Sanctity in America: Servant of God Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of John Day, a sports journalist, and Grace Satterlie. Her family moved to Oakland, CA for her father’s work at a San Francisco newspaper and lived there until the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed the newspaper’s offices and her father was left without a job. They moved to Chicago, but her family still suffered economically until her father found work at the sports editor of a Chicago newspaper.

Dorothy’s parents had been married in the Episcopal Church but were not particularly religious, though her father was passionately anti-Catholic. Even still, Dorothy was attracted to spirituality and religion and would often read the Bible as a child. She tells the story of going to the home of a friend and finding her devoutly Catholic mother kneeling at her bedside saying her prayers. The mother simply looked up, explained to Dorothy where she could find her daughter, and returned to her prayers.”I felt a burst of love toward her that I have never forgotten,” Dorothy later recollected. She began attending service at Church of Our Savior in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago at the age of ten, when the rector convinced her mother to allow her brother to join the choir. She was baptized and confirmed into the Episcopal Church there in 1911.

Dorothy was a voracious reader as a young teen, and she was especially attracted to Russian literature, such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and works that sought to raise social consciousness, in particular Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Dorothy would take walks around the South Side of Chicago, where Sinclair’s novel was set, and was moved by the struggle of the people, but also by their efforts to bring beauty into the often drab neighborhoods where they lived by placing flowers or tomatoes or other plants in their windows.

In 1914, Dorothy began attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on scholarship and supported herself partly by buying her clothes at discount stores so she wouldn’t have to depend on her father’s support. She was not invested as a student, however, and left college after only two years, moving to New York City.

In New York, Dorothy took a job with The Call, the city’s one socialist newspaper, covering rallies and interviewing the regular workers of the city. After this, she went to work for The Masses, a magazine dedicated to opposition to U. S. involvement in the European war. Shortly after, the Post Office rescinded the magazine’s mailing permit and federal agents raided the office, taking back issues, subscriber lists, correspondences, etc, … and arresting five of its editors and charging them with sedition. Dorothy alone worked successfully to get out the last issue of the magazine.

Dorothy was arrested for the first time in 1917, protesting for women’s suffrage in front of the White House. She and the other women arrested were roughly handled by the authorities and began a hunger strike to protest their treatment. After two weeks, she and the others were released by presidential order. Afterwards, Dorothy led a bohemian life, becoming acquainted with many Communists and Socialists, as well as the author Eugene O’Neill, to whom she credited intensifying her religious sense. She had love affairs with Mike Gold, a prominent Communist, and Lionel Moise. Her affair with Moise ended unhappily after Dorothy procured an abortion, which she regarded the great tragedy of her life. She married Berkeley Tobey in a civil ceremony and left with him for a year in Europe studying art and literature and writing a semi-autobiography, The Eleventh Virgin, based on her affair with Moise. She thought it a rather bad book, but sold the movie writes for $2500, with which she purchased beach cottage on Staten Island as a writing retreat. She soon took another lover, Forest Batterham, an fellow activist and also a biologist, who would visit her there on weekends. Dorothy lived on Staten Island from 1925 to 1929. It was during these years that Dorothy began being drawn more strongly to Catholicism, inspired by her experience of motherhood.

Dorothy had long been attracted to the spirituality and mystery of Catholicism. In 1922, working in Chicago, she roomed with three other young women who were all devout Catholics, attending Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, and setting aside time each day to pray. She concluded that, “worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication … were the noblest acts of which we are capable in this life.” While working at a newspaper in New Orleans, living close to St. Louis Cathedral, Dorothy would often attend evening Benediction service.

Dorothy thought she was barren as a result of her abortion, so she was delighted to discover, in 1925, that she was pregnant by Forest. Forest, however, was less delighted. Dorothy left for Florida to visit her mother for several months, leaving Forest behind. During her time in Florida, Dorothy’s interest in Catholicism grew, and when she returned to Staten Island, Forest was put off by her increasing devotion, religious reading and attendance at Catholic Mass. Dorothy became acquainted with a Sr. Aloysia, who helped her study the Catholic faith. Dorothy had their daughter, Tamar Teresa, baptized in July, 1927. Dorothy wrote, “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 baptized a Catholic.”

Dorothy now desired marriage in the Church, but this was anathema to Forest, who despised religion, Catholicism in particular. A final fight in December of 1927 ended the relationship. On December 28 of that year, Dorothy was baptized, with Sr. Aloysia as her godmother. Dorothy had long seen the Catholic Church as the Church of immigrants and the Church of the poor and her baptism began a journey for Dorothy of attempting to reconcile her new Catholic faith with her life-long commitment to radical social values.

In December of 1932, Dorothy traveled to Washington, DC to cover a Hunger March for Commonweal and America magazines, both Catholic journals. The marchers carried signs calling for jobs, pensions, healthcare, relief for mothers and children and other causes dear to Dorothy’s heart. She kept to the sidelines, however, because the March had been organized by the Communist Party, which opposed to capitalism and religion. On December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dorothy entered the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception after watching a march and prayed. “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, Dorothy returned to New York. There she met Peter Maurin, an itinerant French instructor and handyman who had immigrated to the United States and brought with him a philosophy of Personalism that he enunciated in occasional “Easy Essays” about how the Church ought to respond to the needs of workers and the poor. Dorothy would come to regard this encounter as the answer to her prayer, and was to change Dorothy and guide her for the remainder of her life.

Dorothy wondered what she should do to serve the workers and the poor as a Catholic. Peter had the answer: begin a newspaper that would spread the word about Catholic social teaching and the peaceful transformation of society in a way that better reflected the values of the gospel. Dorothy jumped at the opportunity and her kitchen became the editorial office for The Catholic Worker, a newsprint that would do just what Peter recommended. The first issue of 2500 copies was handed out at Union Square on May 1, 1933. It sold for a penny a copy, “so cheap that anyone could afford to buy it.” By December, there were 100,000 copies being printed with each monthly edition. In the pages of The Catholic Worker readers found a voice that was sympathetic to those who sought to change the social order for the better, that favored labor unions, and that challenged people to take personal responsibility for helping others. The paper was also unabashedly Catholic, committed to the social teachings of the Church. Peter Maurin called for a return to the Christian virtue of hospitality, where each home would have a “Christ Room” and every parish a “house of hospitality” set aside to offer refuge for those in need.

Soon, the homeless began knocking on the door. Dorothy’s apartment became the first of many houses of hospitality, or “Catholic Worker Houses,” that have spread rapidly around the country. An apartment was rented for women, then another for men, then a house in Greenwich Village. In 1936, the Catholic Worker offices moved into two buildings in Chinatown. As the houses became larger, they quickly filled up, mostly with men that Dorothy described as, “grey men, the color 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.” By 1936, there were thirty-three Catholic Worker houses around the country.

The Catholic Worker philosophy, or perhaps it would be better to call is a spirituality, of helping the poor was not always understood or appreciated. Some complained that those they were helping were the “undeserving poor,” the drunks, do-for-nothings and lay-abouts who refused to help themselves. A social worker who visited Dorothy asked how long the “clients” were allowed to stay. Dorothy replied, “We let them stay forever. 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.”

Another aspect of the Catholic Worker movement that attracted many were the Friday night discussions. Speakers would be invited to discuss important topics of the day, especially in light of Catholic social teaching and how individuals can respond personally to help others. The Catholic Worker movement also inspired farms established to assist those who needed food and also as a way of inspiring people to live within their means and support themselves. The farms have not been as successful as the houses of hospitality, but there are some still in existence.

What got Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement into most trouble was their commitment to pacifism. During the Spanish Civil War, when Franco claimed he was fighting partly to defend the Church, the Catholic Worker stood firmly in the pacifist tradition, costing it a great number of subscribers and supporters. During World War II, even, Dorothy and the Catholic Worker held firm to their pacifist principles, insisting that the Church’s work was the Works of Mercy and not the work of war. Dorothy said, “our friends and associates to care for the sick and the wounded, to the growing of food for the hungry, to the continuance of all our works of mercy in our houses and on our farms.”

After the war, when the New York City staged annual civil defense drills, where citizens were mandated to take cover when the air raid sirens sounded, in practice for a possible attack. Dorothy and others from the Catholic Worker refused, taking seats in front of City Hall instead. At first, the protesters were reprimanded, but after their civil disobedience continued in following years, the authorities began arresting them. From 1955 to 1959, only a small contingent of protesters from the Catholic Worker would participate. Dorothy was arrested three times over these years. Then, in 1960, 500 joined in the civil disobedience action. Some were arrested, but not Dorothy. The next year, 2000 joined. Again, some were arrested, but not Dorothy. 1961 was the last year of the drill.

Dorothy and the Catholic Workers were also strong supporters of the Civil Rights movement. Drawn to Koinonia Farm in Georgia in 1957, a community where blacks and whites lived peacefully together, Dorothy insisted on taking her turn on watch after the community had been attacked by machine gun fire. In the middle of the night, Dorothy observed a car approach and slow down. She ducked, just in time to avoid gunfire that struck her steering column, as the car rushed off.

Dorothy was one of fifty “Mothers of Peace” who traveled to Rome in 1963 to thank Pope John XXIII for his encyclical, Pacem in Terris. Unable to receive them because of his poor health, Pope St. John nevertheless blessed the Mothers publicly and asked that they continue their work for peace. Dorothy also prayed and fasted during the Second Vatican Council that the bishops would make a strong statement against war. Her prayers were answered in the counciliar document Gaudiem et Spes, which decried acts of war that killed indiscriminately and called on support for conscientious objector. Many actions during the Vietnam War killed indiscriminately, the innocent along with combatants, and many Catholic Worker members were jailed protesting these actions.

In 1967, Dorothy made her last trip to Rome to participate in the International Congress of the Laity. She was one of two Americans, the other an astronaut, chosen to receive Holy Communion from Pope Paul VI. St. Teresa of Calcutta came to visit Dorothy when Dorothy was now too frail to travel. Dorothy had visited Mother Teresa in 1971, and the saint pinned on Dorothy’s dress the crucifix normally worn only by fully professed members of the Missionaries of Charity. During her life, many attempted to make a point of her sanctity. Dorothy would reply, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Dorothy was arrested for the last time in 1973, when she was seventy-five, participating in an action in support of farm workers. She spent ten days in jail. She was good friends with Cesar Chavez, and came to see his labor union as one of the few remaining that was based on virtuous principles and gospel values.

Dorothy made her last public appearance at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia on August 6, 1976, during a service honoring the U. S. Armed Forces. True to form, Dorothy spoke of reconciliation and penance and rebuked the organizers for failing to recognize that August 6 was the day the U. S. bombed Hiroshima and, as such, an inappropriate day to honor the military.

Dorothy suffered a heart attack and died at Maryhouse in Manhattan on November 29, 1980. She was buried from the Church of the Nativity, the local parish, in a Mass attended by Terence Cardinal Cooke, then Archbishop of New York, by her daughter, Tamar, and her nine children, and by Forest Batterham, with whom Dorothy had remained life-long friends. She is buried in Cemetery of the Resurrection on Staten Island.

In 1983, the Claretian Missionaries called for Dorothy Day’s canonization. In 2000, John Cardinal O’Conner, Archbishop of New York, requested the formal opening of her cause, and Pope St. John Paul II agreed, conferring on her the title Servant of God.

In the closing days of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI cited Dorothy Day as an example of conversion. Quoting her writings, the Holy Father said, “The journey towards faith in such a secularized environment was particularly difficulty, but Grace acts nonetheless.”

During his 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis mentioned Dorothy Day, along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Thomas Merton, as one of four Americans he especially admired. “In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement,” Pope Francis said. “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints.”

The Dorothy Day Guild,, works to gain support for Dorothy Day’s canonization.

Day wrote many articles and books during her life. Two I highly recommend are The Long Loneliness, which tells the story of her coming to faith, and Loaves and Fishes, which tells the story of the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement. Her other books include, From Union Square to Rome, Houses of Hospitality, and On Pilgrimage. Jim Forest has written about Dorothy Day, including a collection of her letters and articles, By Little and By Little, and a biography, All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.

“If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.”   — Servant of God Dorothy Day

Here is a youtube video of a Christopher Closeup interview of Dorothy Day:


Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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