Catholics are honoring the life and work of humanitarian Dorothy Day on Monday, marking the 30th anniversary of the Catholic Worker Movement founder's death.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver noted in comments to CNA that Day was a “radical” in the truest sense of the word, because she was deeply committed to “the Christian vocation.”
Thirty years ago on Nov. 29, 1980, Dorothy Day – the famous 20th century convert known for her tireless work in defending the poor – passed away at the age of 84.
Born in Brooklyn and eventually raised in Chicago, she was baptized Episcopalian at the age of 12. She displayed signs at a young age of possessing a deep religious sense, editor-in-chief of CNA David Scott noted in his 2002 book, “Praying in the Presence of Our Lord.” As a young girl, Day fasted and mortified her body by sleeping on hardwood floors. One journal entry from those early years expresses her desire to suffer for the sins of the world.
Her life soon changed as the 1910s brought about a stark shift in the U.S. social climate. Day read Upton Sinclair's scathing depiction of the Chicago meat-packing industry in his book called “The Jungle,” which marked a turning point in her personal ideology.
She dropped out of college and moved to New York, where she took a job as a reporter for the country's largest daily socialist paper The Call. After fraternizing with the Bohemians and Socialist intellectuals of her time – and after a series of disastrous romances, one of which included a forced abortion by a man who eventually left her – Day fell in love with an anarchist nature-lover by the name of Forster Batterham.
She eventually settled in Staten Island, living a peaceful, slow-paced life on the beach with Batterham in a common law marriage. Conflict arose, however, when Day became increasingly drawn to the Catholic faith – praying rosaries consistently and even having their daughter, Tamar, baptized as a Catholic. Batterham, a staunch atheist, eventually left them and Day was received into the Catholic Church herself in 1927.
She returned to New York City as a single mother where her deep-rooted and long-standing concern for the poor resurfaced. Along with French itinerant Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933. Living the Catholic notion of holy poverty and practicing works of mercy, the two started soup kitchens, self-sustaining farm communities and a daily newspaper. In the course of her 50 years working among the poor and marginalized, Day never took a salary.
Her legacy lives on today in the 185 Catholic Worker communities in the U.S. and around the globe. In 2000, 20 years after her death, then-leader of the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal John O'Connor, submitted Day's cause for canonization to the Vatican. With this approval, she was given the title of Servant of God, which is bestowed on a candidate for sainthood whose cause is still under investigation, prior to beatification.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver marked the occasion of Day's passing 30 years ago by reflecting on her life and work in a Nov. 29 e-mail to CNA.
“Like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day sought to live the Gospel sine glossa – without ‘glosses,’ caveats or exceptions,” he said. “She was radical in the truest sense of the word, committed to the root of the Christian vocation.”
Day was also “heroically consistent” in her love for the poor, the infirm and the unborn child, Archbishop Chaput added.
“Most importantly, she loved the Church as her mother and teacher, and she refused to ignore or downplay those Catholic teachings that might be inconvenient.”
“At its best, the Catholic Worker movement she founded continues to witness her extraordinary virtues,” he said.
CNA also spoke with Donna Ecker, the co-director of a Catholic Worker community called the Bethany House in Rochester, New York. The community dedicates itself to serving homeless women and children.
“Our work is emergency housing, an emergency food cupboard, a clothing room, a drop-in center, a place of worship and volunteer center,” Ecker explained via e-mail. “Although I never personally had the honor of meeting Dorothy, my Uncle and Aunt were the co-founders of St. Joseph's House and good friends of hers.”
St. Joseph's House was founded in 1941 and helped give birth to Bethany House in 1978.
Ecker said that the community strives to live out Day's philosophy, noting that the house's sign by the front door states, "Let all guests be received as Christ."
When asked what her community had planned in honoring the late humanitarian, Ecker said that in “keeping with the message of social justice in honor of Dorothy,” the weekly liturgical celebration at Bethany House will remember four Catholic women who were murdered during the civil war in El Salvador several decades ago.
One missionary lay woman and three religious sisters from the U.S. were brutally killed while attempting to do charity work in the country in 1980.
“It is the 30th anniversary of their deaths,” she explained. “Somehow, I think Dorothy would want us to remember them for their courage as we remember her for her strength and tenacity.”