Catholic Worker at 75

Catholic Worker at 75

The movement she inspired–passionate, pacifist and siding with the scorned–is seventy-five and going strong.


At Dorothy Day’s death in November 1980, at 83, talk was heard that the Catholic Worker, the movement she co-founded in 1933, would vanish without her. She was its Earth Mother–or better, its Reverend Mother, a convert to Catholicism who took literally the call of the Gospels to practice personally the works of mercy and rescue. She would do it with full-risk commitments to pacifism and nonviolent anarchism.

The talk was unfounded. With scant eyeing from the media, and far from the rites of soft-core religion that sanction coziness with Caesar and his court clerics, nearly 185 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality are currently operating in thirty-seven states and ten countries. From July 9 to 12, several hundred practitioners of Day’s methods are expected to gather in Worcester, Massachusetts, hosted by two local Worker houses: Sts. Francis and Therese and The Mustard Seed. The occasion is a celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Catholic Worker, going back to May Day 1933, when Day, then a 35-year-old journalist who had written about class conflict, strikes and war resistance for The Masses and The Liberator, handed out the first copies of her monthly newspaper at a Communist rally in Manhattan’s Union Square.

Through thick and thick–there is no thin in poverty’s underworld–Worker houses have been models of stamina, going extra miles beyond counting. The Ammon Hennacy House in Los Angeles offers shelter and meals for homeless people and publishes The Catholic Agitator. Viva House in Baltimore runs a food pantry and family soup kitchen. St. Peter Claver House in Philadelphia gleans for food and clothing and has it on hand for all comers. Washington’s Dorothy Day House shelters five families, distributes food and stages weekly antiwar demonstrations at the White House and the Pentagon. Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, who with his wife, Claire, started Sts. Francis and Therese House in 1986, echoes Day’s line–“we confess to being fools and wish that we were more so”–by saying that Catholic Worker houses seek “an irrational and personalist way of doing things that trusts in the miraculous power of God…. Without government aid, salaries, grants or institutional help from the Church, and often without many volunteers, we feed and house people, deliver aid in war zones, confront local and national injustices, and still manage to have happy personal and family lives. That’s pretty miraculous to me.”

In the years before Day embraced Catholicism, in 1927 at 30, she lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She bibbed with Eugene O’Neill and Malcolm Cowley, interviewed Trotsky, went to jail with Alice Paul, was on the barricades with the Socialists, read Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy and Jack Reed, reveled with Greenwich Village bohemians, had an abortion, gave birth to a daughter and left a common-law marriage. In The Long Loneliness, Day’s 1952 autobiography, she tells of transferring all that fury and fire to living out Christ’s message of siding with the scorned.

Like today’s followers, Day worked her own side of the street with no official ties to the Church. A pacifist, she had contempt for churchmen who duped the faithful into accepting the “just war” theory. She struck matches to burn down the hierarchy’s chumminess with power. In the late 1960s, when a war-supporting Catholic cardinal was in Vietnam blessing US warplanes and another cardinal went to the White House for a prayer service with Richard Nixon, Day unloaded: “What a confusion we have gotten into when Christian prelates sprinkle holy water on scrap metal to be used for obliteration bombing and name bombers for the Holy Innocents, for Our Lady of Mercy; who bless a man about to press a button which releases death to 50,000 human beings, including little babies, children, the sick, the aged….”

Day’s fifty-year ministry included war tax resistance, commingling with society’s broke and broken, imprisonment–she was arrested so often for civil disobedience that a New York City jail had a “Dorothy Day suite”–and getting out a newspaper that still sells at the same penny-a-copy price and holds the same pacifist line as when it started. Day’s biographers in books and magazines include Robert Coles, Garry Wills, Daniel Berrigan, Abigail McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, Dan Wakefield, Michael Harrington and David O’Brien–the last writing in Commonweal that Day was “the most significant, interesting and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”

Few writers have been closer to Day than Robert Ellsberg. He took a five-year student sabbatical from Harvard in the mid-1970s to join Day at the New York Worker, washing dishes, unclogging the toilets and editing the newspaper. This summer Ellsberg, now the editor and publisher of Orbis Books, comes forward with The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. It is 669 pages of sere and flexuous prose, virtuosic in its candor. A diary entry from June 16, 1951, begins: “I have a hard enough job to curb the anger in my own heart which I sometimes even wake up with, go to sleep with–a giant to strive with, an ugliness, a sorrow to me–a mighty struggle to love. As long as there is any resentment, bitterness, lack of love in my own heart I am powerless. God must help me.”

From the evidence in Day’s life and what endures daily in the Worker houses, help kept–and keeps–coming.

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