Biography of Dorothy Day
This essay by Jim
Forest on Dorothy Day was prepared for The
Encyclopedia of American Catholic History to
be published by the Liturgical Press. Jim
Forest, once a managing editor of The
Catholic Worker, is the author of Love is
the Measure: a Biography of Dorothy Day; and
Living With Wisdom: a Biography of Thomas
Merton. Both are published by Orbis.
Day, founder of the Catholic Worker
movement, was born in Brooklyn, New York,
November 8, 1897. After surviving the San
Francisco earthquake in 1906, the Day family
moved into a tenement flat in Chicago's
South Side. It was a big step down in the
world made necessary because John Day was
out of work. Day's understanding of the
shame people feel when they fail in their
efforts dated from this time.
in Chicago that Day began to form positive
impressions of Catholicism. Later in life
she would recall her discovery of a friend's
mother, a devout Catholic, praying at the
side of her bed. Without embarrassment, she
looked up at Day, told her where to find her
daughter, and returned to her prayers. "I
felt a burst of love toward [her] that I
have never forgotten," Day recalled.
John Day was appointed sports editor of a
Chicago newspaper, the Day family moved into
a comfortable house on the North Side. Here
Dorothy began to read books that stirred her
conscience. Upton Sinclair's novel, The
Jungle, inspired Day to take long walks
in poor neighborhoods in Chicago's South
Side. It was the start of a life-long
attraction to areas many people avoid.
a gift for finding beauty in the midst of
urban desolation. Drab streets were
transformed by pungent odors: geranium and
tomato plants, garlic, olive oil, roasting
coffee, bread and rolls in bakery ovens.
"Here," she said, "was enough beauty to
a scholarship that brought her to the
University of Illinois campus at Urbana in
the fall of 1914. But she was a reluctant
scholar. Her reading was chiefly in a
radical social direction. She avoided campus
social life and insisted on supporting
herself rather than live on money from her
Dropping out of college two years later, she
moved to New York where she found a job as a
reporter for The Call, the city's
only socialist daily. She covered rallies
and demonstrations and interviewed people
ranging from butlers and butlers to labor
organizers and revolutionaries.
next worked for The Masses, a
magazine that opposed American involvement
in the European war. In September, the Post
Office rescinded the magazine's mailing
permit. Federal officers seized back issues,
manuscripts, subscriber lists and
correspondence. Five editors were charged
November 1917 Day went to prison for being
one of forty women in front of the White
House protesting women's exclusion from the
electorate. Arriving at a rural workhouse,
the women were roughly handled. The women
responded with a hunger strike. Finally they
were freed by presidential order.
Returning to New York, Day felt that
journalism was a meager response to a world
at war. In the spring of 1918, she signed up
for a nurse's training program in Brooklyn.
conviction that the social order was unjust
changed in no substantial way from her
adolescence until her death, though she
never identified herself with any political
religious development was a slower process.
As a child she had attended services at an
Episcopal Church. As a young journalist in
New York, she would sometimes make
late-at-night visits to St. Joseph's
Catholic Church on Sixth Avenue.
Catholic climate of worship appealed to her.
While she knew little about Catholic belief,
Catholic spiritual discipline fascinated
her. She saw the Catholic Church as "the
church of the immigrants, the church of the
1922, in Chicago working as a reporter, she
roomed with three young women who went to
Mass every Sunday and holy day and set aside
time each day for prayer. It was clear to
her that "worship, adoration, thanksgiving,
supplication ... were the noblest acts of
which we are capable in this life."
next job was with a newspaper in New
Orleans. Living near St. Louis Cathedral,
Day often attended evening Benediction
New York in 1924, Day bought a beach cottage
on Staten Island using money from the sale
of movie rights for a novel. She also began
a four-year common-law marriage with Forster
Batterham, an English botanist she had met
through friends in Manhattan. Batterham was
an anarchist opposed to marriage and
religion. In a world of such cruelty, he
found it impossible to believe in a God. By
this time Day's belief in God was
unshakable. It grieved her that Batterham
didn't sense God's presence within the
natural world. "How can there be no God,"
she asked, "when there are all these
beautiful things?" His irritation with her
"absorption in the supernatural" would lead
them to quarrel.
moved everything to a different plane for
her was pregnancy. She had been pregnant
once before, years earlier, as the result of
a love affair with a journalist. This
resulted in the great tragedy of her life,
an abortion. The affair and its awful
aftermath had been the subject of her novel,
The Eleventh Virgin. The abortion,
Day concluded in the years following, had
left her barren. "For a long time I had
thought I could not bear a child, and the
longing in my heart for a baby had been
growing," she confided in her autobiography,
The Long Loneliness. "My home, I
felt, was not a home without one."
pregnancy with Batterham seemed to Day
nothing less than a miracle. But Batterham
didn't believe in bringing children into
such a violent world.
March 3, 1927, Tamar Theresa Day was born.
Day could think of nothing better to do with
the gratitude that overwhelmed her than
arrange Tamar's baptism in the Catholic
Church. "I did not want my child to flounder
as I had often floundered. I wanted to
believe, and I wanted my child to believe,
and if belonging to a Church would give her
so inestimable a grace as faith in God, and
the companionable love of the Saints, then
the thing to do was to have her baptized a
Tamar's baptism, there was a permanent break
with Batterham. On December 28, Day was
received into the Catholic Church. A period
commenced in her life as she tried to find a
way to bring together her religious faith
and her radical social values.
winter of 1932 Day travelled to Washington,
D.C., to report for Commonweal and America magazines on the Hunger March.
Day watched the protesters parade down the
streets of Washington carrying signs calling
for jobs, unemployment insurance, old age
pensions, relief for mothers and children,
health care and housing. What kept Day in
the sidelines was that she was a Catholic
and the march had been organized by
Communists, a party at war with not only
with capitalism but religion.
December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate
Conception. After witnessing the march, Day
went to the Shrine of the Immaculate
Conception where she expressed her torment
in prayer: "I offered up a special prayer, a
prayer which came with tears and anguish,
that some way would open up for me to use
what talents I possessed for my fellow
workers, for the poor."
her apartment in New York the next day, Day
met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant 20
years her senior.
a former Christian Brother, had left France
for Canada in 1908 and later made his way to
the United States. When he met Day, he was
handyman at a Catholic boys' camp in upstate
New York, receiving meals, use of the
chaplain's library, living space in the barn
and occasional pocket money.
his years of wandering, Maurin had come to a
Franciscan attitude, embracing poverty as a
vocation. His celibate, unencumbered life
offered time for study and prayer, out of
which a vision had taken form of a social
order instilled with basic values of the
Gospel "in which it would be easier for men
to be good." A born teacher, he found
willing listeners, among them George
Shuster, editor of Commonweal
magazine, who gave him Day's address.
remarkable as the providence of their
meeting was Day's willingness to listen. It
seemed to her he was an answer to her
prayers, someone who could help her discover
what she was supposed to do.
Day should do, Maurin said, was start a
paper to publicize Catholic social teaching
and promote steps to bring about the
peaceful transformation of society. Day
readily embraced the idea. If family past,
work experience and religious faith had
prepared her for anything, it was this.
found that the Paulist Press was willing to
print 2,500 copies of an eight-page tabloid
paper for $57. Her kitchen was the new
paper's editorial office. She decided to
sell the paper for a penny a copy, "so cheap
that anyone could afford to buy it."
1, the first copies of The Catholic Worker were handed out on Union Square.
publishing ventures meet with such immediate
success. By December, 100,000 copies were
being printed each month. Readers found a
unique voice in The Catholic Worker.
It expressed dissatisfaction with the social
order and took the side of labor unions, but
its vision of the ideal future challenged
both urbanization and industrialism. It
wasn't only radical but religious. The paper
didn't merely complain but called on its
readers to make personal responses.
first half year The Catholic Worker
was only a newspaper, but as winter
approached, homeless people began to knock
on the door. Maurin's essays in the paper
were calling for renewal of the ancient
Christian practice of hospitality to those
who were homeless. In this way followers of
Christ could respond to Jesus' words: "I was
a stranger and you took me in." Maurin
opposed the idea that Christians should take
care only of their friends and leave care of
strangers to impersonal charitable agencies.
Every home should have its "Christ Room" and
every parish a house of hospitality ready to
receive the "ambassadors of God."
Surrounded by people in need and attracting
volunteers excited about ideas they
discovered in The Catholic Worker, it
was inevitable that the editors would soon
be given the chance to put their principles
into practice. Day's apartment was the seed
of many houses of hospitality to come.
wintertime, an apartment was rented with
space for ten women, soon after a place for
men. Next came a house in Greenwich Village.
In 1936 the community moved into two
buildings in Chinatown, but no enlargement
could possibly find room for all those in
need. Mainly they were men, Day wrote, "grey
men, the color of lifeless trees and bushes
and winter soil, who had in them as yet none
of the green of hope, the rising sap of
were surprised that, in contrast with most
charitable centers, no one at the Catholic
Worker set about reforming them. A crucifix
on the wall was the only unmistakable
evidence of the faith of those welcoming
them. The staff received only food, board
and occasional pocket money.
Catholic Worker became a national movement.
By 1936 there were 33 Catholic Worker houses
spread across the country. Due to the
Depression, there were plenty of people
Catholic Worker attitude toward those who
were welcomed wasn't always appreciated.
These weren't the "deserving poor," it was
sometimes objected, but drunkards and
good-for-nothings. A visiting social worker
asked Day how long the "clients" were
permitted to stay. "We let them stay
forever," Day answered with a fierce look in
her eye. "They live with us, they die with
us, and we give them a Christian burial. We
pray for them after they are dead. Once they
are taken in, they become members of the
family. Or rather they always were members
of the family. They are our brothers and
sisters in Christ."
justified their objections with biblical
quotations. Didn't Jesus say that the poor
would be with us always? "Yes," Day once
replied, "but we are not content that there
should be so many of them. The class
structure is our making and by our consent,
not God's, and we must do what we can to
change it. We are urging revolutionary
Catholic Worker also experimented with
farming communes. In 1935 a house with a
garden was rented on Staten Island. Soon
after came Mary Farm in Easton,
Pennsylvania, a property finally given up
because of strife within the community.
Another farm was purchased in upstate New
York near Newburgh. Called the Maryfarm
Retreat House, it was destined for a longer
life. Later came the Maurin Peter Farm on
Staten Island, which later moved to Tivoli
and then to Marlborough, both in the Hudson
Valley. Day came to see the vocation of the
Catholic Worker was not so much to found
model agricultural communities as rural
houses of hospitality.
got Day into the most trouble was pacifism.
A nonviolent way of life, as she saw it, was
at the heart of the Gospel. She took as
seriously as the early Church the command of
Jesus to Maurin: "Put away your sword, for
whoever lives by the sword shall perish by
many centuries the Catholic Church had
accommodated itself to war. Popes had
blessed armies and preached Crusades. In the
thirteenth century St. Francis of Assisi had
revived the pacifist way, but by the
twentieth century, it was unknown for
Catholics to take such a position.
Worker's first expression of pacifism,
published in 1935, was a dialogue between a
patriot and Christ, the patriot dismissing
Christ's teaching as a noble but impractical
doctrine. Few readers were troubled by such
articles until the Spanish Civil War in
1936. The fascist side, led by Franco,
presented itself as defender of the Catholic
faith. Nearly every Catholic bishop and
publication rallied behind Franco. The Catholic Worker,
refusing to support either side in the war,
lost two-thirds of its readers.
backing Franco, Day warned early in the war,
ought to "take another look at recent events
in [Nazi] Germany." She expressed anxiety
for the Jews and later was among the
founders of the Committee of Catholics to
Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and
America's declaration of war, Dorothy
announced that the paper would maintain its
pacifist stand. "We will print the words of
Christ who is with us always," Day wrote.
"Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount."
Opposition to the war, she added, had
nothing to do with sympathy for America's
enemies. "We love our country.... We have
been the only country in the world where men
and women of all nations have taken refuge
from oppression." But the means of action
the Catholic Worker movement supported were
the works of mercy rather than the works of
war. She urged "our friends and associates
to care for the sick and the wounded, to the
growing of food for the hungry, to the
continuance of all our works of mercy in our
houses and on our farms."
members of Catholic Worker communities
agreed. Fifteen houses of hospitality closed
in the months following the U.S. entry into
the war. But Day's view prevailed. Every
issue of The Catholic
reaffirmed her understanding of the
Christian life. The young men who identified
with the Catholic Worker movement during the
war generally spent much of the war years
either in prison, or in rural work camps.
Some did unarmed military service as medics.
world war ended in 1945, but out of it
emerged the Cold war, the nuclear-armed
"warfare state," and a series of smaller
wars in which America was often involved.
the rituals of life for the New York
Catholic Worker community beginning in the
late 1950s was the refusal to participate in
the state's annual civil defense drill. Such
preparation for attack seemed to Day part of
an attempt to promote nuclear war as
survivable and winnable and to justify
spending billions on the military. When the
sirens sounded June 15, 1955, Day was among
a small group of people sitting in front of
City Hall. "In the name of Jesus, who is
God, who is Love, we will not obey this
order to pretend, to evacuate, to hide. We
will not be drilled into fear. We do not
have faith in God if we depend upon the Atom
Bomb," a Catholic Worker leaflet explained.
Day described her civil disobedience as an
act of penance for America's use of nuclear
weapons on Japanese cities.
first year the dissidents were reprimanded.
The next year Day and others were sent to
jail for five days. Arrested again the next
year, the judge jailed her for thirty days.
In 1958, a different judge suspended
sentence. In 1959, Day was back in prison,
but only for five days. Then came 1960, when
instead of a handful of people coming to
City Hall Park, 500 turned up. The police
arrested only a few, Day conspicuously not
among those singled out. In 1961 the crowd
swelled to 2,000. This time 40 were
arrested, but again Day was exempted. It
proved to be the last year of dress
rehearsals for nuclear war in New York.
Catholic Worker stress was the civil rights
movement. As usual Day wanted to visit
people who were setting an example and
therefore went to Koinonia, a Christian
agricultural community in rural Georgia
where blacks and whites lived peacefully
together. The community was under attack
when Day visited in 1957. One of the
community houses had been hit by machine-gun
fire and Ku Klux Klan members had burned
crosses on community land. Day insisted on
taking a turn at the sentry post. Noticing
an approaching car had reduced its speed,
she ducked just as a bullet struck the
steering column in front of her face.
Concern with the Church's response to war
led Day to Rome during the Second Vatican
Council, an event Pope John XXIII hoped
would restore "the simple and pure lines
that the face of the Church of Jesus had at
its birth." In 1963 Day was one 50 "Mothers
for Peace" who went to Rome to thank Pope
John for his encyclical Pacem in Terris.
Close to death, the pope couldn't meet them
privately, but at one of his last public
audiences blessed the pilgrims, asking them
to continue their labors.
1965, Day returned to Rome to take part in a
fast expressing "our prayer and our hope"
that the Council would issue "a clear
statement, `Put away thy sword.'" Day saw
the unpublicized fast as a "widow's mite" in
support of the bishops' effort to speak with
a pure voice to the modern world.
fasters had reason to rejoice in December
when the Constitution on the Church in the
Modern World was approved by the bishops.
The Council's described as "a crime against
God and humanity" any act of war "directed
to the indiscriminate destruction of whole
cities or vast areas with their
inhabitants." The Council called on states
to make legal provision for conscientious
objectors while describing as "criminal"
those who obey commands which condemn the
innocent and defenseless.
war causing "the indiscriminate destruction
of ... vast areas with their inhabitants"
were the order of the day in regions of
Vietnam under intense U.S. bombardment in
1965 and the years following. Many young
Catholic Workers went to prison for refusing
to cooperate with conscription, while others
did alternative service. Nearly everyone in
Catholic Worker communities took part in
protests. Many went to prison for acts of
Probably there has never been a newspaper so
many of whose editors have been jailed for
acts of conscience. Day herself was last
jailed in 1973 for taking part in a banned
picket line in support of farmworkers. She
lived long enough to see her achievements
honored. In 1967, when she made her last
visit to Rome to take part in the
International Congress of the Laity, she
found she was one of two Americans -- the
other an astronaut -- invited to receive
Communion from the hands of Pope Paul VI. On
her 75th birthday the Jesuit magazine
America devoted a special issue to her,
finding in her the individual who best
exemplified "the aspiration and action of
the American Catholic community during the
past forty years." Notre Dame University
presented her with its Laetare Medal,
thanking her for "comforting the afflicted
and afflicting the comfortable."
those who came to visit her when she was no
longer able to travel was Mother Theresa of
Calcutta, who had once pinned on Day's dress
the cross worn only by fully professed
members of the Missionary Sisters of
before her death November 29, 1980, Day
found herself regarded by many as a saint.
No words of hers are better known than her
brusque response, "Don't call me a saint. I
don't want to be dismissed so easily."
Nonetheless, having herself treasured the
memory and witness of many saints, she is a
candidate for inclusion in the calendar of
saints. The Claretians have launched an
effort to have her canonized.
have achieved anything in my life," she once
remarked, "it is because I have not been
embarrassed to talk about God."
Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion
(Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987)
Cornell, Robert Ellsberg and Jim Forest,
editors, A Penny a Copy: Writings from
The Catholic Worker (Maryknoll, NY:
Day, The Long Loneliness. (Chicago:
Saint Thomas More Press, 1993)
Ellsberg, editor, Dorothy Day: Selected
Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992)
Forest, Love is the Measure: a biography
of Dorothy Day (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis,
Miller, Dorothy Day: A Biography (New
York: Harper & Row, 1982)