In his address to the U.S. Congress last September, Pope Francis referred to four exemplary Americans. One of them was Dorothy Day. Currently she is up for canonization, something that at one time would have seemed impossible. After all, Dorothy lived with a man out of wedlock, had an abortion, drank a lot, was labeled a communist and an anarchist, was shot at, was jailed four times, and was repeatedly investigated by the FBI. Is this the “stuff” of sanctity? To answer that question, let’s take a closer look at this remarkable woman.
Dorothy was born in 1897 in Brooklyn to a nominally Episcopalian family. Her father, a newspaperman,
moved the family to Chicago due to his job. Dorothy attended the University of Illinois, but she quit after a couple of years and moved back to New York City. There she adapted a bohemian life style in Greenwich Village, writing for radical newspapers and participating in a variety of social and political protests. Her first arrest came in 1917 when she took part in a suffragist protest in front of the White House.
A casual sexual affair resulted in her first pregnancy. She had an abortion, a decision she later deeply regretted. In the 1920’s she fell in love with Foster Batterham, an anarchist, and became his common-law-wife. When she became pregnant again, she was grateful for this “second chance” to bring a new life into the world. Simultaneously, she began reading Christian classics and was eventually drawn to the Catholic Church. But Batterham had no use for organized religion. He basically told her to choose: either him or her new-found faith. Dorothy chose her Catholic faith and Batterman left, causing her immense pain.
For Dorothy continued to love Batterham. Once she wrote to him: “I was very cold last night. Not because there wasn’t enough covers but because I didn’t have you.” Even five years after they had parted she was still pleading with him to come back, marry her, and be a father to their daughter, Tamar. But he never did. (For more details, read Dorothy’s inspiring autobiography, The Long Loneliness.)
In 1932 Dorothy providentially met Peter Maurin, a French itinerant philosopher who soon became her mentor. With Peter’s encouragement, Dorothy founded a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, that blended her talent for writing with her devotion to social justice. The first issue came out fittingly on May 1, 1933, the Feast of Joseph the Worker. It sold for a penny—as it still does today. The first issue sold 2500 copies, but by year’s end the circulation was 100,000. At the same time, Dorothy and Peter opened houses of hospitality for the poor in New York City and elsewhere, providing food and shelter especially for the homeless. Dorothy lived in one of these houses, writing, running the newspaper, welcoming visitors, talking to volunteers, organizing meetings, and (of course) praying.
Throughout her long life Dorothy was a woman of prayer. Daily she attended Mass, read the scriptures, prayed part of the Divine Office, and said the rosary. She also lived voluntary poverty, wearing only donated clothing, traveling by bus, and having very few possessions. She never claimed tax-exempt status for the Catholic Worker saying, when you give to the poor, it should be done without getting a tax write-off in exchange. She was also a tireless advocate for peace and often protested against war and later against nuclear armaments.
In 1973, at age 76, she was arrested again for her participation in a United Farm Workers rally, supporting Caesar Chavez and the rights of migrant workers.
Dorothy never romanticized working and living with the poor. At times she struggled with some of the individuals who came to the Catholic Worker for help or to volunteer. But she continuously strove to see Christ in everyone she met. Dorothy experienced personal trials as well. A particular sadness for her was that both Tamar and her children eventually drifted away from the Church. As sickness and old age began to wear on Dorothy, she was largely confined to her room at the Catholic Worker, saying, “My job is prayer.” She died on November 29, 1980 at the age of 83.
Dorothy Day combined the practice of charity with the call for justice. Although she admired the saints who devoted themselves to helping the poor, she raised the question: “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just minister to the slaves, but to do away with slavery?” Robert Ellsberg, who wrote All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day, says of Dorothy: “Her life was a living parable, focused on what she called the mystery of the poor: ‘that they are Jesus, and what we do for them we do to Him.'”
Dorothy worked tirelessly for peace. This song, therefore, seems appropriate for her. It is the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” sung here by Susan Boyle.
Does anything stand out for you about the life of Dorothy Day?
In whom do you struggle to see the face of Christ?
Are you combining the practice of charity with the call for justice in your own personal life?
PS: If you did not full out my survey last week, here it is again: