The Enduring Dorothy Day : At the Centennial of the Birth of the Catholic Worker’s Co-Founder, the Movement Looks Back on her Life--While Gazing Forward


She was a radical American Catholic born 100 years ago on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn. Her name was Dorothy Day. She wasn’t born into her faith--she converted, at 30, after questing for God in all the wrong places. Which is to say hedonistic and sexual places. She’s been gone 17 years now, but the work she and a fellow pilgrim took up among the poor and the destitute of New York’s Lower East Side endures.

It’s known as the Catholic Worker movement.

A lot of people wouldn’t know her name, but there are great numbers of other people who can’t seem to get her out of their minds. On the centennial of her birth, it’s as if Dorothy Day pricks at consciences all the harder to do better, be better, feel more deeply, struggle more intensely for the few things that count.

So how best to characterize the passionate idea that she and her co-founder, Peter Maurin, who was a French worker-peasant, began 64 years ago in the Bowery? Perhaps like this:


The ragged beggar at the door, the demented bum on a corner howling at passersby--these could be Christ himself. Literally. You turn away a vagrant, you shut the door or your mind on a drooling derelict, you have possibly just rejected . . . him.

I was a stranger and you took me in.

In the Catholic Worker movement, this has always been injunction, a way of living a life.

Worker houses are not known as settlement houses, or flophouses, or shelters, or missions. They’re thought of, and run as, “houses of hospitality.” The people who sup there, with their horrid fingernails and table manners, are referred to as “the guests.”

Day was theologically and liturgically traditional, but radical in about everything else: social justice, racial relations, pacifism, conscientious objection. She was once asked by a newspaperman what she would do if instructed by her bishop (who was the cardinal of New York) to cease and desist publishing her newspaper, the Catholic Worker.

“I would gladly obey,” she said. She smiled. “But there are many ways, you know, to handle a cardinal.”

This month, Cardinal John O’Connor announced in his homily at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral that he believes Dorothy Day should be proposed as a candidate for sainthood. In truth, the institutional church was a bit ambivalent about Day in her lifetime. “Your worst enemies are your own family,” she used to say.

People would tell her in her lifetime she was a breathing saint. It peeved her. “I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” she’d say.


She died on Nov. 29, 1980. She was 83. She was staying in a room next door to a homeless lady in one of the movement’s houses. The world trooped down to view her.

She was in a pine box, atop which was a single red rose. Cesar Chavez came. Abbie Hoffman came. Cardinal Terence Cook came. Michael Harrington, whose book “The Other America” is said to have launched the war on poverty, came. He, as so many others, had spent time ladling soup on the Worker food lines. It wasn’t too much to say that almost single-handedly and unwittingly Day had created the American Catholic left.


She was ravishing, or so nearly everyone who knew her says now. Ravishing in her thought and unconventionality. In her peculiar history and improbable background. (The basic story is she came to God after an abortion, a failed marriage, a common-law marriage, all kinds of literary-cum-socialist-cum-Marxist friendships and liaisons and drinking bouts in Greenwich Village.) And ravishing in her physical appearance. It was the plainness of that beauty that got people, apparently.

Famous American writers, especially male writers, have fallen over themselves trying to describe what it was Dorothy Day possessed that allowed her to stop a room merely by entering it.

“An awesome woman, tall, lantern-jawed, with Modigliani eyes,” wrote Garry Wills, an ex-Jesuit seminarian, in a definitive 1983 Esquire piece. In the early ‘50s, critic Dwight MacDonald rhapsodized her in a two-part New Yorker profile. In his literary history of the ‘20s, “Exile’s Return,” Malcolm Cowley wrote, “Gangsters admired Dorothy Day, because she could drink them under the table.”

Certainly she must have known the effect she had on people. Going out to speak to groups about the Worker, she would say of herself: “There is always a subtle self-aggrandizement. One may not intend it, yet there it crops out to humiliate one.”


And yet those who knew her talk about how she promoted other people’s gifts. “If you were standing next to Dorothy in a group, she would push you forward,” says Patrick Jordan, managing editor of Commonweal, who lived at the Worker in New York from 1969 to 1975.

He also says, “How Dorothy Day managed to keep her psychological wholeness over the years in the disorder, disease, mental confusion, and violence that mark Catholic Worker houses was a practical miracle to me.”

Her answer? “Pray and endure.”

Jordan said he remembers going to see “Fiddler on the Roof” with her on Broadway. Somebody had sent her the money for the tickets. She went, gladly. She wore a smashing green suit.

Jordan: “I don’t want to spiritualize her. She’s not pious. She has to be understood as an American radical.”

She once told Jordan: “When I die, I don’t want any guitar music. I want opera!”


The very first Catholic Worker--the mythic one-cent newspaper that has gone hand-in-hand with the movement--was sold on May Day in 1933 at Union Square in New York City. Know what a year’s subscription to the Worker costs today? Twenty-five cents. It looks like something mad Marxists would sell.

Day flirted with “-isms” in her youth, but she was unimpressed by the ideologies of class politics and class struggle.


“She was not especially attached to any group,” her principal biographer, William D. Miller, has written. “She found Marx incomprehensible and dull. . . . It was not to ideology but to people that she felt drawn.”

She really had no other social philosophy than utter devotion to and belief in the dignity of the individual soul.

The current issue of the Worker has a reminiscence by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy.

“Clearly,” she writes, “there is much wildness in my feelings for my grandmother--love, admiration, annoyance, inspiration and a vague sense of bewilderment.”

She talks about how Day loved detective novels, Italian opera and Russian icons. She wasn’t a particularly warm or huggable granny. Always, says Hennessy, she can feel that “increasingly insistent push, a ghostly hand firmly planted on the small of my back, barely there, but never letting up.”

Day’s autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” first published in 1952, is literate and heartbreaking, wearied and regretful and grateful all at once.

“I feel that I have done nothing well,” she wrote in the opening lines. “But I have done what I could.”