Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

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


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.

While the church norm, going back to Saint Benedict in the fifth century, had been the establishment of highly regulated and legalistic celibate communities, Day created an anarchistic lay community dedicated solely to service. Hostels were her cathedrals. Rags were her vestments. Bread was her eucharist, soup her wine. Even as her Worker network of houses and farms spread across America and the world, she gave it no overarching rules or creed, leaving it amazingly free of Catholic formalism, as much a structural challenge to orthodoxy as it was an activist rebuff of clerical complacency. Her message made her the most influential and inspirational leader of Catholic outreach since Saint Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century, who, like her, called the church back to its “communistic” roots of radical redistribution of wealth to insure that none were in need.

Despite her radicalism, she was never a Church pariah. “Though she is a harlot at times,” Day wrote of the Church in one of her eight books, “she is our mother.” Her devotion to its essential teachings was beyond question–a daily communicant, she also recited the Psalms each day, explaining to a fellow prisoner and drug addict in the Women’s House of Detention that they were her “fix.” Weathering an abortion in her 20s, she came to share the Church’s pro-life beliefs, converting when she later baptized her only child, even at the cost of her marriage to a confirmed atheist. The University of Notre Dame, for example, gave her its highest honor, the Laetare Medal, recognizing her as one “who comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.” The Vatican announced on March 16, 2000, that it had started the canonization process, triggered by O’Connor, who said of her: “She is not a ‘gingerbread’ saint or a ‘holy card’ saint, but a modern-day devoted daughter of the Church.”

Her difficulties with the hierarchy, especially Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, revolved around her peace advocacy, not her work with the poor. Adamant opposition to all war and preparation for war–“gospel nonviolence”–were a hallmark of her life. “We believe that Christ went beyond natural ethics…and taught nonviolence as a way of life,” she wrote, confronting the willingness of church leaders like Spellman to find “just war” rationales for every nationalist military adventure.

Her Worker organizations never paid federal income taxes or sought tax exemptions. Most of her six or seven jail terms were a result of acts of antiwar civil disobedience. Her opposition to the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the cold war and the nuclear arms race aligned her with the early Church fathers, who universally opposed Christian participation in war, but pitted her against more recent prelates. Her views helped move the Church, leading to the condemnation of indiscriminate warfare and nuclear weapons at Vatican II in 1965, and paving the way for the Pope’s current critique of Bush’s “war on terror.”

In the January 1942 issue of The Catholic Worker, the first after the Pearl Harbor attack, she wrote: “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount…. We will print the words of Christ who is with us always–even to the end of the world. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.'” A Worker newspaper ran the same piece–under the same headline (“We Continue Our Christian Pacifist Stand”)–almost sixty years later, in the first issue after September 11, 2001.

In her last public appearance, on August 6, 1976, she questioned the Church’s reluctance to condemn nuclear weapons. Asked to address the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia at a mass to honor the military, she noted that it was also the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. “Here we are on the day the first atomic bomb was dropped. Our Creator gave us life…. But we have given the world instruments of death of inconceivable magnitude. Today we are celebrating–how strange to use such a word–a mass for the military…. Why not a mass for the military on some other day? I plead that we regard the military mass, and all our masses today, as an act of penance, begging God to forgive us.”

This fierce pacifism was linked to her voluntary poverty by the common bond of her life: love. “The measure by which we will be judged,” love in action, was to her, as it was to Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov, “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” The “revolution of the heart” that Day invoked was a life of loving sacrifice that was its own pained reward.

Her radicalism was determinedly Catholic, a conscious rejection of secular activism. She had grown up with Jack London, Peter Kropotkin, Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair. She’d found work early in life at the socialist Call and The Masses. But she went from cutting religion out of her life to making it the core. One of her best friends, Mike Gold, writer at the Daily Worker, introduced her to Eugene O’Neill, who’d recite Francis Thompson’s famous religious poem “The Hound of Heaven” to her in the back room of the Hell Hole, a tavern where they’d often meet. It made her feel “so great a need to reverence, to worship, to adore.” She became a mystic on a pilgrimage from God, of God and toward God, one of history’s great spiritual athletes.

The communist and socialist movements were insufficiently individual to her, wedded to the abstraction of the masses. She was drawn to the work of a French Catholic named Emmanuel Mounier, who inspired the personalist movement through his journal Esprit. Two papal encyclicals–On the Condition of Labor by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and After Forty Years by Pius XI in 1931–led to the founding of her Worker network. As Day lieutenant Eileen Egan wrote: “The core of the movement was the recognition of the importance of each person.”

Seventy years after the first Catholic Worker community opened in New York, two followers of Dorothy Day, Bill and Sue Frankel-Streit, opened one of the latest Worker homes in rural Louisa County, Virginia, just in time for last Christmas. They called it the Little Flower Catholic Worker Farm, named after Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”), whose autobiography was a Day favorite. Located in a dilapidated antebellum farmhouse with primitive heating, the Worker farm feeds and succors the country poor just as Day did among the tall stalks of Manhattan decades ago. As Bill Frankel-Streit stoked the wood stove around which a dozen Day descendants gathered for the mass of dedication with Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, he joked that this new house of love was “a diamond in the rough.”

So was its inspiration.

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