In the final days of Rudy Giuliani’s term as mayor of New York, three months after the heroism of 9/11, he quietly approved a politically wired project to build twenty-five multimillion-dollar mansions on Staten Island. An expediter for the project’s mob-tied developer was already under indictment for forging the demolition permit that had illegally cleared the site. Nonetheless, Giuliani’s deputy mayor secretly summoned his reluctant planning commission chairman to City Hall to read him the riot act over delaying it, forcing the final go-ahead.
The forged permit–which later led to a conviction–authorized an ambush on a sanctuary. The Catholic Worker movement owned the three wooden cottages destroyed by bulldozers in the dead of night. One had long been occupied by its founder, Dorothy Day, who spurned personal property, ate the same gruel served now in her 200 Worker hospitality houses worldwide, wore the same discarded clothes she gave the poor and carried only a prayer book and a coffee jar on her pilgrimages across America.
Nominated for canonization by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1998, Day was buried near the bungalow in 1980. She’d converted to Catholicism in 1927 while living in another bungalow a short distance down the Raritan Bay beach. She’d started the first Catholic Worker farm nearby.
The memory of her on the island, and across the city, was so strong that church and preservation groups had been petitioning Giuliani’s Landmarks Commission for three and a half years to designate the cottages as landmarks, even cornering the mayor himself at a Town Hall meeting. While landmark officials had refused to make the designation, they’d also barred demolition as negotiations with the builder continued. That’s why the developer and his partners, who’d contributed $41,000 to Giuliani and his GOP allies, needed a phony permit to level them, just the sort of lawlessness that former prosecutor Rudy ordinarily went bonkers about. Not this time.
Giuliani had launched his putative Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2000, before prostate cancer and a public mistress cut it short, by attempting to make himself the Catholic candidate in a very Catholic state. He’d shut down a Brooklyn Museum art exhibit because it featured an arguably profane painting of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung. But by 2001, when the Day controversy exploded, the Catholic posturing by the rare churchgoer was over.
Dorothy Day was hardly Rudy Giuliani’s kind of Catholic anyway. With the $57 she and four friends put together in 1933, partly from an article she published in America magazine, they printed an eight-page tabloid called The Catholic Worker and handed out 2,500 copies at the May Day Communist rally in Union Square. With only the $5 she had to her name a few months later, she rented a vacant apartment to provide emergency shelter for six homeless women after hearing that one of their friends had thrown herself in front of a subway. These two acts launched one of the most elegantly simple revolutions in history.
Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and sheltering the homeless were seen by Day “as the very ground of the Christian life.” Day chose for herself a life of voluntary poverty, a call not only to serve the poor but to join them in their poverty. In a radical shift of Catholic tradition, Day mothered a lay movement in which Christ’s counsel to be poor in spirit became a physical reality, in the everyday form of voluntary rather than vowed poverty. Her lay ministry with the homeless, as well as the creation of a lay community with the impoverished, departed from the centuries-old Catholic custom of using vowed, celibate religious orders to meet the needs of the church and the world.