Just before Christmas 1946, Dorothy Day permanently left Maryfarm in Pennsylvania, one of dozens of Houses of Hospitality her group, Catholic Worker, started setting up in the 1930s.
This Christmastime, Day remains an impressive figure. Her granddaughter Kate Hennessy has a new book, “Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty.” The Catholic Church’s cause for Day’s canonization is proceeding, as New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan last year launched an inquiry to gather proof that she’d lived a life of “heroic virtue.” During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis praised three Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Day.
Born in New York 120 years ago last month, Day attended the University of Illinois in 1914, then moved to New York where she lived a Bohemian lifestyle and became a journalist, then activist. She later co-founded Catholic Worker (CW) with Peter Maurin and participated in civil disobedience that led to repeated jailing. Also, the Catholic Worker newspaper — at one point distributing 200,000 copies weekly even as 1,000 people were fed daily — continues to publish. About 200 CW communities remain.
In “On Pilgrimage,” a 1971 collection of Day’s letters during a trip to Illinois and Colorado, she wrote about Peoria Bishop Edward O’Rourke, whom she praised from a CW house in the Quad Cities.
“Bishop O’Rourke of Peoria, their Diocese, gave them $2,500,” Day wrote, “and promises the same next year. He’s the Rural Life Bishop and loves [Cesar] Chavez” of the United Farm Workers union.
State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, recalls meeting Day in 1973 when the recent seminary graduate worked with the National Farm Worker Ministry. “She was jailed in Salinas during the lettuce strike,” Koehler told Community Word. “She was in jail with a nun from Tucson, which was where I was living at the time. She came to visit her, and came to the house where I was staying and met with a bunch of the UFW supporters one afternoon. It was fascinating.
“She was a small and fragile woman,” Koehler continued, “but with tremendous insight and wisdom. Very humble and at the same time strong. She had a captivating charisma.”
An ardent supporter not only of labor but of civil rights, women’s suffrage, peace and Distributism/socialism, Day wasn’t a stereotypical progressive or even a pious person. She may have had the mind of a saint, but she had the mouth of a sailor (once commenting, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”) and smoked and drank and hung out with the poor and marginalized.
Day also criticized intrusive government, twice attempted suicide, had an affair that resulted in an abortion (which she eventually opposed), ended her only marriage after about a year and lived with another man with whom she had a daughter out of wedlock. She opposed the welfare system.
Her 1927 conversion to Catholicism also wasn’t simple or easy, she wrote, describing herself as “one who had yearned to walk in the footsteps of a Mother Jones and an Emma Goldman [who’d] seemingly turned her back on the entire radical movement and sought shelter in that great, corrupt Holy Roman Catholic Church: right hand of the Oppressor, the State, rich and heartless, a traitor to her beginnings, her Founder, etc.” In fact, when the Communist Daily Worker newspaper requested a Christmas message, she sent a telegram (collect) stating, “Catholic Worker joins in appeal for democracy and peace, therefore asks you to join protest against all dictatorships, fascist and Bolshevist, against all suppression of civil liberties, fascist and Bolshevist, including freedom of religious propaganda, education and organization, against all war, whether imperialist, civil or class. Merry Christmas.”
Hennessy writes, “The framework of beliefs for the Worker [are] the need to perform the works of mercy, the need to give reason for the faith that is in us, the need to remember we are all members of the Body of Christ, and the need to keep hold of the vision of working for justice.” However, Day felt that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless without reforming society was incomplete and showed a lack of faith in God and other people.
“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system … God meant for things to be much easier than we have made them. What we would like to do is change the world — make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions — by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute (the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words) — we can change the world. There is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”
This Christmas, Hennessy’s biography can help readers see life’s tension and balance. Everyone’s complicated, not unlike the cast of the holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We take various roles: innocent Zuzu, supportive Mary, the fun (and too-tipsy) Uncle Billy and the fun (and too-easy) Violet; unsteady Mr. Gower and happy-go-lucky Sam Wainwright; humble Martini and, occasionally, the dutiful, desperate George Bailey and even the selfish, pompous Mr. Potter. Maybe we all have chances to hear bells that we’ve earned our wings, like Clarence.
“The final word,” Day said, “is love.”