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A worker for the kingdom: Dorothy Day

30 November, 1999

The path which led Dorothy Day to Jesus was a winding one, but her love of and commitment to the poor and the Catholic Worker movement which she founded show the genuineness of her life. John Murray tells her story.

Having an abortion may not be part of the profile of most saints but, as we know, many of the greatest saints had unwholesome starts to their lives before they discovered the call of the Lord. Dorothy Day is not yet a canonised saint – although her cause has been introduced in Rome – but she is typically a ‘saint’ for the modern age.


Early life

Dorothy Day was born in 1897. One of her earliest memories was of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, which devastated so much of the city. Her family lived in a suburb called Oakland, and so were spared much of the damage, but many refugees spilled out of the city, and Dorothy had an abiding memory of the kindness of the Oakland residents as they ministered to the needy.


A bright girl, she sailed through high school, and won a scholarship to the University of Illinois. She paid her way by washing dishes, and always thought herself lucky compared to the girls who worked in shops and factories with no prospect of advancement. After graduation, she began work as a newspaper reporter.


Unsuitable relationships

During the latter years of the First World War, Dorothy’s principles would not allow her to don uniform, as so many of her contemporaries were doing. She thought, however, that she could be of some value by becoming a nurse.


It was then that she fell in love with one of her patients, a man called Lionel Moise. The relationship ended in sordid tragedy, however, when Dorothy became pregnant in May 1919. Lionel arranged for her to have an abortion and, while she was in the clinic, he left the apartment, never to be seen again.


Later, she began a relationship with another man, by whom she became pregnant in 1925. Like his predecessor, he was not ready for this and, as an atheist, was less than pleased when Dorothy in gratitude turned to God.


In March the following year, a little girl, Tamar Teresa, was born. Dorothy was determined to have her baptised, and to do so in the Catholic Church, which by this stage she felt was the Church of the poor. She hoped to receive the sacrament herself, but hesitated when she was told that she would have to live as a single parent.


The hand of God

God was moving in her life, however, as she wrote in her book, The Long Loneliness. ‘Sooner or later one is given a chance to prove his love,’ she wrote. ‘No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love as I felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship.’ The obstacle to Dorothy’s baptism was removed when she and Tamar’s father broke up.


New direction

Dorothy’s life took on a new direction when a somewhat eccentric Frenchman, Peter Maurin, entered the scene. Once he had got Dorothy’s attention, Peter began to share his view of the world with her, a view that fitted in very well with what she herself wanted. It was out of their shared enthusiasm that the ‘houses of hospitality’ began to appear, offering food and accommodation to those who needed it.


 Dorothy’s longtime love for the printed word also led to the formation of a newspaper, which Peter saw as an ideal tool for disseminating their ideas. And so The Catholic Worker was born on May Day, 1933.


By 1935, the newspaper had a run of 110,000 copies. Most found their way into parishes and schools, but Dorothy – ever the journalist – loved the idea of competing with other papers by selling it on the streets. By the following year, the paper was still growing and so were the houses now thirty in number – in all parts of America, and one in England.


Her message was simple, and sometimes it shocked the stuffier women’s clubs. Dorothy met the dispossessed farmers of the  Mid-West, as well as the casual labourers of the fruit groves in California, and she was able to describe their sufferings in the columns of her paper. She brought home to the laity, as well as to the bishops of the Church, the Jesus of the gospels and his compassion for the poor.


The hungry thirties made many demands on the movement. Sometimes as many as a thousand people might be queuing for a meal. Donations kept flowing, but the organisation was always in debt and, when the coffers were empty, a delegation would go around to the local church and ‘picket’ St. Joseph‘s statue. Miracles happened frequently, and no one was surprised.


Although the Second World War took its own toll on the houses – there were only eleven by the end of it – the task of keeping the paper going still set Dorothy on fire. Indeed, while many of the men were away at the front during the war, it was left to the women to maintain the journal.


Work with Christ

What was the philosophy of this incredible woman? Amid all the millions of words she spawned, one passage stands out: ‘Young people say, “What good can one person do?” They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action at the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.’


Elsewhere she wrote, ‘When we receive the Bread of Life each day, the grace we receive remains a dead weight in the soul unless we co-operate with the grace. When we co-operate with grace, we work with Christ in ministering to our brothers.’


Final years

Her final years were spent in constant activity as she made several speaking tours to India, Australia and Africa. In 1976, she made her last public appearance at the Eucharistic Congress in Pittsburgh. Soon afterwards, she had a heart attack and, although she continued to write until the end of her life and take her stint in the soup kitchen, she became less and less mobile. She died on 29 November 1980. Her beloved daughter, Tamar, was beside her; it was the quiet death for which she had wished.


Her funeral was attended by people from every state of the Union and further afield. As a Cardinal stepped forward to pronounce a blessing at the end, an intruder broke through the crowd, causing momentary panic among the dignitaries and security personnel. He gazed down at the coffin with unnerving intensity. No one stopped him. Perhaps he stood for all those strangers in whom Dorothy Day had seen the face of Christ. 


This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.