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People & Ideas: Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Source: Library of Congress

Born in 1897, Dorothy Day was 8 years old when she lived through the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In the aftermath of the seismic shock, she watched as people reached out to help each other -- pitching tents, giving clothing, making food. "While the crisis lasted people loved each other," she wrote in her autobiography. "It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love."

Day's eloquent biographer, Paul Eli writes: "A whole life is prefigured in that episode." From then on, "she would try to recapture the sense of real and spontaneous community she felt then, and would strive to reform the world around her so as to make such community possible."

But for a while, she wandered. In high school, Day was baptized an Episcopalian. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, she devoured the novels of Dostoevsky, Gorki and Tolstoy. She decided that religion was an opiate for the masses. Following her family, she moved to New York City; wrote for The Call, then for The Masses, a socialist magazine; attended the Anarchists Ball; and got thrown in jail for participating in a rally for women's suffrage in Washington, D.C. Back in New York, she hung out in the Village, went to work for another socialist magazine, The Liberator, and spent time with Eugene O'Neill, who recited for her the poem "The Hound of Heaven." She stumbled into St. Joseph's church, the oldest Catholic Church in Manhattan, and later recalled, "I seemed to feel the faith of those about me and I longed for their faith." Instead, she fell in love, got pregnant, had an abortion and worked as a nurse. Then she got married, went to Europe and got divorced. Hungry for the experience of life, her own existence seemed without ballast or direction.

With money from her first novel, she bought a house on Staten Island, where she took long walks on the beach with her lover, Foster Batterham. Her biographer Paul Eli describes what happened: "She felt something new and strange: a sudden, strong intuition about the presence of God." For her, God was intimately tied up in the unity and goodness of nature: "To walk in nature was to walk in God's creation." When Day discovered she was pregnant, she turned more and more to God, praying the rosary and going to mass. Once again, books offered her a guide. She read The Imitation of Christ and realized her own life would be religious. She would imitate Christ by patterning herself after the Catholic masses. She baptized her baby Tamar Teresa. But joy in her daughter was shadowed by the furor over the trial of two Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti. Although both men had left the church, she saw them as Catholic radicals and felt solidarity with their cause. In December 1927, she returned to Staten Island and was baptized in the church where she had gone so often to pray. She and Batterham parted ways. On a spring Sunday, the day of Pentecost, she was confirmed in a joyful ceremony.

Day was not only Catholic; she was a Catholic with a strong social conscience who identified with the Catholic masses. Her religious and political convictions came together in The Catholic Worker, a newspaper she founded with a French maverick intellectual, Peter Maurin. Sold for a penny apiece, the first issue came out on May Day as an alternative to the Communist Daily Worker. The paper caught on and was distributed across the country. Day herself wrote a column, "Day by Day." The paper soon launched a movement to provide food and shelter to the homeless; more than 30 Catholic Worker houses were established in major cities. But its forward momentum was set back by Day's pacifism during World War II. She had supported "people's wars" in the past, but she could not support war, even a just war. In the face of anti-Semitism and Nazism, she called for people to abide by "the faith that is in us." When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war, she wrote an editorial: "Our Country Passes From Undeclared War to Declared War; We Continue Our Christian Pacifist Stand."

In the years that followed, Day supported farm workers organizer Cesar Chavez, sided with the Berrigan brothers against the Vietnam War, supported liberal intellectuals, challenged the conservative Catholic hierarchy and prodded the church on matters of poverty and social inequality. In later years, she was increasingly preoccupied with the problem of violence. When she died in 1980 at the age of 83, she was widely credited as a leading voice of the Catholic left. Today the Catholic Church is considering her for sainthood.


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Published October 11, 2010

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