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Cornelius, Stella (1919–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

Stella Cornelius was born in 1919, in the aftermath of war, to a Jewish father who had fled the pogroms of his native Russia. In her early years, the conflicts generated by World War I shook themselves out and, not resolving anything, created an atmosphere for another bloodbath.

For someone of the intelligence and sensitivity of Cornelius, these influences moulded her outlook for life. Struggling through the Great Depression, then World War II, she committed herself to the ideals of conflict resolution and peace.

She helped establish some of the nation's great peace institutions, including the Conflict Resolution Network, Macquarie University's Centre for Conflict Resolution and the National Consultative Committee on Peace and Disarmament.

Cornelius was acknowledged by the United Nations as a messenger of peace, lauded by Nelson Mandela, awarded an Order of Australia and nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Stella Cohen was born in Sydney on December 4, 1919, to a draper and tailor, Isador Cohen, and Kitty (nee Annenberg). Depression came when she was nine years old. Her family had to travel to any place where there was work. She grew up in the Murrumbidgee region, then Croydon in Sydney's west, and Newcastle. She was obliged to leave school early after gaining the Intermediate Certificate, to help her family.

She made up for that by doing technical courses through such institutions as the Workers' Education Association. She helped her father as a pattern maker and designer and, apart from learning early in life the virtues of hard work, she picked up other moral lessons, in particular what her mother said: ''There is always something in you that can influence things for the better.'' One area she focused on was women in the workplace.

When war broke out, Stella helped her father to manufacture hospital marquees and lifebelts for the defence forces. She met an Australian soldier, Max Cornelius, a Jewish German migrant who had fled persecution in Germany, arrived in Australia in 1938 and enlisted in the Australian Army. The two fell in love and they married in Sydney in 1943.

Max's accounts of the persecution of the Jews stirred her. ''Feeling their pain was my entry into being part of the human rights movement,'' she said later. ''Whenever I see my vision is not meeting up with reality, I start asking about how things can be transformed into something better.''

When war ended, the couple, now with a daughter, Helena, born in 1944, went into business. They also took custody of Max's nephew, Peter, in 1952, and supported him through his secondary and tertiary education.

Max, a furrier by trade, and Stella established Cornelius Furs, which became internationally recognised for quality merchandise and design. The shop became part of Sydney's retail history, on the corner of King and Castlereagh streets. The Powerhouse Museum now has a collection of archival material and objects (dating from the 1940s to 2000) relating to Cornelius Furs.

Cornelius made a point of employing women and giving them flexible working conditions so they could attend to other responsibilities.

In 1960, Stella was the only woman buyer – and the first woman from Australia – to attend the annual fur auction in Leningrad. She went with Max and learnt Russian for the trip.

By now, Cornelius was developing a vision of how the world could be. This was, her daughter later explained, one without war or physical and verbal violence, a conflict-resolving community, where people worked globally, collaboratively, non-confrontationally, in an atmosphere of loving kindness, in which justice prevailed and people had access to the basics of clean air, water, food, shelter, education and leisure.

Cornelius read widely in philosophy, history, literature and studied management and counselling. She became a voluntary marriage counsellor, learning a lot about conflict and its resolution. In 1973, she initiated a Peace and Conflict Resolution Program for the UN Association of Australia.

In 1977, the couple sold Cornelius Furs and looked forward to retirement. When Max died suddenly in 1978, Cornelius devoted herself full time to conflict resolution. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1979. In 1982, she started campaigning for an Australian Ministry of Peace. In 1985, she established a National Consultative Committee on Peace and Disarmament. In 1986, with daughter Helena, who had become a psychologist and trainer, she established a national Conflict Resolution Network.

That year, the Australian government appointed her Australian director of the International Year of Peace. Awarded the Order of Australia in 1987, Cornelius was instrumental in establishing Australia's Media Peace Awards, a Bilateral Peace Treaties Proposal (to encourage pairs of countries to sign an agreement that neither would be the first to initiate armed conflict against the other), a Work for All Who Need It campaign, aimed at eliminating involuntary unemployment, and a conflict-resolving government program, encouraging candidates to affirm they would use conflict-resolving measures if elected.

Cornelius campaigned for the Centre for Conflict Resolution, which was set up at Macquarie University in 1988. The concept spread, with tertiary institutions throughout Australia adopting conflict-resolution programs, as well as state schools in NSW. In 1999, Cornelius was given a Senior Australian of the Year Award. Though she did not have a Leaving Certificate, Macquarie University made her an Honorary Doctor of Letters.

Cornelius had long realised that so much conflict developed because people were being treated unjustly. She became vice-chair of the National Committee on Human Rights. In 2000, the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, recognised her and indigenous rights activist Faith Bandler for their contributions to conflict resolution.

In 2003, Cornelius was appointed to a National Committee on Human Rights Education. In 2005, she was nominated among 1000 ''peace women'' for the Nobel Prize. In 2010, when she was awarded the UN Association of Australia Peace Award, she was arguing that Anzac Day should go beyond remembering sacrifice in war and could be ''an annual reminder of our universal desire for peace''.

Stella Cornelius is survived by her daughter, three grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and nephew Peter Cornelius and his family.

A memorial service for Stella Cornelius will be held in Sydney on January 20.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 January 2011

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Cornelius, Stella (1919–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cornelius-stella-16826/text28721, accessed 21 March 2019.

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