During a recent speech to Congress, Pope Francis highlighted Dorothy Day, saying, “In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement,” He continued, “Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
Though many of the left will affirm his statements as evidence for their cause, Dorothy Day can’t easily be labeled or pigeon-holed. She was someone who embraced the fullness of Catholic social teaching and fought for issues on both sides of the political divide. While she championed the poor, oppressed and the common worker, she also affirmed the dignity of the human person, including the unborn, and lamented over the decline in religious and traditional practices that took place in the 1960’s.
In the end Dorothy Day was a faithful daughter of the Church. She is one of the women saints highlighted in our Women of Grace Foundational Study Series, “Full of Grace: Women and the Abundant Life.” She was as extolled for her sanctity by Cardinal John O’Connor when he wrote, “Like so many saints of days gone by, she was an idealist in a non-ideal world. It was her contention that men and women should begin to live on earth the life they would one day lead in heaven, a life of peace and harmony.” The below excerpt provides a short biography of her life and example.
Dorothy Day, Servant of God (1897 – 1980)
How does God use the events of our lives to bring us to spiritual renewal and relationship with Him? One contemporary woman serves as a remarkable example. Dorothy Day’s young adult life in the 1920’s reads like the diary of a 1960’s hippie revolutionary. And yet, in a few short years she became a Catholic social justice advocate, deeply in love with Christ and His Church.
Born in 1897 to nominal Protestants, by age eighteen Dorothy was writing for a socialist newspaper called the New York Call. An avowed pacifist, Dorothy championed for the poor and oppressed, and advocated the needs of the common worker. She associated with communists and anarchists, and was jailed repeatedly for picketing and protesting for women’s rights.
Dorothy had a series of lovers and an illegal abortion; when she did marry she divorced a year later, then moved in with her common-law husband, atheist biologist Forster Battingham, and had his child. It was during this pregnancy that Dorothy became intrigued by the deep faith of many Catholic immigrants, and her empathy eventually blossomed into a desire to enter the Catholic Church. She began to visit Catholic churches, and even prayed the rosary.
When Tamar Teresa was born, Dorothy insisted on baptizing the child Catholic. The couple’s relationship rapidly deteriorated, followed by a painful series of separations and reconciliations. Ultimately Dorothy broke it off. Though she loved Forster deeply, she knew their illicit relationship could not continue.
This began a lonely time for Dorothy. On assignment in Washington DC, covering a hunger strike, Dorothy found herself in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Later, she wrote: “There I offered up a special prayer… with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”
Dorothy’s prayer was answered when she returned to New York and met Peter Maurin, a French peasant who became her mentor. Peter led a life of voluntary poverty, and helped Dorothy to root her passion for the poor in a Catholic understanding of the human person, and the necessity of personal sacrifice in every work of mercy.
Together they founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which met with immediate success. The Catholic Worker newspaper debuted with an initial run of 2,500 copies, climbing to a circulation of 100,000 by the end of the first year. Around the country, intellectuals, uneducated lay people, bishops and clergy rallied around the efforts of this burgeoning Movement. Within a few years, thirty-three Catholic Worker houses and farms had been established to aid the poor and to train students who sought to implement the ideals that Peter and Dorothy had fostered.
During the war years the Movement fell on hard times. Dorothy’s staunch pacifist stand was often misunderstood. Peter Marin died in 1949. Sad but undaunted, Dorothy embraced the scriptural mandate to become a saint. Turning one of the Catholic Worker houses into a retreat house, she entered into a deepening life of prayer, and sought to reconcile temporal issues with spiritual values.
In the 1960’s, the changing world was a vexation to her. She lamented over the exodus of priests and nuns from the Church, the decline in religious practices among the followers of the Catholic Worker Movement, and the erosion of traditional practices in the Church. In the 1970’s, her heart began to fail, yet she continued to travel and write.
Early in the evening of November 29, 1980, with Tamar at her side, Dorothy breathed her last. In the letter to the Holy See to initiate Dorothy’s cause for canonization, Cardinal John O’Connor wrote of Dorothy, “Like so many saints of days gone by, she was an idealist in a non-ideal world. It was her contention that men and women should begin to live on earth the life they would one day lead in heaven, a life of peace and harmony.”
Faith in Action
Dorothy wrote: “To work to increase love for God and our fellow man (the two must go hand in hand), this is a lifetime job. We are never going to be finished.” How has this been true in your own life?
Servant of God, Dorothy Day, pray for us.