Historical Reformer: Dorothy Day

By Brianna Lantz
Nov 27, 2019

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”

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Writer. Activist. Reformer. Socialist. Bohemian. Mystic. Rabble-rouser. Single mother. Pioneer of advocacy journalism. Catholic convert. Servant of God. 

Words so seemingly disparate it’s hard to believe they’re often used to describe one woman and candidate for sainthood: Dorothy Day. 

What to say about Dorothy Day? It’s nearly impossible to synthesize such an expansive life and legacy, but it is easy to trace the message she lived, stunningly simple in its essence: love is the final word. It was love that saved Day’s life. It was love that allowed her to see the face of Christ in her neighbor. And it was love that compelled her to live in alignment with His message.

“Our arms are linked—we try to be neighbors of his, and to speak up for his principles. That’s a lifetime’s job,” she once said. 

And what a lifetime it was! To understand Day’s impact on society and the larger Church, one must look at the kaleidoscope of experiences that compelled Day’s conversion; one must “follow the breadcrumbs” that led her to Catholicism and a life of service and activism. Her path is a winding one, and perhaps its unconventional nature is what makes her a saint for these tumultuous times.

 

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Let’s return to the beginning: Brooklyn, New York, 1897. Day was the third of five children born to John Day, an Irish Southerner, and Grace Satterlee, a Northerner. The Days were middle-class and nominally Christian, but rarely attended church. In fact, Day remembered from a young age wrestling with her father’s anti-Catholic prejudices as she herself felt drawn toward religion. 

Her father’s job as a journalist led the family to San Francisco when Day was six years old. After the great earthquake of 1906 brought the city to rubble, young Day felt a sense of wonder at the sight of neighborly love. “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. 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,” she wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.

That proclivity toward Christianity followed Day to Chicago, where her family relocated after her father’s job was lost to the earthquake. At the age of ten, Day became enamored with the neighborhood Episcopal church, particularly with its songs and liturgy. By age thirteen she was baptized and confirmed. 

Despite her newfound faith, adolescence was a lonely time for Day. The lack of affection in her family coupled with her father’s rigid rules and expectations enveloped her in isolation. She found companionship in books, from the Russian literature of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to the socially conscious works of Peter Kropotkin and Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle and its portrayal of the dismal lives and working conditions of immigrants in Chicago imprinted itself on Day’s conscience.

“The very fact that The Jungle was about Chicago where I lived, whose streets I walked, made me feel that from then on my life was to be linked to theirs, their interests were to be mine; I had received a call, a vocation, a direction to my life,” she wrote.

“I felt even at fifteen, that God meant man to be happy, that He meant to provide him with what he needed to maintain life in order to be happy, and that we did not need to have quite so much destitution and misery as I saw all around.”

“Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle and its portrayal of the dismal lives and working conditions of immigrants in Chicago imprinted itself on Day’s conscience.”

In 1914 she received a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a place that would become the backdrop for a budding journalism career and an expanding social conscience. In writing for the local paper, Day had a front row seat to the disparities between rich and poor. She herself was poor at this time, working odd jobs and living with families in exchange for chores and childcare. 

Through her experience of poverty, and of living with the poor, Day’s worldview began to take shape. She grew increasingly disenchanted by religion. “The ugliness of life in a world which professed itself to be Christian appalled me,” she wrote. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?” This question galvanized Day to her core, informing much of her later activism.

In the summer of 1916, disillusionment in tow, Day abandoned her studies and followed her family to the East Side of New York City. At eighteen she took her first job at a socialist newspaper, the New York Call. Surrounded by socialists, communists, anarchists, pacifists, labor organizers and free thinkers, Day became socially and politically active. She relished the company of fellow rabble-rousers who were intent on reforming the social order. 

Day’s involvement in organizing and protesting came to a head in Washington D.C. in November 1917 when she was jailed with a group of women for picketing at the White House over the treatment of other jailed suffragists. Appalled by the abysmal conditions and treatment of prisoners, Day and her companions engaged in a ten-day hunger strike. Day lay in complete despair, overcome with a sense of the true evil that humans can inflict on one another. 

Seeking solace for her suffering, she requested a Bible and found comfort in the Psalms. “I read it with the sense of coming back to something of my childhood that I had lost,” she recalled. “My heart swelled with joy and thankfulness for the Psalms. The man who sang these songs knew sorrow and expected joy.” 

Despite this gentle pull toward the faith she once knew, Day refused to go to God in such defeat and sorrow. “I did not want to depend on Him. I was like the child that wants to walk by itself, I kept brushing away the hand that held me up. I tried to persuade myself that I was reading for literary enjoyment. But the words kept echoing in my heart.”

“Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?”

While Day did not leave jail with religion, she did carry a newfound solidarity with those who suffered—a quality that would never leave her.

The subsequent years that followed would be some of the darkest and most difficult of her life. The bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village lent itself to friendships with a liberal literary crowd, but it also brought failed love affairs and a number of traumatic experiences. All the while, she dabbled in various religious practices and visited churches out of a pure need for rest and respite. It was a time, she recalled, of being haunted by God.

In 1925, after years of drifting and searching, Day settled down in a beach house on Staten Island to study and write. She fell in love with an anarchist and biologist named Forster Battingham, with whom she entered a common law marriage. Their four years in the bungalow were idyllic and peaceful; Day could not help but offer prayers of thanksgiving for the beauty that surrounded her. But her growing religious disposition began to put a wedge between her and Battingham, for Day’s obsession with the supernatural repelled him. 

Their fraught marriage was made even more tenuous by the arrival of their first and only child, Tamar Teresa. While her birth overjoyed Day, who once assumed herself barren, Battingham dreaded the idea of bringing a child into such a hopeless world.

But Day knew she could not resign Tamar to the same kind of existential despair; she insisted on baptizing her into a faith that was growing increasingly more attractive. In March 1926, Day met a local Catholic sister who helped educate her in the faith. Tamar was baptized the following year. Battingham, vehemently opposed to organized religion, refused to attend the ceremony. Their relationship became progressively intolerable, and after a fight in the winter of 1927, Day left the man she once loved. Her own baptism took place the next day.

Ready to leave heartache behind, mother and daughter embarked on a series of moves that eventually led them back to New York. Day took up various writing jobs, one of which led her to the Catholic magazine, Commonweal

In December 1932 Commonweal commissioned Day to cover the hunger march on Washington D.C. The communist-organized march sought legislation that would remedy unemployment, establish pensions, and provide relief for mothers and children. As she looked on the march, she was overcome all at once with a pride in the organizers and a bitterness in the faith that now separated her from them. 

“I could write, I could protest, to arouse the conscience,” she wrote, “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?” 

After completing her assignment, Day knelt at the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.” 

Upon her return to New York, she met the answer to her prayers: a French Catholic social activist named Peter Maurin. Inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi to live a life of voluntary poverty, Maurin was the Catholic church’s social doctrine embodied. He introduced Day to an entirely new side of Catholicism that she had never witnessed, one in which faith and social action could co-exist and even inform one another. In his friendship Day could finally actualize the longing of her spirit to see the Sermon on the Mount come to life. 

Maurin envisioned roundtable discussions “for the clarification of thought,” houses of hospitality for works of mercy, and “agronomic universities” where “workers become scholars and scholars become workers.” Intent on realizing this vision, he proposed a newspaper to spread the word. 

And so on May 1, 1933, in the throes of the Great Depression, Day and Maurin debuted The Catholic Worker newspaper to the world. With coverage of strikes, social issues, and working conditions, The Catholic Worker was advocacy journalism at its finest. The paper, as Day described, was created in part to galvanize Catholics toward social consciousness, but mostly it was for the worker “who worked with hand or brain, those who did physical, mental or spiritual work.” It was primarily for “the poor, the dispossessed, and the exploited.” It epitomized the concept of “personalism,” an ideology that cared more for the transformation of the individual rather than their political and economic relationships. And it struck a chord in many. 

Hundreds of thousands of papers circulated the world. Volunteers and donations flooded in. A community quickly formed to feed the homeless and unemployed, an endeavor that would become the first of many hospitality houses that would sprout up across the country in just a few short years. What began as a vision to reform society—a vision to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ”—became a movement almost overnight. 

“What began as a vision to reform society—a vision to ‘live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ’—became a movement almost overnight.”

The arc of Day’s life was a lonely one — her journey to faith lost her many of her radical friends, and she didn’t meet many Catholics with the same commitment to the poor. But in The Catholic Worker’s Movement she pioneered a community that cared for one another and provided physical and spiritual nourishment to the destitute. Perhaps she saw a bit of herself in them, humbled by the grace of God that sustained her through her darkest days. She was their biggest advocate, her words and actions reminding us of their inherent dignity and worth as children of God. In them, she saw the face of Christ and loved them as such. 

After Maurin’s death in 1949, Day steered The Catholic Worker through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. She fearlessly wrote of racism and the exploitation of black labor during the Civil Rights Era. She modeled peaceful protest at the height of the Vietnam War. She called for Gospel nonviolence and a ban on nuclear weapons as the country faced the threat of atomic warfare. She continued to endure imprisonment for her nonviolent demonstrations well into her seventies. 

In the end, when Day died of a heart attack in November 1980, love was indeed the final word. It surrounded her until her last breath and remains an integral part of her legacy. 

“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other,” she said. “We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

While Day is communing with the saints at the banquet table of Heaven, we take up her mantle here on earth. We see a need, and we show up. We bring more chairs to the table, and eventually, we build a longer table. And we go forth emboldened by this benediction from the people’s saint herself:

“What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute—the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words—we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.” 

Amen.

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