The funeral procession of Dorothy Day, her body in a pinewood coffin, moved out of Maryhouse on Third Street on the way to a requiem mass at Nativity Catholic Church, a half-block away. Someone wondered aloud why more of the poor were not present. The street, as mean as any in this cloister of harshness on the edge of the Bowery, was certainly not overflowing with homeless souls come to mourn the woman who had served them in a personal ministry for half a century. A few men-and even fewer women-blank-eyed, dressed in tatters-stood in clusters, while others wandered down the street from the city shelter for derelicts, one of Manhattan’s unseen hellholes. But that was all. Most of the 800 people following the coffin were either old friends of Miss Day who live outside the neighborhood or members of the Catholic Worker community who run St. Joseph’s and Maryhouse, the two local shelters for the homeless.
Large numbers of the poor did not come, for a reason as obvious as the open sores on the face of a wino opposite Maryhouse: they are too busy trying to fight death themselves. To mark the passing of someone who loved them–accepted them totally by living here, raising money for them through her newspaper–the Catholic Worker–would, of course, make sense in the rational world of the comfortable, where public tribute to the deceased great and the seemingly great is the proper way of dealing with grief. But here on this street that is full of the homeless and jobless, death was not needed for grief. Hope gets buried every day.
If the turnout of the poor was not strong, there was also an almost total absence of Catholic officialdom. This was the genuine affront. Few of the faithful in this century were more committed than Dorothy Day to the church’s teachings, both in its social encyclicals–on the distribution of wealth, the evils of the arms race–and its calls to private spirituality. She was a daily communicant at mass, rising early to read the Bible and pray the rosary.
The only prelate of the church on hand was Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York. As the procession rounded the corner from Maryhouse and went on to the sidewalk leading to the church, the scarlet vestments of the Cardinal came into view. The contrast was powerful. In a neighborhood of drab colors, where even the faces of the poor seem to be grayed with depression, the scarlet robes of the Cardinal, his scarlet skullcap, had a touch of mock comedy to them; the vestments seemed almost the costume of a clown-a clown who was lost in the saddest of landscapes.
A Catholic Worker priest, a young Dominican who works at Maryhouse and was to celebrate the mass, made the best of the situation. At the head of the procession, he shook hands with Cardinal Cooke. The Cardinal took over and prayed aloud, commending the soul of “dear Dorothy” to the mercy of the Lord. While cameramen from the Associated Press, The Daily News and the Religious News Service clicked away–getting the coffin in the foreground–the Cardinal finished praying in two minutes.
It was just enough time for many in the procession to think beyond the cardinal’s brilliantly hued presence at the church door. Some recalled the pacifists from the Catholic Worker who have been standing for the past few months outside Cardinal Cooke’s offices uptown and in front of the splendid St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They have been leafleting the churchgoers’ on the immorality of the arms race and pleading with the unseen Cardinal to issue a statement in favor of nuclear disarmament. In the most recent issue of The Catholic Worker, one of Dorothy Day’s writers said sharply about the vigil at St. Patrick’s last August: “We want to remember the victims of the [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] bombings, and to mourn the fact that the hierarchy of our archdiocese is so silent about nuclear disarmament, when statements from the Vatican Council, recent Popes and the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference have been so clear in their condemnation of, the arms race. ”