Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Serving the Poor

by Louise Zwick, Mark Zwick


This article is a brief summary of the life and achievements of Dorothy Day, an American laywoman, who is being considered for canonization. Dorothy Day is an example of modern-day conversion and dedication to the Catholic faith. Mark and Louise Zwick are the founders of the Houston Catholic Worker, where works of mercy are performed and Dorothy Day’s effort to build a more just social order through nonviolent means continues.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican



Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, Kentucky, 40052, USA, June-July 2000

One of the brightest hopes for the future of Catholicism lies in the recent opening of the cause of Dorothy Day, an American laywoman, for canonization. It seems providential and is certainly significant that the leader of the cause for this laywoman was John Cardinal O'Connor, the late Archbishop of New York. The cardinal, an Admiral in the U.S. Navy and head of chaplains of all faiths for the Armed Services before becoming archbishop of New York, has proposed the leader of Catholic pacifism and radical commitment to the poor for sainthood.

It is a further irony and a pleasant surprise that the cardinal was able to express Dorothy's pacifism and defend her thirst for justice better than any Catholic Worker paper we know (including our own Houston Catholic Worker).

People who do not really know this laywoman and journalist may think that the Church is considering canonizing a 1960s radical and marginal Catholic who did not possess the ingredients and depth of faith of a saint.

Closer examination of the extensive writings of Dorothy Day, however, reveals a person totally committed to the Lord, to the Church and to the "primacy of the spiritual," as well as working to transform the social order in Christ.

The historic meeting of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in 1932, by bringing together two of the most important Catholics of the 20th century, was the catalyst for the creation a movement which was Catholic and very American, but not Americanist: the Catholic Worker movement. Catholicism would never be the same again in the United States as these two thinkers "blew the dynamite" of the Catholic faith.

Dorothy was a seeker. She sought the Absolute throughout her life, and this search was accompanied by a deep concern for the poor and a just social order.

Her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, tells of the inspiring witness of the few Catholics she knew as a child, especially the devout Mrs. Barrett, with whose children she played.

Dorothy read the New Testament -- and wondered why the words of Jesus were not followed. She read great literature, like the novels of Dostoevsky, seeking insight into the questions of life and of suffering. Her search culminated in her conversion to Catholicism.

Answering critics who complain that Dorothy had friendships with socialists and Communists, Cardinal O'Connor insisted that a distinction must be made between her life before and after her conversion to Catholicism. He notes her disapproval of Communist tactics and of communism's "atheism, agnosticism or religious indifference." He noted that Dorothy never denied private property (in fact, her writings are peppered with references to St. Thomas' teaching on private property.)

Dorothy had many friends among radicals and had participated in protests, gone to jail and covered events as a journalist for a socialist newspaper before she became a Catholic in 1927. She had lived a bohemian life, drinking and talking late at night in Greenwich Village with writers and artists, one of whom was Eugene O'Neill. (It was from O'Neill that she first heard the poem, The Hound of Heaven, when he recited it to her.) She had an abortion in an effort to save a relationship in which the man abandoned her anyway; for this she sorrowed all her life. She was later involved in a common-law marriage. However during all of this time she was searching, and later wrote that as she came home late from the Village after nights of drinking she was moved by seeing immigrant cleaning women in New York going to early Mass.

By then she had grown disillusioned with the radical left because of the lack of philosophical depth. Her decision to enter the Catholic Church marked a dramatic conversion from a worldly lifestyle to a life of faith and Catholic witness in the world. Her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Tamar, filled her with hope and love. The Lord was giving her another chance.

It was her desire to have her daughter baptized which led her into the Church, even though it meant giving up her relationship with the child's father, who did not believe in marriage, religion, or children. Dorothy came into the Church on the straight-talking Baltimore Catechism. The turning point in Dorothy Day's transition from Catholic convert to the founder of a great lay movement and a lifetime of action and contemplation began on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1932. She was covering the Hunger March in Washington, D.C., for Commonweal, regretting every minute of being an observer rather than a participant, remembering the protests of her pre-Catholic days. In despair she went to the crypt of the unfinished Basilica of the Immaculate Conception to pour out her heart to the Lord.

"As I knelt there," Dorothy says, "I realized that after three years of Catholicism my only contact with active Catholics had been through articles I had written for one of the Catholic magazines. Those contacts had been brief, casual. I still did not know personally one Catholic layman."

She prayed with tears and some anguish, "that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor. And when I returned to New York, I found Peter Maurin -- Peter the French peasant, whose spirit and ideas would dominate the rest of my life."

Peter, who had read several of her articles and had been referred to her by George Schuster, then editor of Commonweal, was waiting for her at her home. He was convinced that she was the person who could implement his program of hospitality and the works of mercy, the program of "the three c's" -- cult, culture and cultivation -- and especially, could help him launch a newspaper.

He began immediately on what he called her Catholic education, which included a Catholic outline of history, the papal encyclicals, personalism, the doctrine of the common good, and the ancient Catholic tradition of hospitality. This was all new to Dorothy.

With unemployment reaching 25% of the work force, Dorothy and Peter felt that there had to be an alternative, not only to Communism, but also to the economic system, which left the social order in such disarray. They wanted to present a new vision, where hearts and souls would be changed as well as the social order. Almost immediately, they began The Catholic Worker to express this vision and to have an alternative to the Communist Daily Worker. Within three years the circulation rose to 100,000. Believing that the Works of Mercy must accompany their work toward a more just society, they opened houses of hospitality and also served coffee, bread and soup to the many who were out of work. The houses and the newspaper operated on voluntary poverty (Peter had said, when questioned about where the money would come from, "Just read the lives of the saints.")

Catholic Workers participated in picketing and protesting in support of workers, bringing a Catholic presence to them at a time when it had appeared to them that Communists were the only ones who were interested in their plight. They included these activities under the category of the spiritual works of mercy, such as "rebuking the sinner" and "enlightening the ignorant." (Dorothy asked those who picketed to participate in an hour of prayer before the picketing.) The newspaper was also seen as a spiritual work of mercy.

In response to the Catholic Worker Movement, young people flocked to the houses of hospitality instead of going to the Communist party.

The new movement, through Peter who was French, shared inspiration with French communitarian personalism. (Esprit, the journal edited by Emmanuel Mounier, began at about the same time as The Catholic Worker.)

Dorothy and Peter also worked closely with the nascent liturgical movement in the United States, the cooperative movement, and alternative person-centered economics. They took their methods from the saints.

During the 1930's, as throughout Dorothy Day's life (Peter died in 1949), Catholic Workers and The Catholic Worker newspaper addressed the most important issues of the day, including war and peace and economics.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin did this from the perspective of the liturgy as the center of their lives, through attendance at daily Mass and Communion, weekly Confession and a daily holy hour, bringing the Gospel, the tradition of the Church and papal teaching to reflect on the social order.

© Dr. Robert Moynihan, Editor, Inside the Vatican Magazine

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