Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker
"The impulse to stand up against the state and go to jail, rather than serve, is an instinct for penance; To take on some of the suffering of the world - to share in it".
For many years I had only a vague knowledge of who Dorothy Day was. I knew that in the 1920s she and her spiritual mentor, the French peasant and spiritual philosopher, Peter Maurin, founded a newspaper called, "The Catholic Worker" and that in her time she was viewed by many to be a "dangerous radical". She was considered such a menace that J. Edgar Hoover, that pillar of goodness and decency (COUGH!) even kept a file on her. (Quite frankly, I've come to a point in my life where I'm seriously disappointed in anyone who lived during that period who didn't have their own little place of honor in Hoover's file cabinet. Think about it - Charlie Chaplin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, John Lennon - That's pretty good company to be in!) But other than that basic outline, my knowledge of her life and work was, to say the least, peripheral. She was always merely a footnote in someone else's biography.
Late last summer, while browsing through the used book store at the library in Cornwall, NY, I happened upon a copy of the book, "By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day". After reading it, a whole new world opened up for me and I found myself exploring everything connected to this good and decent woman and her beautiful life. She is, I believe, a saint.
Dorothy Day was a "true Christian", the personification of that very overused and abused term. She not only dedicated her life to the poor and dispossessed, she lived among them and humbly counted herself as one of them. The newspaper that she and Maurin co-founded in 1929 was the only voice in its time for the downtrodden. It still survives to this day. Its price remains, as it has been since the very day of its inception, a penny per copy.
During the teens and through the mid-twenties she had been a committed leftist and wrote for several radical publications. After having undergone the abortion of a child she had conceived with her common-law husband, she found herself in a severe depression. When a second pregnancy came two years later, she insisted on going full term and the child's father, not wanting to accept the responsibilities of parenthood, ended the relationship. It was around this period that she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church. She made sure that her new born daughter, Tamara, was baptized as one and, within a matter of weeks, she, too, became a convert to Catholicism.
In the early 1930s, in the midst of what we now call "the great depression" she opened up a free shelter for the homeless in New York City, the first of its kind. Named in honor of the Blessed Mother to whom she was so devoted, Mary House was a miracle of hope for a people who had previously viewed their situation as utterly hopeless. At a time when even "progressive" northern cities operated within the framework of a Jim Crow mentality, there were absolutely no restrictions with regard to race or religion. The only requirement was that a person or family were in need of food and shelter. She also ran a soup kitchen that fed everyone who couldn't be housed due to lack of space. No one walked away from Mary House without, at the very least, a decent meal and a cup of coffee. Dorothy Day made a difference!
Within a couple of years, Mary Houses were opening all over the United States. Through the charitable donations which were the life blood of their little organization, she and Peter were also able to start Mary Farm in Newburgh, New York, fifteen miles from where I now sit, that grew the crops that fed their beloved masses. It exists today as the Peter Maurin Farm, at 41 Cemetery Road in Marlborough, NY. (12542) It is run by my friends, Tom and Monica Cornell, devoted friends of Dorothy's who have dedicated their lives to her memory and her mission.
Dorothy Day passed from this life on November 29, 1980 at the far-too-young age of eighty three. Our generation desperately yearns for a person of her stature and saintliness. When one compares her to some of today's so-called "men of God" - the Jerry Fallwells and the Pat Robertsons - praying on national television for tax relief for the richest two percent while calling for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, the duly elected leader of a sovereign nation - one wants to weep.
It's easy to speculate that the likes of Dorothy Day will never pass this way again - but we can hope, can't we? Hope is all we have....and prayer.
Pray for peace.
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Progressive political commentary with the bitter pill of satire.