A long life worth living

You wouldn't know she's well on her way to 101.

Luta Mae "Cornie" McGrath still drives, makes 9 a.m. daily Mass when she can and protests being dropped off at the curb when going out to eat - she needs her exercise, after all.

The convert to the Faith has been a regular parishioner at Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria since the early 1960s when she moved to Annandale with her husband, Thomas. Her time in Northern Virginia has been her life's second phase, however - the one that followed her service in World War II as one of the American military's highest ranking female officers.

Humble beginnings

Born in November 1907 in rural eastern Kentucky, Cornie lost her father at age 5, leaving her mother "with three of us and no money," she said.

After high school, she was drawn to the Army and joined in 1943 - a year after Congress passed a bill allowing women to serve, albeit still with many restrictions. It was in the Army where her nickname, derived from her maiden name, "Cornelius," really stuck.

Soon after enlisting, Cornie was assigned to the Ordnance Corps, the section of the Army designed to support the development and production of weapons and weapons systems, and was stationed for four years in Texarkana, Texas.

"I was assigned to anything the men were assigned to," she said, adding that she was treated with "the greatest respect all the way through the Army" - though some of the male officers at first were resentful of women taking their jobs.

In 1947, Cornie was sent to Frankfurt, Germany, where she met her future husband, Thomas J. McGrath - who she still calls "Mac" out of Army-day habit. A year later, she was in Berlin during the Berlin Blockade and resulting airlift.

According to a publication by the Ordnance Corps, Cornie "was called upon to plan and organize the storage, handling, and airlift of precious ammunition into West Berlin to disrupt this Soviet blockage."

Upon her return to the United States in 1950, Cornie married Tom in a Protestant service at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

After nearly 20 years of service, Cornie retired from the Army in 1961with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and the couple moved to Virginia.

A change of heart

Raised in a Protestant church, Cornie said her marriage to her Catholic husband got her thinking about the Catholic faith. Soon after their wedding, Tom was transferred to Puerto Rico, and Cornie began attending Mass with her sister-in-law.

Once in Virginia, the couple joined Queen of Apostles and Cornie enrolled in the new parish's first Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults class.

"He never insisted that I become a Catholic," Cornie said of her husband, but he attended all the meetings with her and served as her co-sponsor.

To this day, Cornie marvels on the difference in the cultures of the Protestant and Catholic churches - especially how Catholics are baptized at birth, instead of being left to choose whether or not they want to join when they are older. As she began to learn more about Catholicism, she felt herself drawn to it.

"I liked everything about it," she said. "It makes me feel more a part of God than I ever did before."

Her conversion began a dedication to the Church that has lasted for more than 40 years. She served as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and headed her parish's altar society. Before Tom's death in 1991, the McGraths attended daily Mass together every morning at 6:30. To this day she still attends as regularly as she can - although she's switched to 9.

100 years young

Photos are everywhere in Cornie's house. Large portraits of her and Tom in uniform fill one wall; a framed portrait of her as a young girl with baseball star Earle Combs (he was her teacher before he signed with the New York Yankees) sits on a table; the first photograph of her in uniform sits across the room; and stacks of photo albums are laden with photos from her horseback riding days, her induction ceremony into the Ordnance Hall of Fame - the first woman - and birthdays and anniversaries with friends.

If you sit down and talk to her, Cornie would have you thinking her lifetime achievements - especially her time in the Army - are no big deal. She paints broad strokes with her words, using phrases like "I was just expected to accomplish" whatever she started out to do.

"When I do something, I try," she said simply. "I'm just one of the many of us who paved the way."

Married at 43, she never had any children - instead her parish has filled that role. She proudly displays a scrapbook put together by women at Queen of Apostles for her 100th birthday. Its pages overflow with tokens from well-wishers - manifestations that Cornie's long life has touched many others. And at nearly 101 years of age, Cornie knows it's been a blessed one.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2008