Dorothy Day is best known as the cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. In 1932, Day and Peter Maurin established a radical, pacifist organization rooted in the Catholic tradition that provides direct services to the poor and promotes social justice through nonviolent protest and activism. By her own recognition, her life was divided in two parts. Her early years were marked by her devotion to radical causes, as well as a bohemian lifestyle that included love affairs, an abortion, a common-law marriage, and the birth of a child out of wedlock. This phase ended with her conversion in 1927 to Roman Catholicism, an act that was the culmination of nearly a decade of spiritual searching, shortly after the birth of her daughter. Her extraordinary gifts began to reach their full fruition 5 years later when with Maurin she married her deep commitment to Catholicism and her radical beliefs by establishing the Catholic Worker movement. A journalist throughout her life, she is well regarded for her substantial body of writing (much of it first printed in her daily column in the movement’s newspaper, the Catholic Worker). At the time of her death in 1980, she was widely heralded both for her activism in service of the poor and for her singular contribution to American Catholicism in the 20th century.
Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1897, the third of five children. Early in Day’s life, her family moved briefly to San Francisco, but after the earthquake in 1906 they settled permanently in the Chicago area. Although she was baptized as an Episcopalian, Day later actively rejected religion. She attended the University of Illinois for 2 years, but dropped out prior to graduation in order to move to New York City in 1916 to become a writer for a variety of socialist publications. She joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), participated in numerous protests, and was jailed while demonstrating in favor of women’s suffrage. Her friends and companions included activists, artists, writers, and journalists who supported radical and socialist causes, including Jack Reed, Malcolm Cowrey, and Eugene O’Neill. Even during this period of agnosticism, however, she would often follow a night of drinking in a Greenwich Village saloon with friends like O’Neill with silent participation in mass at St. Joseph’s Parish across the street, as she reports in her autobiography The Long Loneliness.
In 1918, she worked briefly as a nurse’s aide in Kings County Hospital. While there, she met an orderly with whom she had a brief affair, resulting in a pregnancy, which she terminated. She drifted after this, traveling and working as a journalist. In Chicago, Day worked on a communist newspaper, and while staying in an IWW flophouse she was mistakenly arrested as a prostitute in a raid. She documented this experience, as well as other prison stays, in her writing, which to this day remains a vivid account of the indignities experienced daily by the poor in the criminal justice system.
Although she did not mention her union in her own accounts of her life, recent biographies of Day establish that this period was followed by a very brief failed marriage when she returned to New York. It hardly lasted as long as her honeymoon trip to Europe. The great love of Day’s life was Forster Battenham, an anarchist and biologist whom she would later call her common-law husband. In 1924 she published a novel, The Eleventh Virgin, which was largely based on her own life, including her abortion. With the proceeds of this unremarkable book she was able to buy a small cottage on Staten Island near the ocean, in a colony known as the Spanish Camp. Here she lived a bohemian existence with Battenham, Cowley, Caroline Gordon, and others.
The seeds of Day’s conversion to Catholicism took root in her domestic life with Battenham when she discovered that she was once again pregnant. Deeply happy, she determined to have her child baptized a Catholic. She named their daughter Tamar Teresa, the former name a Hebrew word meaning “tree,”the latter in honor of a great saint and doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. Her own baptism followed shortly after, an act that Day knew would result in the dissolution of her relationship with Battenham, who as an anarchist and an atheist would neither marry her nor accept her new devotion. Day herself gives the best reports of this spiritual journey in two books. The first, From Union Square to Rome, was an account of her conversion (from the perspective of a former communist, as Paul Elie has noted) published in 1938. The second is a more candid and spiritual account, her autobiography The Long Loneliness, published in 1952.
After her split with Tamar’s father, Day and her daughter survived on a variety of freelance writing jobs that took her to Hollywood, Mexico, and other places, finally returning to New York. In her autobiography, Day describes how in 1932 she found herself in Washington observing a communist march in support of the poor. Day credits her disenchantment with the anti-religious stance of communism, her subsequent visit to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in prayerful search for new, Catholic-inspired work for the poor, and the near miraculous appearance of Peter Maurin when she returned to New York with the formation of her life’s work, the Catholic Worker. From that point on Maurin was a seminal influence on her thinking.
Maurin was a French Catholic peasant who believed that Catholic thought needed to be married to the radical commitment to the poor embodied by some social movements of the time. An itinerant preacher and philosopher, he proclaimed his truths on soapboxes in Union Square and by all accounts was a compelling if eccentric figure. He and Day conceived a movement that eventually would be founded on three pillars: publication of a daily newspaper, the Catholic Worker, sold on street corners for a penny;the creation of houses of hospitality to provide respite and food for the poor and indigent;and the creation of communal, self-sufficient farms to support this work.
From these beginnings, the Catholic Worker movement evolved under their tutelage to encompass steadfast advocacy of radical social justice. For Day, this meant undertaking a voluntary life of poverty with the movement as the center of her life. The movement stood for pacifism, even in the midst of World War II, for equality for all races, and most importantly as a voice for the poor and dispossessed of society. As she had indicated earlier in her life, Day looked to the saints not merely to help slaves, but also to end slavery.
To comprehend fully the essence of Dorothy Day, one must take account of her Catholic faith and her lifelong commitment to what Paul Elie has termed the traditional piety of devotions such as the rosary, the office, and the daily celebration of mass. Prior to her conversion, Day wrote in her autobiography that she did not know what she believed, though she had tried to serve a cause. With her baptism she embraced the simple and radical Christianity she found expressed in the work of another great convert, St. Augustine, in his Imitation of Christ. The connection of the Catholic Worker movement to her Catholic faith did not belie her dissatisfaction with the imperfections she saw in the institutional Church. But she maintained committed to the sacraments of the Church until her death, despite her permanent dissatisfaction. Only through the Church could one receive the sacraments.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Day’s work realized in a particular way the aspirations and dilemmas of Catholics in an American Church seeking to remain faithful to the teachings of the Beatitudes. In her later life, Day welcomed and explored the aggiornamento in the Church brought forth by the Second Vatican Council at the urging of Pope John XXIII. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Worker welcomed many who worked within the Church to promote radical change and to protest the Vietnam War, most notably the Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan. As her fame grew and she became the symbol for generations of young people who came to participate in the Catholic Worker in search of social justice, she was known to admonish admirers by saying that she did not want to be called a saint, because she did not want to be dismissed that easily. Despite her protests, others took up her cause for sainthood upon her death and a case for canonization is proceeding. One miracle attributed to her intercession (according to a Washington Post report) has been described by author and psychiatrist Robert Coles, an early devotee whose wife’s cancer was cured after an encounter with Day.
Another contribution of Day’s that continues to grow in significance is her role as a writer on spiritual as well as secular matters. The author of seven books, including two autobiographies and an account of the Catholic Worker movement, Loaves and Fishes, she was a frequent contributor to a variety of Catholic publications, including Commonweal, and a faithful correspondent to other writers and public figures of her day.
Although The Long Loneliness never received the wide popular acclaim of The Seven Storey Mountain, her friend Thomas Merton’s account of conversion, it remains an influential story of a 20th-century unbeliever’s encounter with the deep spiritual truths of contemporary Catholicism. Day and Merton were frequent correspondents, and she remained friends with him until his untimely death in 1968.
Perhaps Day’s most significant journalistic contribution is her column “On Pilgrimage,”printed daily in the Catholic Worker for more than 30 years. In collected short pieces from this source and others published after her death, she emerges as an eloquent as well as passionate advocate for social justice, as an acute observer of her times, and as a transcendent voice for the spiritual life enacted day to day. Like her favorite authors Dickens and Dostoevsky, her writing made the daily plight of the poor a vivid reality for her readers. Contemporary assessments of her writing by critics take her contribution to American Catholic writing of the 20th century quite seriously, and Paul Elie has suggested that together with authors Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Thomas Merton she is part of a literary School of the Holy Ghost.
Dorothy Day died on November 29, 1980. Her funeral was attended by poor people served in Catholic Worker houses, as well as by the cardinal archbishop of New York. Buried in a simple wooden coffin in Staten Island, she is survived by her daughter Tamar Hennessey, several grandchildren, and the continuing legacy of the Catholic Worker.
Berrigan Brothers; Catholic Worker Movement; Merton, Thomas; Religious Activism
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