Our VoiceCulture

Dorothy Day: Protester, Journalist, Someday a Saint?

Guest Blogger • May 09, 2009

The last time Dorothy Day went to jail was at age 75 while protesting with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers supporting grape workers in California. The first time she went to jail was at age 20 with a group of suffragists who were demonstrating at the White House in favor of giving women the right to vote. In between she co-founded the largest organization of Roman Catholic lay people for peace and social justice: The Catholic Worker. On May 1, 1933, Dorothy Day and a handful of volunteers started selling the Catholic Worker Newspaper in Union Square in New York City for a penny an issue.

©Bob Fitch Photo

They sold 2,500 papers that day. By keeping the price a penny and offering priceless art and reporting, in five years the circulation peaked at 190,000. In addition to writing eight books and more than 350 articles for other magazines, Dorothy Day wrote more than 1,000 articles for The Catholic Worker Newspaper. Imagine what she could have done with a blog or Twitter.

The paper was the voice for the Catholic Worker, which was founded in New York City by Dorothy Day, at age 36 a convert to Catholicism, and Peter Maurin, age 56, a French thinker with a vision of a world “where it is easier to be good.” Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in America,” but he didn’t know Dorothy Day. She was raised an Episcopalian and could have learned how to write from her father, a sports writer who covered the race tracks. As a young woman she had several affairs with men she did not choose to marry, resulting in one abortion and one daughter Tamar born in 1926. She hung out in New York with the literati like Eugene O’Neil and wrote for Socialist newspapers.

Then she was received into the Catholic Church and soaked it up with a convert’s zeal. She went to daily mass and weekly confession. In her years as an organizer she took hundreds of long bus trips, sustained by her Bible, a missal, a breviary, and a jar of instant coffee. Under her leadership the Catholic Worker movement attracted thousands of people to loosely affiliated Houses of Hospitality and Farming Communes where the poor and homeless were welcomed as guests rather than as “clients.” There are still 130 Catholic Worker communities in thirty-two states and eight foreign countries. Dorothy Day led volunteers in scores of marches and got arrested four times from 1955 to 1959 for civil disobedience, including refusal to take shelter during a civil defense drill for a mock nuclear attack on New York City.

She has been nominated for Sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, but the very first step took 17 years, so clearly the men who make these decisions are in no hurry.  And as for Dorothy Day?  She said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”

Joan Flanagan is the Fundraiser for the Center for New Community.  She worships at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Lincoln Park in Chicago where Dorothy Day and her sister Della (right) were baptized in 1911.
Arrest photo Courtesy of Bob Fitch, www.bobfitchphoto.com .
Children’s photo Courtesy of the Marquette University Archives.
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