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Old wooden type on a wooden shelf

Dorothy Day

photo of Dorothy Day
  • Pacifist, activist, and community builder
  • Launched The Catholic Worker newspaper
  • Started first Catholic Worker houses of hospitality with Peter Maurin
Archbishops compared her to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, the New York Times spoke of the “end of an era,” wealthy admirers organized a memorial mass, and homeless men wept. Who was this old woman who owned nothing but a creaking bed, a writing desk, an overflowing bookshelf, a teapot, and a radio? Born in Brooklyn in 1897, Dorothy’s early years were marked by dramatic twists and turns. There was journalism school, and then a taste of the bohemian Twenties, first in New York City, then Italy, then Hollywood, and finally Staten Island. These were whirlwind years, and left her reeling from a broken marriage, an abortion, and a series of unhappy relationships.   Read Full Biography
When Dorothy Day died in the cramped Lower East Side room she called home, hundreds of thousands of people mourned.

But there was also an unforgettable night in a Greenwich Village bar where her friend, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, recited “The Hound of Heaven” for her – a poem whose obscure but deep message left her reeling and, she later said, eventually brought about her conversion.

In 1926 Dorothy had a baby daughter, Tamar – an event that profoundly changed her. Leftist friends (she was a Communist) mocked her new interest in the Gospels (they felt religion was a crutch for the weak), but Dorothy dug in her heels. Jesus promised the new society of justice they were all looking for, she said; and if Christians tended to be soft-minded hypocrites, that was not Jesus’ fault. She was determined to give him a try.

By the time Dorothy died in 1980, it was clear she had done more than try. Shaken by the hopelessness of the unemployed millions during the Depression years, she dropped all ambitions of becoming a famous writer and spent the rest of her life serving the poor (in whose face she saw Jesus), spreading her views of nonviolence (she was imprisoned many times for acts of civil disobedience), and passionately reminding readers through her books and newspaper articles that Christ demanded more than tithes, hats, and flowers on Sunday.

As far as Dorothy could tell, he demanded the readiness to wash vegetables, cut bread, and clean up after hundreds of noisy, often ungrateful guests, day after day, year after year. This she did gladly at the New York Catholic Worker – a communal hospitality house she founded and ran for the unemployed and homeless.

On a practical level, Dorothy’s witness lives on in more than 150 Catholic Worker Houses across the country. There is also the enduring challenge of her non-nonsense attitude to faith: “The mystery of the poor is this: that they are Jesus, and whatever you do for them you do to him.”

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