Washington, D.C., December 8, 1932: After completing her reporting assignment--the Hunger March from New York to the U.S. Capitol, demanding relief and jobs--a woman ducked into a chapel. It was Mary's feast day, and, kneeling in the dark under the low vaulted ceiling, she began to pray. This 35-year-old journalist and single mother was at a crossroad. She had spent her youth among communists and bohemians, crusading for the downtrodden and seeking her purpose in the world. Now a Catholic convert, she still felt helpless to change anything. "There I offered up a special prayer," Dorothy Day would later write, "a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor."
In less than 24 hours, her prayer would be answered--by a homeless man who'd charmed his way into her apartment. Out of nothing, the two would start The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that gave a voice to the millions displaced by the Depression, and initiated a social-reform movement that gave food, clothing, and shelter to anyone who asked. Along the way, Day's rebel spirit and unswerving religious faith would produce articles and activism that would brand her a heretic and a traitor, land her in jail, and isolate her from her biggest supporters. Yet by the end of her life, both New York's archbishop and Mother Teresa would call her saintly.
The disheveled man on her Greenwich Village doorstep was Peter Maurin; he was sent to her by the editor of a Catholic magazine. Maurin was a sort of freelance Catholic scholar and street preacher. Born a peasant, his studies and life as an itinerant laborer had led him to conclude it was time to realign society with traditional Catholic teachings--specifically, Jesus' Sermon on the Mount about love, selflessness, and our common humanity. At the core of his vision was "personalism," the belief that we, not the government, are our brother's keeper. What they should do, he told her, was start a Catholic newspaper to spread the ideas they shared and put them into practice.
|Dorothy was pierced with a "strong sense of evil, of the brokenness of this world."|
As they planned the first issue of the paper, Maurin taught Dorothy more about the Church, the lives and works of the saints, and assigned her books to read. With the help of Providence and a lot of pluck (like scraping up printing fees by skipping the gas bill), they wrote and published an eight-page tabloid from Dorothy's living room. The Catholic Worker debuted on May 1, 1933, at a labor rally in Union Square Park. Its price: a penny, "so cheap that anyone could afford to buy it." Sold on street corners and through subscriptions, the paper soon attracted an avid readership. In a time of uncertainty (13 million were jobless), the paper offered a unique Christian perspective on current events. It wasn't preachy in the usual way. Notes Day biographer Jim Forest: "Much of [it] was written as if it were a letter between friends." By year's end, circulation had jumped to 100,000; by 1938, it was 190,000.
The paper and its mission quickly attracted donations and volunteers. Cold and hungry souls began showing up at the "office" for the soup that now boiled nonstop. The Catholic Workers opened the first "houses of hospitality" in some dilapidated buildings, feeding hundreds daily with donated food and day-old produce. The guests (needy visitors) and staff (volunteers) lived together as one big family. Though prayers and services were available, there was no effort to convert or even reform anyone. Soon, visitors took what they'd seen and started other such centers. By 1936, more than 30 Worker settlements dotted the nation. Weekly discussion groups were also created, and farming communes sprung up. By the [late] 1930s, Dorothy Day was a grande dame of good works, according to Tom Cornell, a longtime Worker volunteer. That image was soon tested.