BY MEGAN WILSON-REITZ | September 25, 2015
During his address to Congress yesterday, Pope Francis named Dorothy Day among four great Americans who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.”
Here are the 10 most important things that you should know about the woman whose “tireless work,” said Pope Francis, taught the nation to “strive for justice and the cause of the oppressed.”
1. She is a not officially a saint. Yet.
Dorothy Day’s official Church title is “Servant of God.” This title is given posthumously by the Church to those Catholics whose lives are formally determined to have been outstanding examples of Christian faith and practice. The title indicates that she is a candidate for sainthood and may someday be considered a saint.
2. An earthquake first taught her about service to those in need.
Dorothy Day’s family was among the lucky few whose home and possessions were left largely untouched by the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the subsequent fires that destroyed the city. After this disaster, the Days went out into the streets, helping organize their neighbors to share what they had with those who had lost everything. This event touched eight-year-old Dorothy very deeply.
3. She was a prolific writer.
It was as a young journalist that Dorothy was forced to encounter the tremendous suffering all around her. Living in Chicago and then in New York City, she was overwhelmed by the extreme poverty and the dreadful living and working conditions in the cities. “I walked the streets in solitude,” she wrote, “and my heart wept within me for the ugliness of all I saw.”
4. She spent a lot of time in jail.
In 1917, at age 20, Dorothy went to jail for the first time for participating in a women’s suffrage demonstration in Washington, D.C.
The experience of being imprisoned was profoundly unsettling and dehumanizing for Dorothy. However, she was impressed by the solidarity expressed by her fellow activists behind bars; she felt that she had joined with something bigger, more important than herself. Over the course of her lifetime Dorothy Day would return to jail many times for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in opposition to war and injustice.
5. She had an abortion, a failed marriage, and a child out of wedlock.
Dorothy Day recorded nearly all of the events of her life in writing. She said very little, however, about her short-lived marriage, and even less about the abortion that she regretted all her life. This period of her life, during her early 20’s, was a dark one. It is, in part, this darkness of her life story that makes her such a compelling candidate for sainthood. We can identify with her painful, and deeply felt, mistakes.
The birth of Dorothy Day’s daughter Tamar in 1926 was, for Dorothy, the beginning of an entirely new life.
6. She was a convert to Catholicism, a move that required great personal sacrifice.
It was the birth of baby Tamar that brought Dorothy to Catholicism, a faith she had always found attractive, but never seriously pursued until her daughter was born.
It was her joy that brought Dorothy to the Church, but also drove a wedge into her relationship with Forster Batterham. Dorothy believed that having Tamar baptized “was the greatest thing I could do for my child.”
Dorothy’s choice for faith was made knowing the sacrifice it would demand of her. Forster, a determined atheist, was bitterly opposed to bringing religion into their family. Soon after Tamar was baptized, Forster left. The very next day, Dorothy was baptized, too.
7. She was not a Communist.
Many people have described Dorothy Day as a “Communist saint,” but this is not precisely correct. Dorothy found much to admire in the Communist organizations that she covered as a young journalist, recognizing that they alone were responding in concrete ways to the growing desperation among the poor as the Great Depression began to descend upon the nation. However, she never joined the Communist movement.
Once she became a Catholic, Dorothy could not accept the avowed atheism that was part of most official Communist doctrine. She prayed desperately to find a way to respond to the needs of the poor in a way that was true to her faith, finding no leadership from the institutional church in the U.S.: “I could write, I could protest, to arouse the conscience, but where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering of bands of men and women together, for the actual works of mercy that the comrades had always made part of their technique in reaching the workers?”
This desire would eventually manifest itself in the creation of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy’s great legacy. The Catholic Worker is a movement grounded in Catholic Social Teaching that advocates voluntary poverty and community life, radical solidarity for the poor and suffering, a commitment to critiquing and changing unjust systems, and the rejection of all war and violence. The movement continues to grow today.
8. She was one of TWO founders of the Catholic Worker movement.
Though Dorothy Day is often called “The Founder of the Catholic Worker,” she herself credited Peter Maurin as a co-founder. Peter Maurin was an eccentric genius, originally from the French countryside, widely read and full of visionary ideas. He was a nonstop talker: Dorothy once said of him that “He speaks in season and out of season…. Sometimes as the night grows late it is necessary to call a halt.” He traveled around the country in a rumpled suit, carrying little but books, and giving impromptu soapbox speeches full of clever puns and deep ideas, speeches that he called “Easy Essays.”
The Catholic Worker movement emerged out of Peter’s vision of community life, and from there, it grew out of their little community’s attempt to practice the Gospel in concrete, small ways. As Dorothy put it: “Things just happen. Jesus said if your neighbor is hungry, or if your enemy is hungry, feed him. So we took to feeding those who came. We didn’t intend breadlines. They just happened. The same with sheltering people. The same with starting farms.”
9. She was passionately anti-war.
When World War II broke out, the mood in the United States shifted to a near-universal support for war. The pacifism of the Catholic Worker was deeply controversial and caused many people to abandon their allegiance to the movement during this time. Dorothy Day and her colleagues, however, were unrelenting. “Because of our refusal to assist in the prosecution of war and our insistence that our collaboration be one for peace,” she predicted sadly in the Catholic Worker newspaper one month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “we may find ourselves in difficulties.” The members of the Catholic Worker often got in trouble in the war years for refusing to take shelter during the city’s air raid drills, protesting them publicly for their promotion of a culture of fear.
10. She spent her later years advocating tirelessly for American Catholics to be a part of what she called “the Revolution of the Heart.”
The Catholic Worker movement was, for Dorothy, the only reasonable, practical response to the Church’s call to solidarity with the oppressed. The famous Jesuit Dan Berrigan once said of Dorothy that she impressed him because “she lived as though the Truth were actually true.”
Dorothy Day – and the many Catholic Workers who have embraced the legacy left to us by Peter Maurin and by Dorothy herself – realized something very important: “The only solution is love, and that love comes with community.” It is that vision, and that legacy, that inspires us today. It is that vision that inspires Pope Francis. And it continues to bear fruit in the 236 Catholic Worker communities around the globe.
“The biggest challenge of the day,” proclaimed Dorothy Day, “is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us.” To learn more about the “revolution of the heart,” Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin and the Catholic Worker movement, visit www.catholicworker.org.
Megan Wilson-Reitz is a long-time member of the extended Cleveland Catholic Worker community. She teaches in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University.
Megan Wilson-Reitz is a lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University. She is a long-time member of the extended community network of the Cleveland Catholic Worker, with whom she has gotten in trouble many times while advocating publicly for a more just and peaceful world. She and her husband are raising two tiny Catholic radicals in the City of Cleveland.