Seton Hall University

Inside the Core this Week: Dorothy Day  

Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa sitting and holding hands.During this point in the semester, most Core 1 classes are reading from a variety of modern and contemporary authors. Many classes are reading Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Day was born in 1897 and grew up without a lot of religious training, though her family was Episcopalian by name and inclination, though not church-going or actively religious. She recalls rarely, if ever, hearing the name of God mentioned. However, as a child, Day was drawn to faith through reading the Bible, where she says she met "a Person," and through the example of some neighbors who had religious faith (a Methodist family, and the Catholic mother of her good friend), she began to be drawn to some more formal religious practice and belief.

However, as a young woman, Day was drawn into the tumultuous world of radical politics and bohemian living in Greenwich Village, writing for leftist papers like The New Masses and socializing with a crowd of anarchists and writers, including Eugene O'Neil. Day lived with Forster Batterham, an anarchist and atheist, who became her common-law husband, and together they had a child, Tamar. The birth of Day's child gave her so much joy, she felt moved toward conversion, offering her joy and gratitude to God and feeling drawn to the Catholic Church. Day's decision to have Tamar baptized, followed by her own baptism some time later on, led to the breakup of her relationship with Batterham. This was a heart-wrenching situation for her, but she felt it was important to follow her new-found faith, for both herself and her daughter. She explains that she did not want her daughter to flounder morally as she had done.

Once a Catholic, Day became more radical in her commitment to the poor and to social justice, than she had been before. However, she did not know exactly how to proceed. After praying for guidance, she met Peter Maurin, a French peasant and devout believer, who had been led to Day through her writings for the journal Commonweal. Together, they founded the Catholic Worker. This movement consists, to this day, of two major components – the paper, called The Catholic Worker (still sold for only a penny) and "houses of hospitality," modelled, as Maurin would explain, on the hospitality of monasteries and convents in the Middle Ages. People live in Catholic Worker houses as a community, consisting of volunteers (including some intellectuals, such as the Harvard psychologist Robert Coles, who lived and worked in a Catholic Worker house in NYC), as well as people off the streets. They hold all things in common, getting clothing from "the clothing room," and sharing meals together.

Another key attribute of the Catholic Worker movement is an intense commitment to social justice and peace. Day was arrested several times for her protests for workers' rights and for peace. She herself lived and died in Mary House on East Third Street in the East Village of NYC Her funeral was at the church of the Nativity, a Jesuit congregation around the corner from the house, though that church is now closed. Day wrote a lot, most notably Loaves and Fishes and The Long Loneliness, both optional texts for Core 1.

When Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress in Sept. 2015, he mentioned "four notable Americans." One of these was Dorothy Day (the others being Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton). King and Merton are among the modern texts of the Core, with King being required and Merton optional, like Day. Fr. James Martin says, though Day did not like being called a saint ("I don't want to be dismissed that easily," she would say!), after her death many people already felt she was one. Her cause, in fact, has been presented at Rome, and her official title is "Servant of God," a first step.

Categories: Faith and Service

For more information, please contact:

  • Nancy Enright
  • (973) 275-4847