Remembering Dorothy Day in Words and Deeds  FB-dorothy-day[1]


Dorothy Day was born a hundred years ago on November 8, 1897 in New York City. Eighty-three years later, on November 29, 1980, she died in the city of her birth. Though she was born into a middle-class, conventional family, she died in the midst of the family she helped found-the Catholic Worker family-among her beloved poor.

Catholic historian David O'Brien, in 1980 on the occasion of her death, said that Dorothy Day "was the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism." Some have called her a saint, a suggestion she didn't like.

What in her spirit is vital for us in these waning years of the twentieth century? Two qualities of Dorothy Day significant for our time are her stance of resistance and her saintliness.

By her stance of resistance I mean Dorothy Day's permanent dissatisfaction with our American society and her actions to change it. She resisted the notion that there had to be so many poor people in the midst of great wealth, that the State was responsible for solving the problems of poverty, and that war and violence were ever necessary (she was a lifelong pacifist).

Instead, following Peter Maurin's vision, she advocated that each of us take personal responsibility for our neighbor in need and follow the gospel of Matthew 25, performing the works of mercy at a personal sacrifice. She took action for peace by writing, picketing, going to jail, praying, and fasting-all acts of nonviolent resistance. She adopted voluntary poverty for herself and encouraged it for others as an antidote to our society's acquisitiveness.

Dorothy advocated a "permanent revolution,"-a revolution of the heart-where through cooperation each person and family would have good work and sufficient means to meet their needs. Today, Catholic Workers in over 140 communities are inspired by her witness: offering hospitality to the poor, resisting our still militarized culture, and going to jail for their convictions.

When I speak of Dorothy Day's saintliness I have in mind her seriousness about becoming a saint, following St. Paul's injunction, and her call for us to become saints. Dorothy knew that any talk about her being a saint raised the possibility that she would then be easily dismissed-after all, who can live like and do what saints do?

What she did was simply take the Gospel seriously every day until she died. She hungered for God (she called it her "long loneliness"), she sought to use her talent of journalism in the service of God and neighbor, she had a disciplined life of prayer including daily Mass, she performed thousands of little acts of love (the "little way" of St. Therese), and she trusted in God to sustain her faith.

In what follows I hope you can get to know a bit more about Dorothy Day's life and discover, in her own words, why she has become a spiritual friend to so many of us.

Jim Allaire


Below are 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 suffragettes 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 1927, 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 inspired Bob Gilliam of Winona in his conscientious objection. For which he went to prison. He later went to New York to work with Dorothy and The Catholic Worker paper.
  • 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 1969 at the age of 76 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").


On how it all happened:

We were just sitting there talking when Peter Maurin came in.

We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, "We need bread." We could not say, "Go, be thou filled." If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.

We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded.

We were just sitting there talking and someone said, "Let's all go live on a farm." It was as casual as all that, I often think. It just came about. It just happened.

I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not easy always to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight. The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.

The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more. But the final word is love. At times it has been, in the words of Father Zossima, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on (The Long Loneliness).

On a revolution of the heart:

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us? When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, "Now I have begun" (Loaves and Fishes).

On the works of mercy:

The Corporal Works are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead.

When Peter Maurin talked about the necessity of practicing the Works of Mercy, he meant all of them. He envisioned Houses of Hospitality in poor parishes in every city of the country, where the precepts of Our Lord could be put into effect. He pointed out that we have turned to state responsibility through home relief, social legislation, and social security, that we no longer practice personal responsibility, but are repeating the words of the first murderer, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The Works of Mercy are a wonderful stimulus to our growth in faith as well as love (The Commonweal, November 1949).

On the freedom to oppose:

Where are the heroes and the saints, who keep a clear vision of man's greatest gift, his freedom, to oppose not only the dictatorship of the proletariat, but also the dictatorship of the benevolent state, which takes possession of the family, and of the indigent, and claims our young for war? (The Catholic Worker, May 1953).

On thanksgiving:

During the summer when things were going hard in more ways than one, I grimly modified grace before meals: "We give Thee thanks, O Lord, for these Thy gifts, and for all our tribulations, from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen." One could know of certain knowledge that tribulations were matters of thanksgiving; that we were indeed privileged to share in the suffering of Our Lord. So in this month of thanksgiving, we can be thankful for the trials of the past, the blessings of the present, and be heartily ready at the same time to embrace with joy any troubles the future may bring us (The Catholic Worker, January 1942).

On the long loneliness:

For years, when people talked with me about my youth, about my life in New York before I became a Catholic, they have always brought up the subject of my loneliness and my restlessness. I am to blame for the mention of loneliness, though I didn't mean the word as it has been taken by so many people.

I meant a spiritual hunger; that's what I had in mind- a loneliness that was in me, no matter how happy I was and how fulfilled in my personal life (quoted in A Radical Devotion by Robert Coles).

On her need for the Church:

No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore. I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise Him, nor a body of people with whom to associate themselves. But I did not agree to this. My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God (The Long Loneliness).

On the Little Way of St. Thérèse:

When a mother, a housewife, asks what she can do, one can only point to the way of St. Thérèse, that little way, so much misunderstood and so much despised. She did all for the love of God, even to putting up with the irritation in herself caused by the proximity of a nervous nun. She began with working for peace in her own heart, and willing to love where love was difficult, and so she grew in love, and increased the sum total of love in the world, not to speak of peace (The Catholic Worker,December 1965).

On having a Christ's room:

Every house should have a Christ's room. The coat which hangs in your closet belongs to the poor. If your brother comes to you hungry and you say, Go be thou filled, what kind of hospitality is that? It is no use turning people away to an agency, to the city or the state or the Catholic Charities. It is you yourself who must perform the Works of Mercy. Often you can only give the price of a meal, or a bed on the Bowery (The Catholic Worker, May 1947).

On the Mystical Body:

An understanding of the dogma of the Mystical Body is perhaps the greatest need of the present time. It is a further explanation of the Incarnation.

Christ is the head and we are the members. And the illness of injustice, hate, disunion, race hatred, prejudice, class war, selfishness, greed, nationalism, and war weaken this Mystical Body, just as the prayer and the sacrifices of countless of the faithful strengthen it.

St. Augustine says that we are all members or potential members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Therefore all men are our neighbors, and Christ told us that we should love our neighbor whether they be friend or enemy(The Catholic Worker, October 1939).

On poverty:

We need always to be thinking and writing about poverty, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it. And maybe no one can be told; maybe they will have to experience it. Or maybe it is a grace which they must pray for. We usually get what we pray for, and maybe we are afraid to pray for it. And yet I am convinced that it is the grace we most need in this age of crisis, this time when expenditures reach into the billions to defend "our American way of life." Maybe this defense itself will bring down upon us the poverty we are afraid to pray for (The Catholic Worker, May 1952).

A response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor:

We will print the words of Christ who is with us always, even to the end of the world. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes His sun rise on the good and the evil, and sends rain on the just and unjust."

We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts (The Catholic Worker, January 1942).

On needs and wants:

I remember one of my young nieces coming home from school with a project book she was making. Her task was to furnish a home, to cut out all the things one would need in that home, and she pored over magazines, and cut out linoleum, furniture, kitchen sets, parlor sets, gadgets, and had a lovely time doing it. And all the while standards were being set up in her mind, desires were being stimulated to buy what the advertisers present and to get the job, to get the money, to buy what the advertisers present (The Catholic Worker, September 1953).

On persecution:

If we are not being persecuted there is something wrong with us. This is not having a persecution complex (The Catholic Worker, July-August 1961).

People say, "What is the sense of our small effort?" They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.

We plant seeds that will flower as results in our lives, so best to remove the weeds of anger, avarice, envy and doubt, that peace and abundance may manifest for all.

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

Don't call me a saint -- I don't want to be dismissed that easily.

“The works of mercy are the opposite of the works of war, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, nursing the sick, visiting the prisoner. But we are destroying crops, setting fire to entire villages and to the people in them. We are not performing the works of mercy but the works of war.
Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day



It is always a feast where love is, and where love is, God is.





One of the greatest evils of the day among those outside of prison is their sense of futility. Young people say, What is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment.





The best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them up.








The love of God compels us to give.







We are our brothers' keepers and we must not only care for his needs as far as we are immediately able, but we must try to build a better world.




We certainly can try to grow in love, and it is good practice, this giving what we've got, whether it is a cup of coffee or money to pay the grocery bill.




We must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize and transform all our individual actions.


Catholic Worker Pacifism Begins

Peter Maurin supported Dorothy's basic pacifist commitment as a Catholic and was the engineer of the resourccement. Arthur Sheehan tells us in his book on Peter Maurin: Gay Believer published in 1959 by Hanover House, long before the meaning of the word "gay" had changed) that Peter had left France to go to Canada because of the constant interruption of his life by required participation in the reserves after military service. By going to Canada he was part of the tradition later continued during the Vietnam War.

The Catholic Worker movement and The Catholic Worker newspaper began in 1933. Shortly afterward, Dorothy announced in the paper that delegates of the Catholic Worker would attend the United States Congress against the War and that they would represent "Catholic Pacifism." With this announcement, for the first time we had Catholic pacifism in the United States.

The authors of American Catholic Pacifism describe how Dorothy incorporated ideas from Catholic teaching into her pacifist stand. She remembered lines from the Baltimore Catechism (so recently studied for her conversion), such as "all human beings who share in God's grace are temples of the Holy Ghost." The Catholic Worker carried articles throughout the thirties by Pope Pius XI, who vigorously attacked nationalism as a source of war. One could understand that the Catholic Workers were saddened at his death and ran banner headlines about the death of their beloved Pope. Klejment and Roberts point out how Dorothy later on found inspiration in Pope Pius XII's encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943) with its beautiful teaching about the bonds of unity between the members, actual and potential, of the Mystical Body of Christ, who should not have bombs dropped on them.

The authors tell us that she "distinguished in The Catholic Worker between true and false pacifism, the former using traditional, spiritual weapons like prayer and reception of the sacraments to actively resist evil." Dorothy went so far as to say, "If we are not going to use our spiritual weapons, let us by all means arm and prepare." Editorials in the 1939 Catholic Worker exhorted all the Worker houses to recite the Rosary daily for peace--not for victory. Catholic Workers were going to daily Mass and making the Stations of the Cross in parish churches for peace.

Several authors describe the penitential quality of the pacifism of the Catholic Worker, which emphasized "the spiritual principle that penance and suffering freely and willingly undertaken by the individual, and prayerfully offered up for the good of others could effect change beyond the life of the individual doing the penance." They emphasize that this quality clearly distinguished Dorothy Day's pacifism from the religious pacifism of the Fellowship of Reconciliaton (of which she was a member) and the American Friends Service Committee, " which were more rooted in the Social Gospel notion of corporate responsibility."

The authors always emphasize that Dorothy located her pacifism within the vision of Maurin's Christian personalism, "where the decision rested with the individual and was not dependent on historical circumstances" and the profound belief that there was a power beyond history--Jesus Christ. This faith vision gave Dorothy strength and hope for a long-term commitment. The editors of this book remind readers that "As a young secular radical, Day was overwhelmed by the failure of the Left to make a difference. But as a Catholic radical, the many spiritual gifts she received from her rekindled faith encouraged perseverance and boldness in her opposition to war."

Dorothy Day vs. the Americanists

Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker stepped into uncharted waters in U. S. Catholicism with a public commitment to Gospel pacifism and the specific stands taken against war. Given the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States and the accusation that loyalty to the pope was treasonous, it had been difficult for Catholics, many of whom were immigrants, to go against the American mainstream, even it it meant going to war. This desire for acceptance had created an almost superpatriotism in American Catholics to prove their allegiance to the U.S.

This superpatriotism created something dubbed "Americanism" in theology and church life. Dorothy Day did not adopt this superpatriotic stance, but brought her faith to critique her country's actions in the light of the Gospel.

The first Catholic peace organization in the U.S. was "Americanist." Started in 1927 by Msgr. John A. Ryan, the Catholic Association for International Peace, it was given space at the National Catholic Welfare Conference headquarters in Washington, D.C., and claimed to be the "official" organization on peace for the Catholic Church in the U.S. American Catholic Pacifism contrasts the positions of the two groups: The CAIP looked to the nation-state as the "arbiter and authority on issues like war and peace," used the just-war doctrine to justify support for the Roosevelt administration in entering World War II and criticized the pacifist position. The CAIP "supported the war effort and did not help any individual who objected to World War II, whether they registered their dissent within the law or were resisters." The CAIP did not address the moral questions of obliteration bombing and even supported Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb.

Dorothy took unpopular stands in a prophetic witness which took a severe toll on the Catholic Worker movement, where opposition within the movement caused the closing of the majority of the houses. She based her pacifism and her stand against conscription in articles on the Sermon on the Mount, calling it The Christian Manifesto. She encouraged individuals to embrace the gospel of peace, in opposition to the state when conscience required, and even asked workers not to work in the armaments industry (See photo of Bishop Matthiesen in this issue) or in any work that did not build up the common good. With her strong spiritual and theological roots, Dorothy, through The Catholic Worker, facilitated the formation of the consciences of many people in regard to war and peace.

World War II

World War I was fought as the war to end all wars. So war was unpopular, e.e., until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then many who had been against war changed; they found Dorothy's opposition to World War II not only unfathomable, but unforgiveable.

During the Second World War, as later during the Vietnam War, she opened the pages of The Catholic Worker not only to pacifists, but to theologians who used the just-war doctrine to reach pacifist conclusions.

The conditions for a just war elaborated by theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, were: War must be declared by a competent authority. There must be a just cause for engaging in war; that is, a grave wrong to be corrected or right to be defended. Pope Pius XII added that, owing to the increasing destructiveness of nuclear weapons, war could not be waged morally except as an act of self-defense. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. War must be waged only as a last resort after all peaceful means have been exhausted. A war can be fought legitimately only if its purpose is to achieve a just end.

Rather than abandon the just-war theory, Dorothy used it to condemn all modern war in the light of the technology of mass destruction.

Fr. Hugo told Dorothy Day to get herself a theology of nonviolence. He wrote to her, "No doubt pacifism is all clear to you; but then you have not tried to work it out doctrinally. If you knew no theology, it would probably be simpler to make a solution. Yet the decision must be based on doctrine. Pacifism must proceed from truth, or it cannot exist at all." The Catholic Worker ran many articles by Fr. Hugo and other theologians, such as Msgr. Barry O'Toole of Catholic University.

Other articles quoted Pope Pius XII on the rights of conscience in the modern nation-state, as well as the words of various priests, bishops and cardinals who raised issues about conscription and war.

The Rationale for World War II

The Workers did not consider World War II an aberration or simply a reaction to the evils of Nazism, but a part of an historical reality which included what happened to Germany after World War I, as well as capitalists "eager to turn a profit from the armaments business." The authors cite Dorothy's 1939 editorial "We are to Blame for New War in Europe," where blame was placed on the shoulders of all, for "their materialism, their greed, their idolatrous nationalism...for their ruthless subjection of another country." The authors point out that this is no mere "appeasement wrapped in Catholic theology," but a call for a fundamental transformation of the world economic and social order.

The argument that World War II was fought to save the Jews and therefore was a good war did not hold water with Dorothy Day, who simply responded that it didn't save the Jews, as is clear by the numbers incinerated. During the war the United States refused to accept even those Jews who were legal refugees (90% of quotas went unfulfilled) for fear of overloading the labor market.

One wonders why Rolf Hochhuth (The Deputy) never wrote a play about President Roosevelt and the American Congress, depicting them wringing their hands worrying about the Jews escaping death camps coming to the United States and overloading the labor market. It is a bit strange that Hochhuth, who wrote other books considered total nonsense (e.g., that Winston Churchill ordered the death of the Polish General Siborski) and from that time on has never been taken seriously as a historian, could write slanders against Pius XII that continue to be cited to this day. Dorothy defended Pius XII and quoted him often in the name of peace and pacifism.

The end of World War II, presented as a war to end all wars, brought not the peace that had been hoped for, but the cold war and a nearly constant threat of war with nuclear weapons.

Through her courageous stand throughout World War II and later wars, Dorothy gave to Catholic men and women an option for peace which they didn't have previously. In the future Catholic young people in the future may not be pressured to give their lives in wars to "make peace." They are supported by the Church in taking a stand against war.

The Catholic Worker, Gandhi and Active Nonviolence

Gandhi's great ideas on active nonviolence and his appeal to great masses of oppressed people offered much in terms of engagement with the world for pacifists. However, it was not automatically clear exactly what this meant to different groups which adopted the idea and how compatible all of these interpretations might be with the Catholic Worker movement's ethical and religious outlook.

American Catholic Pacifism shows how Catholic Workers evaluated actions by other groups they considered joining forces with in the light of Catholic teaching. The Catholic Worker declared that even some advocates of active nonviolence took their positions "from an individualism that may err in positing complete liberty as an end in itself." This libertarianism was "contrary to a properly Catholic understanding of both objective morality and the purpose of human freedom."

The Catholic Workers did adapt Gandhian nonviolence in their active resistance, and incorporated it into the development of the theology of Catholic pacifism, even suggesting that it could apply to the just war theory as one of the peaceful methods that must be tried before war was declared.

Profound Evangelical Skepticism--John Paul II

Pope John Paul II has been able to take the theological discussion of war and peace beyond a disagreement between pacifism and just war doctrine. William Portier tells us, "While leaving the door open a crack for the serious possibility of "humanitarian intervention" the Pope seems possessed at the same time of a profound evangelical skeptisicm about using force as a means of securing justice. This skepticism is evident in both his opposition to the Gulf War and his extreme reluctance to urge international military intervention in Bosnia" (Communio, Spring 1996).

In the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II raises the same doubts about war as he did about the death penalty and Portier notes that he places among the signs of hope at many levels of public opinion that there is a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war.

Pope John Paul, speaking on war and using the symbolism of Isaiah of the lion and the lamb, reasoned that the commandments and the beatitudes must lie down together. This results in a corresponding evangelical realism, "which challenges us to mean it truly when we pray to be delivered from war, or when we say that Jesus is suffering among the people in Bosnia or that, because he has come into the world, war is not inevitable."

On the eve of the Gulf War in widely publicized letters to Presidents Bush and Hussein, the Holy Father pleaded with them to recognize the futility of recourse to war. Between August 2, 1990 and March 1991, the Pope condemned the war fifty-six times.

Portier notes that together with Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, if the Pope is not saying "Just War No More," he has come very close.