Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper. . . . But there was another question in my mind. Why was so much done in remedying the evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? . . . Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?
When Dorothy Day died on Nov. 29, 1980, her funeral was held at Nativity Parish, a church located in the poor neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side. On the day of her funeral, one of the Jesuit teachers at Nativity Parish School gave his class the morning off, enthusiastically advising them: Go to church today and see the funeral of a saint. That was a remarkable comment given the fact that Dorothy Day, in her early years, had a series of lovers, got pregnant by one, had an illegal abortion, attempted suicide twice, was active in socialist and communist movements. Nevertheless, in her lifetime Dorothy came to be viewed both as a saint and as the living social conscience of the American Roman Catholic Church. As a young adult, she began her quest for life purpose by studying and proclaiming socialism and ended as a Catholic highly influenced by socialist ideals. Prayer, justice, peace and solidarity with the poor were her ways of living out the teaching of Christ on love: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12).
Dorothy was born on Nov. 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, to John J. and Grace Day, who were nominal members of the Episcopal Church. John was a newspaper reporter whose career meant many moves for the family. Dorothy spent her early years (1904-1906) in northern California where her father worked until the great San Francisco earthquake forced him to find another job. While living in Berkeley, California, Dorothy had a formative spiritual experience. “I remember we were in the attic. I was sitting behind a table, pretending I was the teacher, reading aloud from a Bible that I had found. Slowly, as I read, a new personality impressed itself on me. I was being introduced to someone, and I knew almost immediately that I was discovering God.” Intuitively spiritual, Dorothy was the only one of her family of seven to attend church, usually attending services by herself. When she was 12, she was baptized in the Episcopal Church.
The family moved to Chicago in 1906. Feeling isolated from family and friends during those years, Dorothy turned inward, spending her time reading and writing. She attended the University of Illinois in Urbana where her commitment to writing deepened as did her interest and involvement with pressing social issues: poverty, organized labor and war. Religious practice was not part of her life at that time. In her book, The Long Loneliness, she recalls being hostile to it: “I felt at the time that religion would only impede my work. I felt it indeed to be an opiate of the people, and not a very attractive one, so I hardened my heart. It was a conscious and deliberate process.”
Enticed by the radical social, cultural and political ideas which were prominent in New York City, Dorothy dropped out of university in Illinois and moved to New York City in 1916. She promptly found work as a writer for the New York Call, one of the nation’s largest and most influential socialist daily newspapers. As a revolutionary journalist she covered labor movements, bread riots, unemployment, child labor laws, women’s rights and protest marches on city hall.
Dorothy quickly began associating with the city’s radical political and cultural thinkers. She met Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in New York. She became a close friend of playwright Eugene O’Neill and was often at his side, helping him deal with bouts of alcoholism. However, their friendship was not one sided. O’Neill played an important role in Dorothy’s eventual conversion to Catholicism. He listened to Dorothy and discovered that she felt a restlessness of spirit, that she felt something like a calling to do more and be more. As a result, O’Neill urged her to read St. Augustine’s Confessions. In so doing, she came across Augustine’s famous statement that resonated with her spirit: “You have made our hearts for yourself, O God, and they will never rest until they rest in you.” That reading became a vital first step in her ultimate spiritual conversion.
Over the next decade, Dorothy drifted aimlessly. She parted company with her radical friends, working briefly as a nurse at a Brooklyn hospital. While nursing, she met Lionel Moise, described as a “womanizing newspaperman.” Their love affair resulted in Dorothy becoming pregnant. She sought out an illegal abortion, an act which caused her considerable emotional suffering for many years. From nursing she returned to writing for small radically oriented newspapers. In 1920, she married literary agent Berkeley Tobey, a marriage which ended a year later. She then moved to New Orleans where she worked as a journalist and, during her time there, wrote a modestly successful novel titled The Eleventh Virgin (1924).
For the first time in her life, Dorothy had financial resources, and she used them to move back to New York and buy a beach cottage on Staten Island. There she began living with Foster Batterham, a man she loved deeply and by whom she had a daughter, Tamar Teresa, born on March 3, 1927. This proved to be a pivotal turning point in her spiritual life, and Dorothy and her daughter were both baptized into the Catholic Church on Dec. 28, 1927. Dorothy’s spiritual transformation ended her relationship with Foster who could neither understand nor appreciate her newly embraced faith.
Being a new mother, becoming a single parent, and embracing a spiritual life drew Dorothy away from radical causes for a brief time. She spent time in prayer and discernment, exploring how she could live out her faith as well as her commitment to social reform and justice. During those months of transition, she took jobs in New York, Hollywood and Mexico, always living in poverty with the poor. During this time, she resumed her activity with social reform movements.
In December 1932, Dorothy accepted a freelance writing assignment for the Catholic publication Commonweal and went to Washington, D.C., to report on a communist-organized hunger march. While there, she visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where she prayed for God’s guidance for a way to open for her to use her talents and passions for the poor.
Meeting Peter Maurin
The answer to her prayer came quickly when she returned to New York and met Peter Maurin, a devout Catholic and social reformer who envisioned a society based on the teachings of Jesus, one in which there were no divisions such as between workers and intellectuals. Maurin was a social philosopher who had the spirit of St. Francis. He committed himself to simplicity and poverty, often sought meals in skid-row missions, slept on the streets or wherever he could find a bed. What little money he received, Maurin spent on books or, more often, gave it to the poor. He was convinced that radical social reform and the Roman Catholic faith could be united. Dorothy was drawn to both his piety and his passionate for social justice.
Their friendship and partnership quickly blossomed. Peter spent a great deal of time with Dorothy, sharing his knowledge and insight about Catholic social philosophy. He introduced her to important religious and social thinkers, and together they studied lives of the saints and the history of Christianity. During their conversations, Peter outlined a three-step approach for transforming society: first, start a newspaper to promote socialist Christian ideas; second, organize “houses of hospitality” to feed and clothe the hungry, and third, organize farming communes where people could live and work together for the common good. Because she was a journalist, Peter encouraged Dorothy to begin the process of Catholic social transformation by starting a monthly newspaper. That newspaper, The Catholic Worker, would in turn launch the Catholic Worker Movement.
First published in May 1933 with a modest initial issue of 2,500 copies, The Catholic Worker took bold and radical stands on issues. Within four months 25,000 copies were being printed. By the end of the year, circulation was up to 100,000 and, by 1936, it was a nationally circulated Catholic newspaper reaching 150,000 readers. Parishes subscribed, often ordering bundles of 500 or more. Young activists sold it on the streets. The newspaper’s ideals became realities in the minds of many readers.
Her ‘House of Hospitality’
However, Day was not content merely to write about socialist ideals. She wanted to back up her words with deeds so she set aside part of their newspaper office for a “house of hospitality” which offered food and shelter for those in depression-era poverty. It was the first of many houses of hospitality which would be established around the country. By 1936, there were 33 Catholic Worker homes around the country. Over the next five years, Day and the Catholic Worker Movement led the American Roman Catholic Church in reform efforts. “What we would like to do is change the world,” she declared. “Make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor and the destitute — the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words — we can to a certain extent change the world: we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world.”
Dorothy’s faithfulness to Jesus’ message of love and her reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount led her to an uncompromising position as a pacifist. She did not agree with the Christian just war teaching, the view that some wars are justified when certain moral conditions exist. Her position of non-violence was both resolute and uncompromising. For example, in the January 1942 issue of The Catholic Worker — the first after the bombing of Pearl Harbor — Dorothy wrote: “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount . . . we will print the words of Christ who is with us always — even to the end of the world: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.’ ”
Because of her activism and outspoken criticism of American social structures, many American Catholics were unhappy with her words and acts. Yet her passion, sincerity and spirituality muted many critical voices. On one occasion, New York’s powerful and influential Cardinal Francis Spellman was asked to silence her. Although he had a well-earned reputation for being a vocal and steadfast social, political and theological conservative, and in spite of the fact that his worldview was the ideological opposite of Dorothy’s, he was, nevertheless, startled and even offended by the suggestion that he silence Dorothy. The cardinal had this simple, straightforward response why he would not silence her: “She might be a saint.” No bishop or cardinal would want to be remembered for censuring someone whom the Church would later regard and canonize as a saint.
Although incredibly active and energetic throughout her life, Dorothy always struggled with depression. She described the pain of night: “My nights are always in sadness and desolation, and it seems as though, as soon as I lie down, I am on a tack of bitterness and pain. Then, in the day, I am again strong enough to make an act of faith and love to go on in peace and joy.”
Dorothy never seemed to be discouraged by the waves of human need and misery which came as a never-ending surf. Quaker author Parker J. Palmer, who spent time volunteering at the Lower East Side Catholic Worker house, witnessed the enormity of the ministry. He asked Dorothy how she could “keep doing a work which never showed any results, a work in which the problems kept getting worse instead of better.” Dorothy’s answer was instructive and memorable for Palmer: “The thing you don’t understand, Parker, is that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it!”
Dorothy died on Nov. 29, 1980, at Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker settlement house of hospitality for women. After a lifetime of living in poverty, she died penniless, with no money set aside for her funeral. It was paid for the by Archdiocese of New York.
In 1983, a proposal for Dorothy Day’s canonization was made by the Claretian Missionaries. Cardinal John J. O’Connor, head of the Catholic Diocese of New York, petitioned the Vatican for permission to open the cause for her beatification and canonization. With the Vatican’s approval, granted in 2000, she was given the title Servant of God.
In the decades since her death, Dorothy continues to be held in high regard by those who study her life and contributions. In a recent article, writers Chris Barrett and Wayne Barrett offer these words of admiration and esteem for Dorothy: “Hostels were her cathedral. Rags were her vestments. Bread was her Eucharist, soup her wine. . . . Her message made her the most influential and inspirational leader of Catholic outreach since St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century, who, like her, called the Church back to its ‘communistic’ roots of radical redistribution of wealth to insure that none were in need.”
REV. PARACHIN, a minister, journalist, and teacher of meditation and yoga with his wife, writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.