Servant of God, Dorothy Day
"The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution that has to start with each one of us." -Dorothy Day
Dorothy 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.
When 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.
In 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.
Her 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 party.
As a young journalist in New York, she would sometimes make late-at-night visits to St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Sixth Avenue. The Catholic climate of worship appealed to her. She saw the Catholic Church as "the church of the immigrants, the church of the poor."
In 1928, Day was received into the Catholic Church. She tried to find a way to bring together her religious faith and her radical social values. She prayed for some way to use what talents she possessed for her fellow workers, for the poor." Day met Peter Maurin. He suggested that she start a paper to publicize Catholic social teaching and promote steps to bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Her kitchen was the paper's editorial office. She sold the paper for a penny a copy, "so cheap that anyone could afford to buy it." Today’s circulation is over 80,000.
For the first half year The Catholic Worker was only a newspaper, but as winter came, homeless people began to knock on their door. Maurin's essays in the paper called 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 believed every home should have a "Christ Room" and every parish a house of hospitality to receive the "ambassadors of God." Day's apartment was the seed of many houses of hospitality to come.
Many 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, and board. The Catholic Worker became a national movement. Today over 140 Catholic Worker communities exist.The movement is grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person. Today over 140 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.
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."
Long 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.
If I have achieved anything in my life," she once remarked, "it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God." Her grave stone has engraved on it a design of loaves and fishes and the words “Deo Gratias” - Thanks be to God.
Excepts of this biography were taken from an essay by Jim Forest on Dorothy Day as prepared for The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History