?” the writer asked. “What do we tell our children and grandchildren, or how do we explain to them that this person knows what he does is illegal and against the law, yet continues to do it anyway?”
Bishop Pates puts it a bit more delicately. “Everybody has their own methodology. He certainly has protested strongly for the poor, against nuclear weapons,” Pates said. “You know, he’s arrested, and he spends a lot of time in jail. I think it’s a lifestyle that he’s chosen. He feels it’s effective. But there are other ways of protesting.”
Frank said his parishioners wished he would have found other ways of protesting, too. “They didn’t want to see me go to jail,” Frank said. “But on the other hand, I’d say, ‘OK. Let’s get someone else in this Diocese.’ And they would say, ‘no, stay.’ So I might have been crazy and quirky, but they liked me.”
Frank calls his time working under Bishop Dingman a “Camelot moment” for the Catholic Church. The two of them planned protests together, like trespassing at the Offutt Air Force Base in Sarpy County, Nebraska. Frank said the bishop even planned to cross the line himself, an act that might have gotten him arrested.
But Dingman suffered a stroke right before the action in 1986. He passed away in 1992 without getting a chance to participate in a protest. Frank, determined to carry out his mentor’s legacy, wrote the bishops in the area: “The deal between Dingman and I was that we’d develop a model of priestly life that involved civil disobedience and resistance. I’m trusting we can carry on in that way.”
And they did, at least for a bit. But Frank started stirring up other issues, too. “I was very publicly advocating for women’s ordination,” he said. “I went to demonstrations down at the cathedral, wearing my collar and everything. I was clearly pushing boundaries.”
The Church pushed back. They didn’t want him to protest anymore, at least not in ways that landed him in jail. So Frank walked away.
Blood, Hammers and the B-52
Each year, the Andrews Air Force Base hosts an open house. Thousands visit the Maryland base to see the latest in aircraft technology. Pilots perform aerial stunts. Soldiers give talks. And in 1998, five activists, known as the Gods of Metal Plowshares Five, attacked a military bomber.
An interpretation of Roman Catholicism allows for the destruction of property in the name of pacifism. That’s where the Plowshares movement came from. The movement aligned with Frank’s goals perfectly. When the first Plowshares action took place in 1980 — a group of eight damaged a nuclear warhead and poured blood onto documents and files — Frank knew he’d one day participate. Most Plowshares protests involved active resistance to war. In this case, active resistance isn’t just writing letters and making a few calls. It means trespassing on military property. It means pouring blood. It means breaking things.
Frank wanted to break things. He’d lost Bishop Dingman. His relationship with the church was tenuous. His mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “I was just kind of overwhelmed, emotionally,” he said.
He attacked a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber with another priest, two nuns and a grandmother. They struck the metal body with hammers and poured their own blood on its surface. Somehow, even after punching holes in the bomber, they had enough time to hand out explanatory pamphlets to the onlookers. Then, they were arrested. Frank wore his clerical collar the entire time.
“I went through all the emotions,” he said. “I like acting out things like that. I enjoyed it. It was exhilarating. It was truth-speaking. It was ground-leveling, spiritual stuff.”
The resulting six months in jail were not so enjoyable. But Frank said prison was bearable because he’s proud of what he did to get there. His time in prison is a reflection of his conscience.
After six months in prison, Frank returned to the priesthood one last time. A heart attack — a revelation, of sorts — in 2001 convinced him it was time to leave the order for good. This final departure was different than simply walking away in frustration, though. He met the bishop face-to-face. ““Bishop, this has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me,” Frank said.
When I ask him why he left, he’s blunt about the personal nature of the decision. “I couldn’t deal with the whole celibacy thing,” he said. “I just got tired of the lack of integrity from myself. I live one life in public, and another in my private life.”
Today, Frank lives full time at the Catholic Worker. The main house is named for Bishop Dingman. He has two cats, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, both named for radical Christian anarchists, and a girlfriend he says is “half my age, twice my spirit.”
Now, nearly his entire family supports his protesting. Joe said he got on board when Frank explained that everything he did was rooted in the Bible. “Jesus was crucified for what he believed. And Frank thinks we should do the same,” Joe said. “That message hits people really hard because they’ve always believed the Gospel, but they’ve never met anybody who really, actually lives it. It’s unbelievable how, every time Frank goes to jail, these discussions come out of it.”
Before her death, even Angela Cordaro came around to civil disobedience. “Yeah, she was a co-defendant at one point,” Frank said. “I told the judge, ‘Hey, you can’t blame me, my mother told me to do it.’”
A Fragile Nobility
Frank’s been trying to fit exercise into his schedule since his heart attack. I tag along for a walk that doubles as a tour of his neighborhood. His old high school is twenty minutes from the Catholic Worker houses, and he points out the field where he used to play football. At times, he gets so involved with his storytelling that his stride slows to a shuffle, then a stop. After a few minutes of standing in the middle of the sidewalk, he makes his point, looks around as if just coming to, and continues marching.
We pass by a group sitting near the Bishop Dingman House. One woman is holding her arm and crying. Frank approaches her and they talk for a few moments, voices low. Frank tells her to take care of herself, and we walk again. I ask if she’s OK.
“No, she’s not OK,” he said. “This is crazy. She can’t live on the streets like this. She’s a very strong woman, but she’s just — she needs to get off the street, or die. She’s been on the street too long.”
I’m not sure what to say. I observe that coming to the Catholic Worker and having steady meals must be good for her. “Yeah, when we don’t have to kick her out,” he says.
Frank protects the woman’s privacy, so I don’t get much more of her story. He does tell me that guests aren’t supposed to come to the house drunk. Frank usually lets that rule go. “Everybody comes in drunk,” he said. However, anyone getting too rowdy or violent has to leave. Kicking out the people who, in his eyes, need the most help is the worst part of Frank’s job. But he takes the bad with the good. “That’s just the way it is. It’s still good. It’s just that good isn’t pretty all the time. Pretty much any good that’s worth a damn is never pretty.”
Frank Cordaro is trying to do heroic and noble work. He’s not always a heroic and noble person. And maybe that’s OK.