2016-06-30
This article was published originally in Biography Magazine. Copyright 1999. A&E Television Networks. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Dorothy Day, who chose to live and die among the poor, came from a middle-class Protestant family in which God was rarely mentioned. Born November 8, 1897, in Brookyn, she was the third of five children of a resourceful mother, Grace Satterlee Day, and a remote father, sportswriter John Day. From an early age, Dorothy kept a diary, which demonstrated a poetic bent and a questing, spiritual nature. The impressionable girl learned the pain of poverty--and the value of charity--firsthand, after the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed the newspaper plant where her father by then worked. Nevertheless, her mother opened their Oakland home to worse-off neighbors.

The Days then tried their luck in Chicago, where Dorothy spent her free time devouring great books. She was especially taken by Dickens and Dostoevsky, with their sweeping stories and philosophical themes. One book in particular fascinated Dorothy: the Bible. "All my life," she later wrote, "I have been haunted by God." Alternately reassured and terrified by the idea of the supernatural, she had already begun to pray and sing hymns, and joined an Episcopalian congregation at age 10.

Dorothy's reading material changed when her elder brother got a job with a labor newspaper, reporting on the kinds of social problems she knew only from her thick Russian novels. She was moved by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," about horrendous conditions in the meat-packing industry and decided to explore local slums for herself. The neighborhoods and their people inspired her: As she wrote in her 1952 autobiography, "The Long Loneliness," "[F]rom then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine."

The stirrings of Dorothy's social conscience drew her away from religion and toward politics. At 16, she enrolled on scholarship at the University of Illinois but left after two years spent mostly outside class, reading radical writers, agitating with the Socialist Party, and eking out a living doing menial labor and writing for local papers.

Moving to New York to start a journalism career, she talked her way into a reporting job at the socialist newspaper The Call, and moved into a tenement on the Lower East Side. She thrived in her new community of artists, reformers, and freethinkers, among whose members were Eugene O'Neill and Leon Trotsky. She took up her nearly lifelong habit of chain-smoking. Showing her legendary fiery temper, she quit her job one day after slapping a comrade for being too familiar.

Even as she pursued writing, Dorothy was pierced with a "strong sense of evil, of the brokenness of this world," says Jane Sammon, who traveled with Day in the United Kingdom in the early '70s. In November 1917, Day had gone to prison for the first time, after being arrested with some 40 other suffragists demonstrating in front of the White House. This harrowing experience confirmed the feeling she should help her fellow citizens directly rather than as an observer. So in 1918, Dorothy began nurse's training at Brooklyn's King's County Hospital.

There she fell in love with an orderly named Lionel Moise. When he left her once, she attempted suicide. He threatened to abandon her again if she became pregnant, and when she did, he convinced her to have an abortion--then left anyway. On the rebound, she married briefly and penned a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, "The Eleventh Virgin."

After her divorce, the writer drifted; at one point, a friend commented, "Dorothy's never going to be a good Communist. She's too religious." It was true. She was increasingly attracted to the Catholic Church--which, she liked to point out, was the church to which the masses of poor immigrants belonged. Eventually, she sold the film rights to her novel and bought a cottage on the rural eastern shore of Staten Island. There, she hoped to find peace.

The simple life was heaven for Dorothy. She wrote serial fiction and shared genuine love with her common-law husband, British biologist Forster Batterham, a confirmed atheist who revered nature but reviled mankind. Dorothy's own happiness, meanwhile, was leading her to pray almost constantly, say the rosary, and surreptitiously attend church.

Her joy was complete when she discovered she was pregnant. When their daughter, Tamar Teresa, was born in March 1926, it sealed Dorothy's commitment to becoming a Catholic. She marveled, "No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love...as I often felt after the birth of my child." She went ahead and had Tamar baptized a Catholic and began to study the catechism with a local nun. Fights with Batterham escalated, until one night she sent him away for good. The very next day, she too was baptized.

Living her faith as a Catholic Worker, however, proved far from serene. Dorothy's days were stressful, as she shared in the work of cooking, sorting used clothes, and mopping floors--between writing, pasting up, folding, and mailing the latest monthly issue of the newspaper, of which she was editor. A pioneer of advocacy journalism, Day wrote prolifically, from muckraking investigative pieces to "On Pilgrimage," a long-running column that wove together personal reflections, biblical teachings, and current events. Day also spoke widely and made frequent supportive visits to the other houses and farms, crisscrossing the country by bus, toting a Bible, a missal, and a jar of instant coffee.

In everything she did, she challenged the status quo. Sometimes that meant housing strikers and boycotting exploitative businesses. If it also meant breaking the law by staging a sit-in or resisting the draft, so be it. While devoted to the Catholic sacraments and liturgy, going to mass daily, she was also highly critical of the Church as an institution, claiming it didn't live up to its own teachings. (Once, the cardinal's office asked her to remove the word Catholic from the paper's title, to which she politely replied that Rome didn't have a copyright on the word.)

Most controversial was her unyielding pacifism. Day believed the commandment to "love thine enemies" was to be taken literally. She opposed every war in her lifetime, even World War II. Once, she wrote a column decrying Japanese internment camps; when President Truman bombed Hiroshima, she called it "demonic."

Soon readers, even other Catholic Workers, became alienated. The paper's circulation plummeted, volunteers dropped out (some to join the Army) and 15 hospitality houses were closed. Day was now "utterly isolated," recalls Cornell. But, he notes, "She was one of the first to protest Hitler" in editorials and by picketing the German embassy.

Day had expected to be challenged, but she became incensed when outsiders branded Catholic Worker philosophy sentimental or naive. She was no communist dupe, she said, but "a fool for Christ." Her tenacity (and several religious retreats) helped her through this period, and after the war she made personal visits to the 11 remaining Worker houses to revive the movement.

She shouldered her mission mostly without Peter. In the early 1940s, his health and mind began to fail; he died May 15, 1949. For Dorothy, the loss of her best friend was heartrending; she regarded him as "holier than anyone we ever knew."

Day's responsibilities often conflicted with her personal life. There was never enough time to tend to her daughter, who spent much of her youth in boarding school. This made Dorothy feel "a complete sense of failure, of utter misery," as she once wrote. Though Tamar married and moved away at 18, she and Dorothy remained emotionally close, and Day often visited her nine grandchildren. Voluntarily celibate, Dorothy also missed romantic love. (She and Batterham stayed in touch; toward the end of his life, she nursed him--and his new "wife"--through illnesses.)

As the country's mood shifted, Day gained more public support. She and the Workers spearheaded opposition to the civil-defense drills of the McCarthy era, sitting on park benches when air-raid sirens sounded. She was jailed three times, once for a month, but with each "duck and cover" exercise, more and more people joined the sit-ins. By the '60s, she had countless companions in her active opposition to the Vietnam War and nuclear-arms race, and her nonviolent work on behalf of civil rights.

Well into her 70s, Dorothy continued her pilgrimages. She took a world tour that included then-Soviet Russia, home of her favorite writers. In India, she visited Mother Teresa, who bestowed upon her the Sisters of Charity cross. And she was jailed one last time, for picketing on behalf of union farm workers in California.

In late summer 1976, Day suffered a heart attack and became a semi-invalid but continued to write and worship from her bed. When she quietly passed away November 29, 1980, Tamar was by her side.

When asked about the fate of The Catholic Worker, Day once predicted, "If God wants it to survive, it will." It has: Some 130 Catholic Worker settlement houses and farms in America and internationally soldier on with works of mercy. The bimonthly newspaper, circulation 90,000, is published out of Maryhouse in a converted auditorium. It still costs a penny--so cheap anyone can afford to buy it.

Saint Dorothy?

During her life, Dorothy Day was compared to a saint for her unswerving religious faith and devotion to the poor. And now, the first steps have been taken to canonize her literally. If successful, she will be only the fourth American so honored.

In 1983, the Claretians, a Catholic religious order in Chicago, began a campaign to beatify Day, publishing articles about her and circulating testimonials and letters by the hundreds that detailed and praised her life, character, and deeds. In 1997, they sent this documentation to John Cardinal O'Connor of New York (who, as the bishop of the parish in which Day died, is empowered to open the required investigation of the candidate for sainthood.) So it was that last November, in a sermon celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dorothy's birth, the cardinal himself unofficially proposed canonizing her. Describing her strong influence on his own life, he asked, "Why does the church have saints? To encourage others to follow in [their] footsteps." He declared, "If any woman ever loved God and her neighbor, it was Dorothy Day."

Despite such support in high places, not everyone likes the idea of Saint Dorothy. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley, for example, has described her as "slovenly, reckless, intellectually chaotic [and] anti-Catholic." Some are shocked at the idea of exalting someone who had frequently criticized the Church and America's values, "lived in sin" with a man, and had an abortion. And even Catholic Workers and some members of Dorothy's family feel that bestowing sainthood is irrelevant at best, squandering time and money that the Church might better devote to the poor.

Perhaps the biggest opponent was Dorothy herself. She famously lamented, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."


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