Dorothy Day


Dorothy Day Essay, Research Paper

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was born in

Brooklyn, New York, November 8, 1897. After surviving the San Francisco

earthquake in 1906, the Day family moved into a flat in Chicago’s South

Side. It was a big step down in the world made necessary because John

Day was out of work. Day understands of the shame people feel when they

fail in their efforts dated from this time. (Miller, p.4)

When John Day was appointed sports editor of a Chicago newspaper, the

Day family moved into a comfortable house on the North Side. Here

Dorothy began to read books that stirred her conscience. Upon Sinclair’s

novel, The Jungle, inspired Day to take long walks in poor

neighbourhoods in Chicago’s South Side. It was the start of a life-long

attraction to areas many people avoid.

Day won a scholarship that brought her to the University of Illinois

campus at Urbana in the fall of 1914. But she was a reluctant scholar.

Her reading was in a radical social direction. (Miller, p.5) She avoided

campus social life and insisted on supporting herself rather than live

on money from her father.

Dropping out of college two years later, she moved to New York where she

found a job as a reporter for The Call, the city’s only socialist daily.

She covered rallies and demonstrations and interviewed people ranging

from butlers and butlers to labour organisers and revolutionaries.

She next worked for The Masses, a magazine that opposed American

involvement in the European war. In September, the Post Office rescinded

the magazine’s mailing permit. Federal officers seized back issues,

manuscripts, subscriber lists and correspondence. Five editors were

charged with sedition.

In November 1917 Day went to prison for being one of forty women in

front of the White House protesting women’s exclusion from the

electorate. Arriving at a rural workhouse, the women were roughly

handled. The women responded with a hunger strike. Finally they were

freed by presidential order.

Returning to New York, Day felt that journalism was a meagre response to

a world at war. In the spring of 1918, she signed up for a nurse’s

training program in Brooklyn.

Her conviction that the social order was unjust changed in no

substantial way from her adolescence until her death, though she never

identified herself with any political party. (Forest, p.23) Her

religious development was a slower process. (Miller, p.6) As a child she

had attended services at an Episcopal Church. As a young journalist in

New York, she would sometimes make late-at-night visits to St. Joseph’s

Catholic Church.

In 1922, in Chicago working as a reporter, she roomed with three young

women who went to Mass every Sunday and holy day and set aside time each

day for prayer. It was clear to her that "worship, adoration,

thanksgiving, supplication … were the noblest acts of which we are

capable in this life."(Day, p.8)

Her next job was with a newspaper in New Orleans. Back in New York in

1924, Day bought a beach cottage on Staten Island using money from the

sale of movie rights for a novel. She also began a four-year common-law

marriage with Forster Batterham, an English botanist she had met through

friends in Manhattan. Batterham was an anarchist opposed to marriage and

religion. In a world of such cruelty, he found it impossible to believe

in a God. (Miller, p.6) It grieved her that Batterham didn’t sense God’s

presence within the natural world. "How can there be no God," she asked,

"when there are all these beautiful things?"(Day, p.11) His irritation

with her "absorption in the supernatural" would lead them to quarrel.

(Miller, p.7)

What moved everything to a different plane for her was pregnancy. She

had been pregnant once before, years earlier, as the result of a love

affair with a journalist. This resulted in the great tragedy of her

life, an abortion. The affair and its awful aftermath had been the

subject of her novel, The Eleventh Virgin. Her pregnancy with Batterham

seemed to Day nothing less than a miracle. But Batterham didn’t believe

in bringing children into such a violent world.

On March 3, 1927, Tamar Theresa Day was born. Day could think of nothing

better to do with the gratitude that overwhelmed her than arrange

Tamar’s baptism in the Catholic Church. "I did not want my child to

flounder as I had often floundered. I wanted to believe, and I wanted my

child to believe, and if belonging to a Church would give her so

inestimable a grace as faith in God, and the companionable love of the

Saints, then the thing to do was to have her baptised a Catholic."(Day,

p.16) After Tamar’s baptism, there was a permanent break with Batterham.

In the winter of 1932 Day travelled to Washington, D.C., to report for

Commonweal and America magazines on the Hunger March. Day watched the

protesters parade down the streets of Washington carrying signs calling

for jobs, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, relief for mothers

and children, health care and housing.

Back in her apartment in New York, Day met Peter Maurin, a French

immigrant 20 years her senior. Maurin, a former Christian Brother, had

left France for Canada in 1908 and later made his way to the United

States. When he met Day, he was handyman at a Catholic boys’ camp in

upstate New York, receiving meals, use of the chaplain’s library, living

space in the barn and occasional pocket money.

During his years of wandering, Maurin had come to a Franciscan attitude,

embracing poverty as a vocation. His celibate, unencumbered life offered

time for study and prayer, out of which a vision had taken form of a

social order, instilled with basic values of the Gospel. A born teacher,

he found willing listeners, among them George Shuster, editor of

Commonweal magazine, who gave him Day’s address. What Day should do,

Maurin said, was start a paper to publicise Catholic social teaching and

promote steps to bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Day

found that the Paulist Press was willing to print 2,500 copies of an

eight-page tabloid paper for $57. Her kitchen was the new paper’s

editorial office. She decided to sell the paper for a penny a copy, "so

cheap that anyone could afford to buy it."(Day, p.7)

On May 1, the first copies of The Catholic Worker were handed out on

Union Square.

Few publishing ventures meet with such immediate success. By December,

100,000 copies were being printed each month. Readers found a unique

voice in The Catholic Worker. It expressed dissatisfaction with the

social order and took the side of labour unions, but its vision of the

ideal future challenged both urbanisation and industrialism. (Miller,


For the first half year The Catholic Worker was only a newspaper, but as

winter approached, homeless people began to knock on the door. Maurin’s

essays in the paper were calling for renewal of the ancient Christian

practice of hospitality to those who were homeless. Miller, p.14) these

way followers of Christ could respond to Jesus’ words: "I was a stranger

and you took me in." Maurin opposed the idea that Christians should take

care only of their friends and leave care of strangers to impersonal

charitable agencies. (Miller, p.14)

By the wintertime, an apartment was rented with space for ten women,

soon after a place for men. Next came a house in Greenwich Village. In

1936 the community moved into two buildings in Chinatown, but no

enlargement could possibly find room for all those in need. Mainly they

were men, Day wrote, "grey men, the colour of lifeless trees and bushes

and winter soil, who had in them as yet none of the green of hope, the

rising sap of faith."(Day, p.13) Many were surprised that, in contrast

with most charitable centres, no one at the Catholic Worker set about

reforming them. A crucifix on the wall was the only unmistakable

evidence of the faith of those welcoming them. The staff received only

food, board and occasional pocket money.

The Catholic Worker became a national movement. By 1936 there were 33

Catholic Worker Houses spread across the country. Due to the Depression,

there were plenty of people needing them. The Catholic Worker attitude

toward those who were welcomed wasn’t always appreciated. These weren’t

the "deserving poor," it was sometimes objected, but drunkards and

good-for-nothings. (Miller, p.15) A visiting social worker asked Day how

long the "clients" were permitted to stay. "We let them stay forever,"

Day answered with a fierce look in her eye. "They live with us, they die

with us, and we give them a Christian burial. We pray for them after

they are dead. Once they are taken in, they become members of the

family. Or rather they always were members of the family. They are our

brothers and sisters in Christ."(Day, p.17)

The Catholic Worker also experimented with farming communes. In 1935 a

house with a garden was rented on Staten Island. Soon after came Mary

Farm in Easton, Pennsylvania, a property finally given up because of

strife within the community. Another farm was purchased in upstate New

York near Newburgh. Called the Maryfarm Retreat House, it was destined

for a longer life. Later came the Maurin Peter Farm on Staten Island,

which later moved to Tivoli and then to Marlborough, both in the Hudson

Valley. Day came to see the vocation of the Catholic Worker was not so

much to found model agricultural communities as rural houses of


"What got Day into the most trouble was pacifism."(Pausell, p.105) A

non-violent way of life, as she saw it, was at the heart of the Gospel.

For many centuries the Catholic Church had accommodated itself to war.

Popes had blessed armies and preached Crusades. In the thirteenth

century St. Francis of Assisi had revived the pacifist way, but by the

twentieth century, it was unknown for Catholics to take such a position.

The Catholic Worker’s first expression of pacifism, published in 1935,

was a dialogue between a patriot and Christ, the patriot dismissing

Christ’s teaching as a noble but impractical doctrine. Few readers were

troubled by such articles until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The

fascist side, led by Franco, presented itself as defender of the

Catholic faith. Nearly every Catholic bishop and publication rallied

behind Franco. The Catholic Worker, refusing to support either side in

the war, lost two-thirds of its readers.

Those backing Franco, Day warned early in the war, ought to "take

another look at recent events in [Nazi] Germany."(Day, p.20) She

expressed anxiety for the Jews and later was among the founders of the

Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. Following Japan’s attack

on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war, Dorothy announced that

the paper would maintain its pacifist stand. "We will print the words of

Christ who is with us always," Day wrote. (Forest, p.18) Opposition to

the war, she added, had nothing to do with sympathy for America’s

enemies. But the means of action the Catholic Worker movement supported

were the works of mercy rather than the works of war.

Not all members of Catholic Worker communities agreed. Fifteen houses of

hospitality closed in the months following the U.S. entry into the war.

The young men who identified with the Catholic Worker movement during

the war generally spent much of the war years either in prison, or in

rural work camps. Some did unarmed military service as medics.

The world war ended in 1945, but out of it emerged the Cold war, the

nuclear-armed warfare state and a series of smaller wars in which

America was often involved.

One of the rituals of life for the New York Catholic Worker community

beginning in the late 1950s was the refusal to participate in the

state’s annual civil defence drill. Such preparation for attack seemed

to Day part of an attempt to promote nuclear war as survivable and

winnable and to justify spending billions on the military. When the

sirens sounded June 15, 1955, Day was among a small group of people

sitting in front of City Hall. "In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is

Love, we will not obey this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We

will not be drilled into fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend

upon the Atom Bomb". (Forest, p.9)

The first year the dissidents were reprimanded. The next year Day and

others were sent to jail for five days. Arrested again the next year,

the judge jailed her for thirty days. In 1958, a different judge

suspended sentence. In 1959, Day was back in prison, but only for five

days. Then came 1960, when instead of a handful of people coming to City

Hall Park, 500 turned up. The police arrested only a few; Day

conspicuously not among those singled out. In 1961 the crowd swelled to

2,000. This time 40 were arrested, but again Day was exempted. "It

proved to be the last year of dress rehearsals for nuclear war in New

York."(Miller, p.24)

Another Catholic Worker stress was the civil rights movement. As usual

Day wanted to visit people who were setting an example and therefore

went to Koinonia, a Christian agricultural community in rural Georgia

where blacks and whites lived peacefully together. The community was

under attack when Day visited in 1957. One of the community houses had

been hit by machine-gun fire and Ku Klux Klan members had burned crosses

on community land. Day insisted on taking a turn at the sentry post.

(Miller, p.25) Noticing an approaching car had reduced its speed; she

ducked just as a bullet struck the steering column in front of her face.

Concern with the Church’s response to war led Day to Rome during the

Second Vatican Council, an event Pope John XXIII hoped would restore

"the simple and pure lines that the face of the Church of Jesus had at

its birth."(Forest, p.13) In 1963 Day was one 50 "Mothers for Peace" who

went to Rome to thank Pope John for his encyclical Pacem in Terris.

Close to death, the pope couldn’t meet them privately, but at one of his

last public audiences blessed the pilgrims, asking them to continue

their labours.

Acts of war causing "the indiscriminate destruction of … vast areas

with their inhabitants" were the order of the day in regions of Vietnam

under intense U.S. bombardment in 1965 and the years following. Many

young Catholic Workers went to prison for refusing to cooperate with

conscription, while others did alternative service. Nearly everyone in

Catholic Worker communities took part in protests. Many went to prison

for acts of civil disobedience.

Probably there has never been a newspaper so many of whose editors have

been jailed for acts of conscience. Day herself was last jailed in 1973

for taking part in a banned picket line in support of farmworkers. She

was 75.

Day lived long enough to see her achievements honoured. In 1967, when

she made her last visit to Rome to take part in the International

Congress of the Laity, she found she was one of two Americans — the

other an astronaut — invited to receive Communion from the hands of

Pope Paul VI. On her 75th birthday the Jesuit magazine America devoted a

special issue to her, finding in her the individual whom best

exemplified "the aspiration and action of the American Catholic

community during the past forty years." Notre Dame University presented

her with its Laetare Medal, thanking her for "comforting the afflicted

and afflicting the comfortable." Among those who came to visit her when

she was no longer able to travel was Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who had

once pinned on Day’s dress the cross worn only by fully professed

members of the Missionary Sisters of Charity.

Long before her death November 29, 1980, Day found herself regarded by

many as a saint. No words of hers are better known than her brusque

response, "Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so

easily."(Miller, p.46) Nonetheless, having herself treasured the memory

and witness of many saints; she is a candidate for inclusion in the

calendar of saints. The Claretians have launched an effort to have her

canonised. "If I have achieved anything in my life," she once remarked,

"it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."(Day, p.1)

Dorothy Day’s life and works are a great inspiration. Her selflessness

and strength are great models for people today. She was not just trying

comfort the poor but change their situation. She incorporated CHARITY

and JUSTICE in her crusade for the poor and voiceless. The fact that she

questioned the church in her religious development is comforting to me.

It shows that even the most religiously devoted people have questions.

She took an enormous risk with her life while remaining steadfastly

confident in the righteousness of her cause. As a result, her life

changed many of our outlooks and perceptions.


Tom Cornell, Robert Ellsberg and Jim Forest, editors, A Penny a Copy:

Writings from the Catholic Worker (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995)

Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. (Chicago: Saint Thomas More Press,


William Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography (New York: Harper & Row, 1982)

William O. Paulsell, Tough Minds Tender Hearts (New York: Paulist Press,


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