Dorothy Day (1897–1980)
Like many of the contemporary figures profiled in this book, Dorothy Day was not always a person of faith. She became a Roman Catholic as an adult, after struggling with many essential questions and sacrificing intimate relationships so that she could grow closer to God.
She was born in Brooklyn and baptized into the Episcopal Church. Her father claimed to be an atheist, and Dorothy had little to do with religion in her youth, although even as a child she was attracted to the stories of the saints.
She attended college for two years, and then worked for a socialist daily newspaper in Manhattan. When that newspaper folded, she worked for another one. She made many friends during her time in New York. Together, they frequented Greenwich Village cafes and discussed politics, socialism, and the war that America had just entered.
Figure 20-3: Dorothy Day
As her awareness of inequality increased, she decided to join a group headed to Washington, D.C., to stage a protest for women's suffrage.
Dorothy and her companions were arrested. While serving a ten-day prison sentence she asked a guard for a Bible. In writing about the incident later, she said that she convinced herself that she was not interested in religion, just in reading the Bible as literature.
Released from prison, Dorothy spent the next several years adrift. She wrote and even published a novel,
She fell in love again, and entered into what she called “a common-law marriage.” At twenty-nine, Dorothy gave birth to a baby girl named Tamar, and she began to sense the presence of God in her life. Her partner had no use for her religious impulses, and he told her that should she become Catholic their relationship would end. Bravely, she decided to baptize the child and to join the Church.
By 1932 the country was in the midst of the Depression. She and Tamar were living in an apartment in Manhattan she shared with her younger brother and his wife. Dorothy was thirty-five and felt aimless.
Then one day she opened the door to find fifty-five-year-old Frenchman Peter Maurin on the other side, his pockets stuffed full of pamphlets. He had taught in France, but left to try his luck in Canada. In 1911 he moved to the United States, drifting from job to job and reading constantly. He talked to Dorothy about spiritual values and the materialism of the world. He told her he was convinced he should publish a newspaper, but he needed someone to work with him. Dorothy's training as a journalist came in handy, and a lifelong partnership began.
Together, Dorothy and Peter started the
With the help of these donations, Dorothy was able to move to a home in Greenwich Village that became a “hospitality house.” Anyone who knocked on that door looking for food or shelter was welcome, no matter how bedraggled or disruptive they were. “They are a member of the family in Christ,” she would say.
Each day during the Depression hundreds of men came to the hospitality house for coffee and bread. By 1941 there were some thirty hospitality houses in this country and one in England.
In 1949 Peter Maurin died, but Dorothy continued with speaking engagements. Her last major trip was in August of 1973 when she flew to California to join a demonstration led by Cesar Chavez, for his United Farm Workers Union. Photographs at the time show her seated on a folding chair, protected from the sun by a large straw hat, and flanked by police and farm workers. She was arrested that day for violating an injunction limiting picketing. She was seventy-six.
On November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day died, with Tamar at her side. She was eighty-three years old.
The Movement Continues
By the mid-1990s there were more than 100 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality and farms across the United States and around the world. Each operates independently, although all conform to the vision Dorothy Day expressed in her talks and books. There is still a
The Canonization Question
Although some saw her saintly qualities, others only saw the strikes against her: her out-of-wedlock child, her lovers, her abortion. Also, there did not seem to be any serious supporters for Day's canonization among those who knew her best and feared that canonization could reduce her to “a stained-glass window.”
In March 2000, however, the Vatican announced that it had approved starting the canonization process on her behalf. The request came from Cardinal John O'Connor of the New York archdiocese. He wrote that he considered her a model for everyone, “but especially for women who have had or are considering abortion.” He added, “She regretted it every day of her life.”