The Servant of God Dorothy Day (November 8, 1897 – November 29, 1980) was an American journalist turned social activist, an Industrial Workers of the World or "Wobblie" member, and later a devout member of the Catholic Church. She became known for her social justice campaigns in defense of the poor, forsaken, hungry, and homeless.
Alongside Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933, espousing nonviolence and hospitality for the impoverished and downtrodden.
Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1897, to Grace Satterlee Day from New York and John Day from Tennessee. She had two older brothers, and later a sister and another brother joined their family. Her father took a job as a sports writer in San Francisco when Dorothy was six years old. Only three years later, they had to leave when his job was destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake. Her memories of her mother helping victims of the earthquake put a vivid impression in her mind.
They lived the next twelve years in Chicago. The move was a big step down for the family, and Dorothy began to understand the shame people feel when their circumstances deteriorate. Her parents were nominally Protestant, and interested in religion and the Bible. She remembered people praying, and began to identify the Catholic Church as being a church "of the people." The rector of the Episcopal Church convinced Grace Day to enroll her sons in the choir, so Dorothy began going to church every Sunday. Her father encouraged reading and good literature and she began to develop her social conscience from Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Cooper, Sinclair Lewis, and others.
She graduated from high school at sixteen years old, and received a scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1914. Although her father could have supported her, she preferred to make her own money. She was poor, and began to see the disparity in life styles between the rich and the poor. She began to lose faith in organized religion for allowing this, although her reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky helped her retain her faith. She joined the Socialist party at that time.
After only two years, she dropped out of college and moved with her family to New York City to work as a journalist. She began her career working for The Call, the city's only socialist newspaper. Her friends were all communists, socialists, anarchists, and social activists. She then worked for The Masses, a magazine opposed to United States involvement in the foreign war of World War I. In November of 1917, she was one of many on the staff to go to jail, and only the first of many such times for her yet to come.
When one of her friends committed suicide in 1918, she tried to become a nurse. She thought it might be a better way to help a world at war, but it was not her calling and she returned to journalism after only a year. She worked in Chicago as a journalist, and roomed with three other young ladies who prayed every day and went to mass. She was impressed by their devotion.
However, returning to New York, she lived a bohemian lifestyle, with two common-law marriages. The grief of her life was when she had an abortion from the first relationship, hoping, unsuccessfully, to prevent her boyfriend from leaving. She traveled to Europe, Chicago, New Orleans, and California before returning to New York City, where she took a cottage on Staten Island. Soon she met Forster Battingham, a biologist who shared some political views with Day and they began living together. However with the birth of her daughter, Tamar Theresa, she found herself looking for more reverence in her life. This caused her to baptize their daughter and later to embrace Catholicism, joining the Church in December 1927. Forster could not bear this, and they eventually separated.
Day went to California to write screenplays, and returned to New York City in 1932, when the Great Depression made everyone's economic situation difficult. She was covering a hunger march in Washington D.C. that was to help improve social legislation when she felt a painful contradiction. She felt very close to those marching, yet it was organized by communists whom she recognized as an enemy of God. She prayed deeply, and asked for God's guidance on how to express her desire to help the poor within her beloved Catholic faith.
She felt it was providence when she met Peter Maurin, a former Christian Brother from France on her return to New York City. He had wandered in the United States, and developed the vision that would later become her legacy, as expressed in The Catholic Worker. Together, they founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
In 1943, she took a respite and spent several months near her daughter's boarding school. Later, she again took extended time to spend with Tamar and her husband, David Hennessy, and their four children at their farm in West Virginia.
She was active in the Vatican II Council, advising the session on the importance of involvement with Biblical non-violence. She met Mother Theresa in India, and talked with her sisters. She supported the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, and at the age of seventy six, joined Cesar Chavez for a non-violent demonstration against the Teamsters Union. She was arrested and jailed for ten days.
Her last public speech was on August 6, 1980, the Catholic feast of the Transfiguration and the anniversary of the day the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. She departed from her prepared speech and spoke instead about the love of God. She suffered a heart attack that night, and died in the early evening of November 29, 1980, with Tamar at her side. Day is buried in Resurrection Cemetery on Staten Island, just a few blocks from where her beach side cottage once stood, and where she dedicated her life so profoundly to God's cause for the poor and all His children.
Together with Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement. The movement started with the Catholic Worker newspaper to stake out a religious, pacifist position in the increasingly war-torn 1930s. Its aim was to proclaim and "live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ."
According to co-founder Peter Maurin, the following are the beliefs of the Catholic Worker:
The movement came to be best known for houses of hospitality. Day first opened a "house of hospitality" in the slums of New York City. These have remained characteristically located in run-down sections of many cities, though a number of Catholic Worker centers exist in rural areas. Food, clothing, shelter, and welcome are extended by unpaid volunteers to those in need according to the ability of each household. Each house has a different mission, going about the work of social justice in their own ways, suited to their region of the country. The group also campaigns for nonviolence and is active in protesting war, as well as the unequal distribution of wealth globally.
Beyond hospitality, Catholic Worker communities are known for activity in support of labor unions, human rights, cooperatives, and the development of a nonviolent culture. Those active in the Catholic Worker are often pacifists seeking to live an unarmed, nonviolent life. During periods of military conscription, Catholic Workers have been conscientious objectors to military service. Many of those active in the Catholic Worker movement have been jailed for acts of protest against racism, unfair labor practices, social injustice, and war.
The newspaper started out at one cent per copy, so everyone could afford one and has remained at that price until today. By 1938, the circulation of the newspaper was over 190,000 but pacifism was not popular during World War II, and circulation fell to only 50,000. Day endured, and remained the editor until her death in 1980. Writers for the paper have ranged from young volunteers to such notable figures as Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, and Jacques Maritain.
During the slump in circulation, Day concentrated on developing the retreat house, where people could receive "shock treatment" to become more involved in the helping of the poor. She continued to critique industrial capitalism, thinking that it functioned to degrade the worker.
The movement was revived in the 1960s with the controversy around the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. By the 1960s Day was embraced by left-wing Catholics. Although Day had previously written passionately about women’s rights, free love, and birth control in the 1910s, she opposed the sexual revolution of the sixties, saying she had seen the ill effects of a similar sexual revolution in the 1920s, when she had an abortion.
It is unlikely that any religious community was ever less structured than the Catholic Worker. Each community is autonomous. There is no board of directors, no sponsor, no system of governance, no endowment, no pay checks, and no pension plans. Since Dorothy Day's death, there has been no central leader. Catholic Worker communities have refused to apply for federal tax exempt status, seeing such official recognition as binding the community to the state and limiting the movement's freedom.
When accused of being an anarchist or socialist, Day explained that she was a "Christian Personalist." "We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes," Dorothy Day explained, "but there is strong faith at work. We pray. If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn't pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he'll miss the whole point." To further clarify the importance of this work to the volunteers themselves, Day said "Our rule is the works of mercy. It is the way of sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence."
With its stress on voluntary poverty, the Catholic Worker has much in common with the early Franciscans, while its accent on community, prayer, and hospitality has Benedictine overtones. Although seemingly understructured, when asked once what she would do if her local Catholic superior Cardinal Spellman would ask her to shut her houses down, she called him "our dear vicar of Christ" and replied that she would do so. Cardinal Spellman was always anxious that Day not be regarded as a voice for the Catholic Church. She was not an easy lay person to have in one's parish.
Dorothy Day defied categorization. She combined so many opposites, being so associated with leftist causes yet being so very devout. She led a free lifestyle, then one of such great self-sacrifice and discipline.
Her writing is intelligent and thoughtful, and has had great influence. Her spirituality has also led many people to God. She combined the love of Scripture from her early Protestant days with a spiritual discipline and mysticism more characteristic of Catholicism. She was an initiator of a trend in worship that includes both characteristics.
Day maintained solidarity with the poor, and insisted on personalism. She could be described as serving in the ancient prophetic role of warning governments and social institutions of wrong doing. She was a peacemaker, always expressing deep gratitude not only to God, but to her fellow workers. She had a deep sense of the mystical nature of sacramental celebration, and conveyed her deep joy eloquently. All these qualities gave her the ability to convey Godliness in the modern world.
The Catholic Worker Movement continues to be active, with well over 100 communities, including several in Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, The Netherlands, the Republic of Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden, as well as the United States. Each house has a different mission, going about the work of social justice in their own ways, suited to their region. The Catholic Worker newspaper also continues to be published, with many Catholic Worker communities publishing newspapers and journals for local distribution.
Day was proposed for sainthood by the Claretian Missionaries in 1983. Some opponents have found her unworthy because of the "sins of her youth"—pre-marital sex and an abortion. Others, Catholic Workers among them, found the process unworthy of her. Nevertheless, the Pope granted the Archdiocese of New York permission to open Day's "cause" in March of 2000, officially bestowing upon her the title of Servant of God.
1972: Laetare Medal, University of Notre Dame
1978: Pax Christi USA Pope Paul VI Teacher of Peace Award
2002: Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame
All links retrieved October 11, 2017.
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