Dorothy Day, Servant of God
Almost immediately after her death in 1980 controversy arose about whether Dorothy Day should be canonized a Saint by the Church.
Now that the Vatican has approved the late Cardinal John O’Connor‘s request to consider Dorothy Day’s “cause,” the controversy is being rekindled. (See links to the Cardinal’s announcemnt and other views of Dorothy Day as a possible saint in the box to the right.)
Voices opposing the process say that Dorothy Day shunned the suggestion she was a saint and believe she would rather have any money spent on her canonization given to the poor. Others are concerned that her radical vision will be sanitized and spun to support Catholic traditionalism and a narrow anti-abortion stance, neutralizing her ardent pacifism, radical critique of society, and love of the poor.
Many voices are in support of the canonization process as well, citing Dorothy Day’s life as an example that has inspired them to prayer and action for social justice. Her faithfulness to the Gospel, living the “preferential option for the poor” and showing that a lay person can achieve heroic virtue are often cited.
“Dorothy Day is already a saint” is a common refrain, which reminds us that the Church doesn’t make saints, but only recognizes what the faithful acknowledge as the action of God’s grace in a person’s life.
In fact, that’s the next step in the process, the formation of a Dorothy Day Guild¾ a group anyone can join, whose purpose is to spread the word about her sanctity and show that there is popular grassroots devotion to Dorothy Day.
Some interesting facts about Dorothy Day’s life, many commonly known and others less so.
- Born in 1897, she was raised in a nominally Protestant family and became a Roman Catholic in 1928.
- One of her early memories was the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and how her mother offered help to quake victims.
- Her father was a sportswriter who covered racetrack news.
- She loved reading novels from early childhood on, and her favorite author was Fydor Dostoevsky.
- She rejected organized religion in college because she didn’t see so-called “religious people” helping the poor.
- In the World War I period she was part of a circle of social radicals and literary types like Eugene O’Neill.
- She first went to jail with a group of suffragists in 1917 who were demonstrating at the White House in favor of giving women voting rights.
- She had an abortion in a failed relationship when she was 22 years old.
- The birth of her daughter Tamar in 1926, within a common-law marriage, brought her great joy and happiness, and led to her final embrace of the Catholic faith.
- She was a single parent who supported herself as a free-lance journalist.
- She met Peter Maurin in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression.
The Catholic Worker newspaper appeared in May 1933 with 2,500 copies distributed by hand. Circulation grew to 190,000 by 1938, and dropped to 50,000 during World War II, largely because of the paper’s pacifist stand. (Today’s circulation is over 80,000.)
- The first House of Hospitality opened in 1933. Today over 130 Catholic Worker communities exist in thirty-two states and eight foreign countries.
- She maintained throughout her life that Peter Maurin, not she, started the Catholic Worker Movement. She called him a modern St. Francis who was responsible for completing her Catholic education.
- Her written work includes 8 books, 350 plus articles for journals and magazines, and over 1,000 articles for The Catholic Worker newspaper.
- A heavy smoker for years, she finally gave up the habit “cold turkey” after praying for several years for help in quitting.
- She went to daily Mass and weekly confession, and regularly went on religious retreats.
- She read the Bible at a time most Catholics didn’t.
- She travelled long distances by bus. She carried a Bible, a missal, the Divine Office, and a jar of instant coffee on her hundreds of trips.
- She went to jail four times from 1955 to 1959 for acts of civil disobedience. She with others refused to take shelter during civil defense drills that simulated a nuclear attack on New York City.
- In 1955 she became a professed secular oblate of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Procopius.
- She and a group of women fasted for ten days in 1963 in Rome, at Vatican Council II, wanting the bishops to condemn all war. They did condemn nuclear war.
- She was instrumental in founding Pax Christi USA.
- She was a prolific letter writer, including many years of correspondence with the monk Thomas Merton.
- She was a grandmother nine times, with one grandson going to Vietnam with the U.S. military during the war.
- She was a friend to bishops and cardinals, while being critical of the Church’s wealth and support for war and war preparations.
- She went to India to speak to Mother Teresa‘s novices and received a cross from Mother Teresa worn by the Missionaries of Charity.
- Her last jailing was in 1973 at the age of 75 while protesting with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in California.
- She loved the beauty of the natural world and would seek out the quiet of a small beach cottage she owned on the shore of Staten Island.
- Her gravestone has engraved on it a design of loaves and fishes and thewords “Deo Gratias” (“thanks be to God”).
From Union Square To Rome, an autobiography written in 1938, is available in the Library.
The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day’s most famous autobiography was reprinted by Harper in 1997.
Additional biographical information about Dorothy Day is available in the Dorothy Biographies section.