In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, the reality for most Americans was stark. Nearly one in four people were without work, and depressed described the somber mood of the nation just as aptly as it told of the state of the economy. 

But in the midst of this era, a voice arose that called for a radical return to the values of the Gospels, sparking hope for many of the poor, unemployed and marginalized. 

That voice was the Catholic Worker.  

It’s been more than 75 years since the start of the movement, which has inspired the creation of nearly 185 communities worldwide, where the principles of peace, justice and charity are lived out in service to the poor. 

Today, as the country struggles to recover from the Great Recession, the Catholic Worker remains a vibrant witness to the vision of its legendary founder, Dorothy Day — a Catholic convert who was in search of a way to express her faith in relation to the social causes of her time — and that of fellow co-founder Peter Maurin, who encouraged Day to create a newspaper advocating the inseparable connection between Catholic thought and social justice issues.

A voice for its time 

Mel Piehl, a professor at Valparaiso University, in Indiana, and historian of the Catholic Worker, explained that initially the Catholic Worker was more of an idea than a practical movement. But that quickly changed. 

“What basically happened was they said, ‘We must bring the message of the Church to the workers, to the poor — that we should create a more just society.’ And people began showing up at the ‘editorial offices,’ which was Dorothy’s apartment extended, and Dorothy said, ‘Well, obviously people believe in what we said and we have to act on it,’” Piehl explained.  

They purchased a building in the slums of New York City and soon began feeding, clothing and sheltering those who showed up at their doorstep.  

Before long, bread lines at Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality” were feeding thousands of people in the city each day.  

Within three years, more than 30 other Worker houses cropped up across the country.  

“The language of this idea that people could act on behalf of faith and social justice spoke directly to the issues of the time,” Piehl said. “Many people were desperate for any kind of solution, and here were people about to bring the resources of the Church to bear on that.” 

As a newspaper, a movement and a voice, the Catholic Worker was “strikingly original for its time,” said Robert Ellsberg, editor of “All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day” (Marquette University Press, $35). 

Ellsberg, a close associate of Day’s in her latter years, told Our Sunday Visitor that from its inception the Worker was shaped by Day’s strong belief that laity had a role to play in influencing society. 

“I think that one of the big lessons that she offers is the fact that there is great freedom that is available to laypeople to live out their faith and apply the message of the Gospels to the world without waiting for institutional authorization or support — that we can all sort of begin where we are,” he said. 

Day, who was a single mother working as a freelance journalist, recognized the need for a Catholic response to the communist ideology circulating among the laborers and the poor of her time. And she was someone intent on being influenced, not only by the needs of the world around her, but also by Scripture, the lives of the saints and Catholic social teaching. 

She would “read the Bible in one hand and hold the newspaper in the other,” Ellsberg said. “[I think] the connection that she made between the Gospel and the needs of her time is something that any of us can do at any time.”

The movement today 

Today, many people still are drawn to the Catholic Worker, inspired by its founding principles and a desire to live in a community modeled on the message of Christ’s love. Rosalie Riegle, author of “Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her” (Orbis Books, $20) and co-founder of a now-closed Catholic Worker group, told OSV that “people come to the Catholic Worker because they want to make it — to use Peter Maurin’s words — a world where it’s easier to be good.” 

One evolution, however, has occurred over the years. “The Catholic Workers during the Depression were almost as destitute as the people they served ... just really living in abject poverty,” Riegle said.  

“And now I think most of the Catholic Workers would say that they live in poverty, but it’s more the poverty of simplicity, of choosing to live with very little, so they can share the burden of the poor,” she said. 

Sharing the burden of the poor is what Mark and Louise Zwick have done for more than three decades. In 1980, the Zwicks opened Casa San Juan Diego, a Catholic Worker house in Houston, to serve the many undocumented immigrants in the area.  

They have seen the many faces of poverty over the years, but in recent years they have witnessed the harsh effects of the economy on those they serve. 

“We’ve always received immigrants who were new and had nowhere to go, with only the shirts on their back, but [in the past] they had been able to quickly find work,” said Louise. “In today’s economy, that’s not so true.” 

One of their services is a men’s shelter that offers help to those seeking employment. “But, right now, it’s very difficult,” said Mark. “Men gather at the street corners waiting for work, and they will tell me they haven’t had a day’s work in several weeks, so the recession is hurting the immigrants very much.” 

Motivated by love 

But the Zwicks continue serving in spite of the suffering they encounter. “We believe very much in Matthew 25, that the person who comes to us is the Lord in disguise and that at the end of our life, as Dorothy said, and St. John the Cross said, you will be judged on love,” said Louise. “And how we respond to Christ in the poor, that’s what keeps us going.” 

John Fyrqvist, who lives at St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker in South Bend, Ind., said that he sees the oppressive cycles of homelessness and poverty in a city that was recently listed as one of the top 10 dying cities in America. 

“We kind of joke around that the works of mercy come and knock on your door every night, and you’re almost forced into this role where you give every moment of yourself to living out your faith,” he said.  

“When people come to us and they ask why do you do this? What’s your motivation? We often find ourselves quoting Dorothy Day or Peter Maurin, especially Dorothy’s quote: ‘We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.’ Her vision sums up the manifestation of how we live out our lives today.” 

Stephanie Kornexl is OSV’s assistant editor.

Meeting Dorothy Day (sidebar)

Robert Ellsberg, editor of “All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day,” describes his impressions of Dorothy Day upon first meeting the founder of the Catholic Worker in 1975, just five years before her death.  

“I was struck by the kind of authority that she carried in a very quiet way through her long life of faithfulness, and the courage and perseverance that she had shown through many decades. I was struck by her approachability and how social she was and how much she enjoyed meeting new people. ... I always felt that there was a kind of youthfulness about her, although she was kind of steeped in memories of the past. She was so engaged with what was happening around her, and her kind of spirit of adventure and idealism really made her seem much more youthful.”