Dorothy Day died on November 29th, 1980 in Maryhouse, the original Catholic Worker house in downtown New York. She is called by historian David O’Brien of Commonweal magazine “the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”
Dorothy Day began The Catholic Worker movement in 1933 with poor man and philosopher Peter Maurin in New York City at the height of the Great Depression. Initially this was simply a newspaper publication (that is still in print) but it soon grew into a movement centered around homes of hospitality for the poor and homeless of American cities as well as Catholic farm communities.
Dorothy’s cause for canonization is underway (she is currently a Servant of God), and while many site her famously saying, “don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”—she also wrote “we are all called to be saints, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name.”
Dorothy helps many of us get over our fear of being saints by her down to earth yet radical approach to urban poverty and isolation in 20th century America. Her solution: preaching the Poor Christ to the poor and living in community with the poor. It is her homes of hospitality that sparked a movement still alive and well in today’s American cities. In fact, she dreamed of every parish in America running a house of hospitality for the poor.
Dorothy’s legacy is truly one of radical orthodoxy.
Dorothy grew up in a nominally Christian family but considered herself an agnostic. An avid lover of books, Dorothy as a teenager read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and it changed the way she saw Chicago, her childhood home.
After the earthquake in San Fransisco moved her journalist father there, she began walking the city with her baby brother’s pram, venturing further and further into the desolate neighborhoods of the poor and forgotten. Even at the young age of fifteen, she saw beauty there and “From that time on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests would be mine: I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in life.”
Her love and concern for the destitute pushed Dorothy to become active in the Communist movement of the 1920’s. She felt that Communists sided with the workers of the world. She longed to actively break down the oppressive industrial structures that held the working poor in chains of slavery. “Where,” she wondered, “were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to slaves but to do away with slavery?”
Amidst a landscape of young intellectuals and activists who decried institutional religion and saw it as an “opiate of the masses,” Dorothy began seeking faith and solace in the liturgy and the Rosary. She also saw the Catholic Church as the Church of the poor and dispossessed. When she discovered that she was pregnant with her common law husband, Forster Batterham, an anarchist and biologist whom she adored, she passionately sought to have her baby daughter, Tamar, baptized with the help a pious sister she met on the street. This eventually led her away from Forster, and she herself became Catholic on December 28th, 1927.
This conversion led Dorothy straight into the heart of Christ’s Gospel and the works of mercy, but she struggled to find fellow Catholics who cared as much as the atheist Communists about the plight of the poor and the workers. She wrote intermittently for Commonweal and America, and after covering a Communist hunger march in Washington D.C. on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, she went into the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and wept. “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” The next day she met Peter Maurin, the man she would credit with founding the Catholic Worker movement.
Dorothy’s legacy is truly one of radical orthodoxy. She embraced the social mission of the Church while decrying all work of war and violence. She also had a deep faith in the Eucharist and was a daily communicant. She inspires us on Saint Joseph Street to not only live out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, but also to write, to speak and to preach this Gospel of love and nonviolence. We should never tire of this “clarification of thought,” for she notes: “We must share the vision otherwise we will end up mere philanthropists doling out palliatives.”
Each Catholic Worker community is different in its flavor, its mission, its outlook on hospitality and activism. We follow a personalistic approach in the philosophy of Peter Maurin who sought to “build a new society in the shell of the old.” Not every community survives the passing of generations. But this woman, this holy Christian anarchist who so challenges our hearts and minds and bodies, prays for us all and especially for those forgotten and enslaved. Let us join her prayer and her work for and with the poor.
Prayer for the Canonization of Servant of God Dorothy Day
Merciful God, you called your servant
Dorothy Day to show us the face of
Jesus in the poor and forsaken.
By constant practice
of the works of mercy,
she embraced poverty and witnessed
steadfastly to justice and peace.
Count her among your saints
and lead us all to become friends of
the poor ones of the earth,
and to recognize you in them.
We ask this through your Son
Jesus Christ, bringer of good news
to the poor. Amen