American Witnesses: Dorothy Day, Fighter for Justice

Imprisoned at the age of seventy-five for participating in a non-violent demonstration, Dorothy Day spent her whole life in solidarity with the poor, working from her youth to improve the standard of life for the ordinary workers of America. She was committed to voicing the social concerns and teachings of the Church.

Born in New York in 1897, Dorothy’s family relocated many times as her father, a journalist, moved between different jobs. Dorothy was baptized into the Episcopal Church of her mother, but the family were not practising, and it was a neighbour who first took her regularly to church, where Dorothy began to experience the sweetness of the faith.

Her journey to baptism in the Catholic Church, however, was a long and difficult one. Her early years as a student at the University of Illinois and afterwards as a journalist in New York for various radical and socialist newspapers were marked by a love for the poor and the masses of workers who faced poverty, disease and inadequate living conditions.

Whilst working as a journalist, Day chose to live in the poorer areas of towns, sharing the lifestyle of the poor workers for whom she felt so strongly. Her assignments took her to many picket lines and demonstrations, one of which ended with her being imprisoned for thirty days in a rural workhouse along with a number of other protesters. The first few days of the sentence, in which the women went on hunger strike, proved extremely difficult and, after requesting a Bible, Dorothy found comfort and inspiration in the Psalms as she had once done in childhood.

Yet all the time she read, Dorothy found herself in a constant struggle with her pride, unwilling to come to God in defeat and reluctant to have to depend on Him. Consequently, when she and the other protesters found themselves held in improved conditions in the last weeks of her sentence and the feelings of despair had ceased, she once again rejected religion, ashamed of her weakness in the face of suffering.

Yet despite this Dorothy was constantly haunted by religion and was fascinated by the idea of God’s pursuit in Francis Thompson’s poem ‘The Hound of Heaven’. Sometimes she would attend church, with friends or alone, kneeling at the back, not really knowing what it was about yet finding some comfort in the act.

Although preoccupied with the revolutionary dream and the building of a society where each received according to his need and worked according to his ability, Dorothy began to question her lifestyle and her meagre contribution to the world at war as a journalist. Her period in prison had marked a transition in her position as an idealist to participant in the struggles against injustice and she pursued this by working for a brief period as a nurse in Brooklyn.

After touring Europe and writing for a year, the novel she had been working on was finally published, and the film rights were sold for an amount that allowed her to return to New York and buy a beach house on Staten Island. She entered into a common-law marriage with Forster Battingham who shared her political views. While Forster worked away in the week, Dorothy continued to attend church more regularly and prayed whilst walking to get the mail or recited the Te Deum as she worked around the house, growing increasingly drawn towards a faith that she had seen millions give their allegiance to.

In 1926 she became pregnant, an event which filled her life with joy and satisfied her deep longing for a child, when she had thought herself barren.  Although she had desperately wanted a baby, her pregnancy was nor always happy since Forster did not share her enthusiasm. He could see no joy in bringing a child into such an unjust world.

Baby Tamar, however, was born in 1927, by which time Dorothy had decided to have her baptized in a Catholic church, as she was unable to bear the thought that her child would flounder without religion, as she had done. She prayed too for the gift of faith for herself but put off being baptized as Forster threatened to have nothing to do with her if she embraced religion. After two periods of separation from her husband, during which time she moved back to New York, Dorothy finally decided to go ahead with her own baptism, having already refused to allow Forster to return.

In the midst of the Great Depression, Day continued writing for various magazines and was commissioned to write an article on a hunger march in Washington, DC, organized by communists who were seeking better social legislation. As Dorothy watched them making a stand to combat the injustices of the day, she felt proud of their actions yet at the same time cut off from them by her conversion.

Where was the Catholic initiative to perform such acts of protest and mercy for the impoverished workers? In response to her feelings, Dorothy visited the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and offered her prayers, asking that some way would be opened for her to use her talents to help her fellow workers.

Her prayers were quickly answered, for when she returned to New York she was introduced to Peter Maurin, a former Christian Brother who had left France to come eventually to America. Determined to popularize the social doctrines of the Catholic Church, Dorothy was later to describe him as a follower of St Francis of Assisi’s voluntary poverty, St Benedict’s philosophy and St Vincent de Paul’s practice of the works of mercy.

Day always insisted that it was Maurice who started the Catholic Worker Movement and certainly it was he who suggested the idea of publishing a newspaper that would encourage a transformation of society according to Catholic social teaching. For the journalist Day, this was an opportunity to put her skills to good use and on 1 May 1933 the debut issue was launched, with a circulation of about 2,500.

Addressing the injustices of the social order from not only a radical but religious perspective, the paper soon grew in popularity, with circulation jumping to 100,000 by the end of the first year. They attracted huge volumes of donations and volunteers who came to contribute to the renewal of Christian hospitality, which Peter Maurin had called for in his articles.

By 1936, thirty-three farms and ‘houses of hospitality’ had been set up, where the poor and needy could go to receive shelter and food for as long as they needed. Constantly challenging Christians to recognize and act upon the social conditions of the poor, Day regarded the Sermon on the Mount as the movement’s manifesto, teaching social justice and a commitment to loving one’s enemies – a teaching that was at the root of the pacifism that proved a characteristic, and controversial, aspect of The Catholic Worker.

The paper’s allegiance to the idea of pacifism and conscientious objection, particularly through the war years, sparked increasing agitation, even from within the movement. With resistance intensifying as the country entered into the Second World War, fifteen of the houses of hospitality closed and subscriptions were cancelled in their thousands. Such opposition to the war, Day wrote, was not an expression of sympathy for America’s enemies but rather a resolute dedication to action through works of mercy, and not war.

In 1955 Day, along with a small group of supporters, refused to participate in the state’s annual civil defence drill that was organized in preparation for possible bombings, explaining in a Catholic Worker leaflet that, “We do not have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom Bomb.”

The honours she received throughout her constantly active ministry include a visit from Mother Teresa, who pinned on Day’s dress the cross worn by the professed members of the Missionary Sisters of Charity. Dorothy journeyed to Rome several times, particularly during the Second Vatican Council, to petition for a more radical condemnation of any act of war and, in her final visit to Rome in 1967, she was one of two Americans invited to receive Communion from the hands of Pope Paul VI.

Whilst she took an active part in the work of the Catholic Worker Movement well into old age, shortly after giving a talk in Philadelphia, she suffered a heart attack which confined her to bed. She died on the evening of 29 November 1980 having achieved the permanent revolution that she had desired all her life.

(Maria Walsh)