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Dorothy Day: A Modern-Day Saint

Patricia McCarthy, CND

On November 8, 1897, Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York. On November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day died in the Bowery section of Manhattan. A bridge separates these two boroughs of New York.

Dorothy’s life was a bridge, a bridge connecting the homeless with a safe shelter, workers with their rights, the young with a vision for a different future based on cooperation rather than competitiveness, the Catholic with the radical message of the Sermon on the Mount.

As I write, I have two reflections of Dorothy that reflect her simplicity and her ordinariness. The first was in Chicago in the early ‘70s. Dorothy was receiving an award from DePaul University for her service to the poor. To the small crowd gathered to hear her, Dorothy sat and spoke, but not of her own work. Dorothy spoke of St. Vincent DePaul; she made him present in that room. Those of us listening felt as if Vincent was a close friend of Dorothy’s, someone she had just left in New York. She had a way of sharing her experience of the past that made the communion of saints real and vibrant.

On that night in Chicago, Vincent was with us in his care for the poor, the street people of his day. We left knowing we had to do the same on our own mean streets. Dorothy called us to the gospel. Truth was her foundation, truth rooted in the gospel. For Dorothy, the gospel was sufficient reason to motivate her actions. To listen to Dorothy was to feel the same motivation and the same sense of urgency to respond.

The second image I carry of Dorothy was about 10 years later, shortly before her death. This time she was sitting at a table in Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker home for women in New York. It was Friday night and we were attending the greatest free university in the world, the Catholic Worker House’s Friday Night Meetings for clarification of thought.

That evening there was a performance of religious music. Looking very much like an elderly poor woman, Dorothy smiled and rocked a little to the music. She wore a plain cotton dress from the poor box, as was her custom all her life; her hair was braided in a crown on her head, and around it was tied a simple scarf.

I sat at the other end of the table thinking that across from me was probably the most influential American Catholic of the century. She sat unattended in a poor house in a slum (at that time) – how like the man to whom she gave her life, how like the man who lived in similar circumstance 2,000 years ago. In ordinary ways sanctity is expressed.

Who was this woman with such an influence on our Church and world? Dorothy came from a family that traveled for her father to get work as a journalist. They practiced no religion so Dorothy grew up with a smattering of knowledge of God and the saints gleaned from her Catholic neighbors in the tenements of Chicago and New York.

As a young adult she followed her father’s inclinations and went into a career in journalism, settling in New York and associating with the liberal free thinking writers and artists of Greenwich Village. Many were atheists. She wrote for the socialist paper, The Daily Worker.

Dorothy was a thinker, a reader, a writer, and an activist for human rights. She was a pacifist and opposed all war. All of these calls eventually led her to God. In the early ‘30s Dorothy gave birth to a daughter and had her baptized. That act and Dorothy’s own conversion to Catholicism caused the break up in her common law marriage.

This conversion began her lifetime commitment to Jesus and the radical call of the gospel. In partnership with Peter Maurin, a French peasant and philosopher, Dorothy launched her long career of Catholic social action. Together they began the Catholic Worker movement which speaks a clear and consistent message: Open your door to the poor, feed them, clothe them, live with them, be poor with them. Love all people, reject all forms of violence. There are no exceptions to the gospel call to love one another.

Dorothy’s power was not in her written words, as eloquent as they were, but in her living words, her example of love in action. As mentor to peacemakers and prophets, Dorothy guided and probed her Church into faithfulness to the call of Jesus for unconditional love.

By her bedside all her life was The New Testament. Dorothy prayed always. She read the lives of the saints and scholars of her faith and became friends with them. Mass was her daily nourishment and the source of her strength and passion. She prayed the rosary, made silent retreats, fasted and did all things in imitation of her Lord.

Dorothy never looked for success. She was of God and for God and with God and nothing else mattered. She lived a little way among the little people. “What we do is very little, but it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did he fail. He met with apparent failure on the cross. But unless the seed fall into the earth and die, there is no harvest. And why must we see results? Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.”

Article first published by the Rhode Island Catholic


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