DOROTHY DAY Biography - Activists, Revolutionaries and other freedom fighters


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Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was born in             
Brooklyn, New York, November 8, 1897. After surviving the San Francisco       
earthquake in 1906, the Day family moved into a tenement flat in Chicago's   
South Side. It was a big step down in the world made necessary because       
John Day was out of work. Day's understanding of the shame people feel       
when they fail in their efforts dated from this time.                         
It was in Chicago that Day began to form positive impressions of             
Catholicism. Later in life she would recall her discovery of a friend's       
mother, a devout Catholic, praying at the side of her bed. Without           
embarrassment, she looked up at Day, told her where to find her daughter,     
and returned to her prayers. "I felt a burst of love toward [her] that I     
have never forgotten," Day recalled.                                         
When John Day was appointed sports editor of a Chicago newspaper, the Day     
family moved into a comfortable house on the North Side. Here Dorothy         
began to read books that stirred her conscience. Upton Sinclair's novel,     
The Jungle, inspired Day to take long walks in poor neighborhoods in         
Chicago's South Side. It was the start of a life-long attraction to areas     
many people avoid.                                                           
Day had a gift for finding beauty in the midst of urban desolation. Drab     
streets were transformed by pungent odors: geranium and tomato plants,       
garlic, olive oil, roasting coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens.         
"Here," she said, "was enough beauty to satisfy me."                         
Day won a scholarship that brought her to the University of Illinois         
campus at Urbana in the fall of 1914. But she was a reluctant scholar. Her   
reading was chiefly in a radical social direction. She avoided campus         
social life and insisted on supporting herself rather than live on money     
from her father.                                                             
Dropping out of college two years later, she moved to New York where she     
found a job as a reporter for The Call, the city's only socialist daily.     
She covered rallies and demonstrations and interviewed people ranging from   
butlers and butlers to labor organizers and revolutionaries.                 
She next worked for The Masses, a magazine that opposed American             
involvement in the European war. In September, the Post Office rescinded     
the magazine's mailing permit. Federal officers seized back issues,           
manuscripts, subscriber lists and correspondence. Five editors were           
charged with sedition.                                                       
In November 1917 Day went to prison for being one of forty women in front     
of the White House protesting women's exclusion from the electorate.         
Arriving at a rural workhouse, the women were roughly handled. The women     
responded with a hunger strike. Finally they were freed by presidential       
Returning to New York, Day felt that journalism was a meager response to a   
world at war. In the spring of 1918, she signed up for a nurse's training     
program in Brooklyn.                                                         
Her conviction that the social order was unjust changed in no substantial     
way from her adolescence until her death, though she never identified         
herself with any political party.                                             
Her religious development was a slower process. As a child she had           
attended services at an Episcopal Church. As a young journalist in New       
York, she would sometimes make late-at-night visits to St. Joseph's           
Catholic Church on Sixth Avenue.                                             
The Catholic climate of worship appealed to her. While she knew little       
about Catholic belief, Catholic spiritual discipline fascinated her. She     
saw the Catholic Church as "the church of the immigrants, the church of       
the poor."                                                                   
In 1922, in Chicago working as a reporter, she roomed with three young       
women who went to Mass every Sunday and holy day and set aside time each     
day for prayer. It was clear to her that "worship, adoration,                 
thanksgiving, supplication ... were the noblest acts of which we are         
capable in this life."                                                       
Her next job was with a newspaper in New Orleans. Living near St. Louis       
Cathedral, Day often attended evening Benediction services.                   
Back in New York in 1924, Day bought a beach cottage on Staten Island         
using money from the sale of movie rights for a novel. She also began a       
four-year common-law marriage with Forster Batterham, an English botanist     
she had met through friends in Manhattan. Batterham was an anarchist         
opposed to marriage and religion. In a world of such cruelty, he found it     
impossible to believe in a God. By this time Day's belief in God was         
unshakable. It grieved her that Batterham didn't sense God's presence         
within the natural world. "How can there be no God," she asked, "when         
there are all these beautiful things?" His irritation with her "absorption   
in the supernatural" would lead them to quarrel.                             
What moved everything to a different plane for her was pregnancy. She had     
been pregnant once before, years earlier, as the result of a love affair     
with a journalist. This resulted in the great tragedy of her life, an         
abortion. The affair and its awful aftermath had been the subject of her     
novel, The Eleventh Virgin. The abortion, Day concluded in the years         
following, had left her barren. "For a long time I had thought I could not   
bear a child, and the longing in my heart for a baby had been growing,"she   
confided in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. "My home, I felt, was     
not a home without one."                                                     
Her pregnancy with Batterham seemed to Day nothing less than a miracle.       
But Batterham didn't believe in bringing children into such a violent         
On March 3, 1927, Tamar Theresa Day was born. Day could think of nothing     
better to do with the gratitude that overwhelmed her than arrange Tamar's     
baptism in the Catholic Church. "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."                             
After Tamar's baptism, there was a permanent break with Batterham. On         
December 28, Day was received into the Catholic Church. A period commenced   
in her life as she tried to find a way to bring together her religious       
faith and her radical social values.                                         
In the winter of 1932 Day travelled to Washington, D.C., to report for       
Commonweal and America magazines on the Hunger March. Day watched the         
protesters parade down the streets of Washington carrying signs calling       
for jobs, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, relief for mothers and   
children, health care and housing. What kept Day in the sidelines was that   
she was a Catholic and the march had been organized by Communists, a party   
at war with not only with capitalism but religion.                           
It was December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. After             
witnessing the march, Day went to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception     
where she expressed her torment in prayer: "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         
Back in her apartment in New York the next day, Day met Peter Maurin, a       
French immigrant 20 years her senior.                                         
Maurin, a former Christian Brother, had left France for Canada in 1908 and   
later made his way to the United States. When he met Day, he was handyman     
at a Catholic boys' camp in upstate New York, receiving meals, use of the     
chaplain's library, living space in the barn and occasional pocket money.     
During his years of wandering, Maurin had come to a Franciscan attitude,     
embracing poverty as a vocation. His celibate, unencumbered life offered     
time for study and prayer, out of which a vision had taken form of a         
social order instilled with basic values of the Gospel "in which it would     
be easier for men to be good." A born teacher, he found willing listeners,   
among them George Shuster, editor of Commonweal magazine, who gave him       
Day's address.                                                               
As remarkable as the providence of their meeting was Day's willingness to     
listen. It seemed to her he was an answer to her prayers, someone who         
could help her discover what she was supposed to do.                         
What Day should do, Maurin said, was start a paper to publicize Catholic     
social teaching and promote steps to bring about the peaceful                 
transformation of society. Day readily embraced the idea. If family past,     
work experience and religious faith had prepared her for anything, it was     
Day found that the Paulist Press was willing to print 2,500 copies of an     
eight-page tabloid paper for $57. Her kitchen was the new paper's             
editorial office. She decided to sell the paper for a penny a copy, "so       
cheap that anyone could afford to buy it."                                   
On May 1, the first copies of The Catholic Worker were handed out on Union   
Few publishing ventures meet with such immediate success. By December,       
100,000 copies were being printed each month. Readers found a unique voice   
in The Catholic Worker. It expressed dissatisfaction with the social order   
and took the side of labor unions, but its vision of the ideal future         
challenged both urbanization and industrialism. It wasn't only radical but   
religious. The paper didn't merely complain but called on its readers to     
make personal responses.                                                     
For the first half year The Catholic Worker was only a newspaper, but as     
winter approached, homeless people began to knock on the door. Maurin's       
essays in the paper were calling for renewal of the ancient Christian         
practice of hospitality to those who were homeless. In this way followers     
of Christ could respond to Jesus' words: "I was a stranger and you took me   
in." Maurin opposed the idea that Christians should take care only of         
their friends and leave care of strangers to impersonal charitable           
agencies. Every home should have its "Christ Room" and every parish a         
house of hospitality ready to receive the "ambassadors of God."               
Surrounded by people in need and attracting volunteers excited about ideas   
they discovered in The Catholic Worker, it was inevitable that the editors   
would soon be given the chance to put their principles into practice.         
Day's apartment was the seed of many houses of hospitality to come.           
By the wintertime, an apartment was rented with space for ten women, soon     
after a place for men. Next came a house in Greenwich Village. In 1936 the   
community moved into two buildings in Chinatown, but no enlargement could     
possibly find room for all those in need. Mainly they were men, Day wrote,   
"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."           
Many were surprised that, in contrast with most charitable centers, no one   
at the Catholic Worker set about reforming them. A crucifix on the wall       
was the only unmistakable evidence of the faith of those welcoming them.     
The staff received only food, board and occasional pocket money.             
The Catholic Worker became a national movement. By 1936 there were 33         
Catholic Worker houses spread across the country. Due to the Depression,     
there were plenty of people needing them.                                     
The Catholic Worker attitude toward those who were welcomed wasn't always     
appreciated. These weren't the "deserving poor," it was sometimes             
objected, but drunkards and good-for-nothings. A visiting social worker       
asked Day how long the "clients" were permitted to stay. "We let them stay   
forever," Day answered with a fierce look in her eye. "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."                                             
Some justified their objections with biblical quotations. Didn't Jesus say   
that the poor would be with us always? "Yes," Day once replied, "but we       
are not content that there should be so many of them. The class structure     
is our making and by our consent, not God's, and we must do what we can to   
change it. We are urging revolutionary change."                               
The Catholic Worker also experimented with farming communes. In 1935 a       
house with a garden was rented on Staten Island. Soon after came Mary Farm   
in Easton, Pennsylvania, a property finally given up because of strife       
within the community. Another farm was purchased in upstate New York near     
Newburgh. Called the Maryfarm Retreat House, it was destined for a longer     
life. Later came the Maurin Peter Farm on Staten Island, which later moved   
to Tivoli and then to Marlborough, both in the Hudson Valley. Day came to     
see the vocation of the Catholic Worker was not so much to found model       
agricultural communities as rural houses of hospitality.                     
What got Day into the most trouble was pacifism. A nonviolent way of life,   
as she saw it, was at the heart of the Gospel. She took as seriously as       
the early Church the command of Jesus to Maurin: "Put away your sword, for   
whoever lives by the sword shall perish by the sword."                       
For many centuries the Catholic Church had accommodated itself to war.       
Popes had blessed armies and preached Crusades. In the thirteenth century     
St. Francis of Assisi had revived the pacifist way, but by the twentieth     
century, it was unknown for Catholics to take such a position.               
The Catholic Worker's first expression of pacifism, published in 1935, was   
a dialogue between a patriot and Christ, the patriot dismissing Christ's     
teaching as a noble but impractical doctrine. Few readers were troubled by   
such articles until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The fascist side, led     
by Franco, presented itself as defender of the Catholic faith. Nearly         
every Catholic bishop and publication rallied behind Franco. The Catholic     
Worker, refusing to support either side in the war, lost two-thirds of its   
Those backing Franco, Day warned early in the war, ought to "take another     
look at recent events in [Nazi] Germany." She expressed anxiety for the       
Jews and later was among the founders of the Committee of Catholics to       
Fight Anti-Semitism.                                                         
Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and America's declaration of war,   
Dorothy announced that the paper would maintain its pacifist stand. "We       
will print the words of Christ who is with us always," Day wrote. "Our       
manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount." Opposition to the war, she added,     
had nothing to do with sympathy for America's enemies. "We love our           
country.... We have been the only country in the world where men and women   
of all nations have taken refuge from oppression." But the means of action   
the Catholic Worker movement supported were the works of mercy rather than   
the works of war. She urged "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."       
Not all members of Catholic Worker communities agreed. Fifteen houses of     
hospitality closed in the months following the U.S. entry into the war.       
But Day's view prevailed. Every issue of TheCatholic Worker reaffirmed her   
understanding of the Christian life. The young men who identified with the   
Catholic Worker movement during the war generally spent much of the war       
years either in prison, or in rural work camps. Some did unarmed military     
service as medics.                                                           
The world war ended in 1945, but out of it emerged the Cold war, the         
nuclear-armed "warfare state," and a series of smaller wars in which         
America was often involved.                                                   
One of the rituals of life for the New York Catholic Worker community         
beginning in the late 1950s was the refusal to participate in the state's     
annual civil defense drill. Such preparation for attack seemed to Day part   
of an attempt to promote nuclear war as survivable and winnable and to       
justify spending billions on the military. When the sirens sounded June       
15, 1955, Day was among a small group of people sitting in front of City     
Hall. "In the name of Jesus, who is God, who is Love, we will not obey       
this order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We will not be drilled into     
fear. We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb," a         
Catholic Worker leaflet explained. Day described her civil disobedience as   
an act of penance for America's use of nuclear weapons on Japanese cities.   
The first year the dissidents were reprimanded. The next year Day and         
others were sent to jail for five days. Arrested again the next year, the     
judge jailed her for thirty days. In 1958, a different judge suspended       
sentence. In 1959, Day was back in prison, but only for five days. Then       
came 1960, when instead of a handful of people coming to City Hall Park,     
500 turned up. The police arrested only a few, Day conspicuously not among   
those singled out. In 1961 the crowd swelled to 2,000. This time 40 were     
arrested, but again Day was exempted. It proved to be the last year of       
dress rehearsals for nuclear war in New York.                                 
Another Catholic Worker stress was the civil rights movement. As usual Day   
wanted to visit people who were setting an example and therefore went to     
Koinonia, a Christian agricultural community in rural Georgia where blacks   
and whites lived peacefully together. The community was under attack when     
Day visited in 1957. One of the community houses had been hit by             
machine-gun fire and Ku Klux Klan members had burned crosses on community     
land. Day insisted on taking a turn at the sentry post. Noticing an           
approaching car had reduced its speed, she ducked just as a bullet struck     
the steering column in front of her face. Concern with the Church's           
response to war led Day to Rome during the Second Vatican Council, an         
event Pope John XXIII hoped would restore "the simple and pure lines that     
the face of the Church of Jesus had at its birth." In 1963 Day was one 50     
"Mothers for Peace" who went to Rome to thank Pope John for his encyclical   
Pacem in Terris. Close to death, the pope couldn't meet them privately,       
but at one of his last public audiences blessed the pilgrims, asking them     
to continue their labors.                                                     
In 1965, Day returned to Rome to take part in a fast expressing "our         
prayer and our hope" that the Council would issue "a clear statement, `Put   
away thy sword.'" Day saw the unpublicized fast as a "widow's mite" in       
support of the bishops' effort to speak with a pure voice to the modern       
The fasters had reason to rejoice in December when the Constitution on the   
Church in the Modern World was approved by the bishops. The Council's         
described as "a crime against God and humanity" any act of war "directed     
to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their   
inhabitants." The Council called on states to make legal provision for       
conscientious objectors while describing as "criminal" those who obey         
commands which condemn the innocent and defenseless.                         
Acts of war causing "the indiscriminate destruction of ... vast areas with   
their inhabitants" were the order of the day in regions of Vietnam under     
intense U.S. bombardment in 1965 and the years following. Many young         
Catholic Workers went to prison for refusing to cooperate with               
conscription, while others did alternative service. Nearly everyone in       
Catholic Worker communities took part in protests. Many went to prison for   
acts of civil disobedience.                                                   
Probably there has never been a newspaper so many of whose editors have       
been jailed for acts of conscience. Day herself was last jailed in 1973       
for taking part in a banned picket line in support of farmworkers. She was   
Day lived long enough to see her achievements honored. In 1967, when she     
made her last visit to Rome to take part in the International Congress of     
the Laity, she found she was one of two Americans -- the other an             
astronaut -- invited to receive Communion from the hands of Pope Paul VI.     
On her 75th birthday the Jesuit magazine America devoted a special issue     
to her, finding in her the individual who best exemplified "the aspiration   
and action of the American Catholic community during the past forty           
years." Notre Dame University presented her with its Laetare Medal,           
thanking her for "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the                 
Among those who came to visit her when she was no longer able to travel       
was Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who had once pinned on Day's dress the       
cross worn only by fully professed members of the Missionary Sisters of       
Long before her death November 29, 1980, Day found herself regarded by       
many as a saint. No words of hers are better known than her brusque           
response, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."   
Nonetheless, having herself treasured the memory and witness of many         
saints, she is a candidate for inclusion in the calendar of saints. The       
Claretians have launched an effort to have her canonized.                     
"If I have achieved anything in my life," she once remarked, "it is           
because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God."