By Chaz Muth
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and candidate for sainthood, experienced a great deal of turbulence in early life.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1897, she was baptized an Episcopalian in a family that rarely attended church. As a young girl her family moved to San Francisco, then later to Chicago, and Day attended the University of Illinois in Urbana.
However, she left college to work in New York as a journalist for a socialist newspaper. While in New York, she got involved in the causes of her day, such as women’s suffrage and peace, and was part of a circle of top literary and artistic figures of the era, including playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Day also had a string of love affairs, attempted suicide and aborted her first child.
Her life shifted dramatically while living in Staten Island, N.Y., when she entered into a common-law marriage with a biologist named Forster Battingham, and in 1926, while pregnant with her daughter, Tamar, Day embraced Catholicism. Day had Tamar baptized Catholic, and she too was baptized, which contributed to the end of her common-law marriage.
As she sought to fuse her life and her faith, Day wrote for such Catholic publications as America magazine and Commonweal. In 1932, she met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former Christian Brother. His philosophy on social ills and the need to take personal responsibility in serving the less fortunate melded with Day’s desire to work for social change. Together they started The Catholic Worker newspaper and later, several houses of hospitality and farm communities.
Day was a self-proclaimed anarchist, a crusader of Catholic social teaching in aiding poor and mentally ill people, and a labor union supporter.
She was highly regarded in the 1930s by the church hierarchy and laity.
“It was an idea that maybe its time had come, for Catholics, in the midst of the Great Depression, to be speaking of the social issues of the day,” said Robert Ellsberg, a friend of the would-be saint who is publisher of Orbis Books, editor of Day’s published diaries and letters. He is a former managing editor of The Catholic Worker.
“There were many bishops and seminaries that ordered huge bulk orders of The Catholic Worker,” he added. “There were a lot of priests at that time who were very sympathetic to that kind of labor emphasis.”
Day’s strict pacifism during the Spanish Civil War caused a defection among some of her Catholic colleagues who considered the rebel group led by Gen. Francisco Franco to be acting in defense of Christian values, he said.
She lost even more support when she took a similar stance during World War II, which was overwhelmingly supported by the Catholic bishops, the American public and even members of the Catholic Worker Movement, many of whom enlisted to fight in the conflict, said Deacon Tom Cornell, co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship and a decades-long associate of Day.
“The bishops were very embarrassed,” he said. “Dorothy was a grand dame, as far as they were concerned, during the 1930s because she offered an alternative to Marxist, atheistic, class war labor organizations.”
It looked as though The Catholic Worker would not survive World War II and Day was essentially frozen out of important Catholic circles, Deacon Cornell said.
However, the Catholic Worker Movement experienced a renewal of sorts in the 1950s when its members were among the first to join the civil rights movement for racial equality, and though Day continued her anti-war protests throughout the 1960s and 1970s, her reputation was largely restored, Ellsberg said.
She prayed and fasted for peace at the Second Vatican Council, and was shot at while working for integration.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York called Day’s sainthood cause an opportune moment in the life of the U.S. church.
Cardinal Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Day’s journey “Augustinian,” saying that “she was the first to admit it: sexual immorality, there was a religious search, there was a pregnancy out of wedlock, and an abortion. Like Saul on the way to Damascus, she was radically changed” and has become “a saint for our time.”
The endorsement by the U.S. bishops of Day’s sainthood cause — first undertaken years ago by one of Cardinal Dolan’s predecessors in New York, Cardinal John O’Connor – has been met with skepticism by some members of the Catholic Worker and with joy by others.
Martha Hennessy, one of Day’s nine grandchildren, is concerned the church will place too much emphasis on her grandmother’s abortion.
“I mean, there was one comment holding her up as a post-abortion saint. What does that mean?” Hennessy wondered. “Dorothy certainly referred to her experience as one of the worst decisions she made in her life.”
But, Day considered the abortion issue to be only a fraction of defining oneself as a champion for the sanctity of life, Hennessy said, and the other pieces of the puzzle included fighting the death penalty, euthanasia and being an anti-war activist.
Day’s exposure has increased since her death.
She has been the focus of a number of biographies. Other books featuring her prayers and writings have been published. In the 1990s, a film biography “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story” starring Moira Kelly and Martin Sheen, made its way to theaters.
In 2007 Los Angeles-based photographer Claudia Larson released her documentary “Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint.” Larson is organizing a Dorothy Day exhibit in May at Marquette University in Milwaukee, home of Day’s archives, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of The Catholic Worker movement. – CNS