Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement


Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed. –Psalm 85:10

If ever there was a person in our times who lived this Bible verse to the fullest, it was Dorothy Day.

Raised in an agnostic household at the turn of the 20th century, Dorothy Day possessed an unusual spiritual awareness from her earliest years. She first sensed the awesome power of God at the age of 8, during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Somehow the rest of her family had evacuated the house together, and she was left alone, terrified in her bed as it rocked back and forth on the floor.

In the following days, the mature young girl was moved by the compassion that her neighbors, who had rarely interacted prior to the disaster, now showered upon one another as they shared what little they had and helped each other rebuild their lives.

As a teenager, she went to church by herself and was baptized an Episcopalian. She maintained her trust in the power of human compassion and as a college student became a Socialist. However, the disconnect between the noble ideals of the “revolution” and the debauched lives of her fellow comrades led to disillusionment. A divorce, an affair, and an illegal abortion devastated her. Finally, at the age of 30, Dorothy Day discovered the Catholic Church.

She had been living with a man, an atheist, with whom she had had a child. When Dorothy made the decision to have her daughter baptized in the Catholic faith, and then herself join the Church a few months later, it meant the end of that relationship, which had been for Dorothy a great source of love and happiness, and the end of her connection to the Communist party.

Alone in the world, a single mother on the eve of the Great Depression, Dorothy Day, a journalist by trade, began writing for Catholic periodicals and trying to integrate her new faith with her lifelong desire to make the world a better place for the common man.

In 1932, she met Peter Maurin, a French philosopher-laborer who shared her love for the faith and the poor, and with whom she founded the Catholic Worker movement, a lay organization dedicated to serving the poor through the works of mercy and making known the social teachings of the Church to the world, especially the working man, whom she knew was powerfully attracted to the false promise of class revolution.

She and Peter published the Catholic Worker newspaper, opened soup kitchens and homeless shelters across the country, and organized communal farms with the eventual goal of helping working class people move out of cities and onto self-sufficient family farms.

Throughout the rest of her long life, Dorothy argued that she was “not expecting Utopia here on this earth. But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”

I read Dorothy’s book On Pilgrimage, a journal of her life through the year 1948, when I was first looking into the Catholic faith. Her beautiful writing, her love of literature, and the integration of her intellectual, spiritual, and activist life was very appealing to me as a young person, and it’s still one of my favorite books.

So I was thrilled to see On Pilgrimage turn up on the reading list for my book club, and I spent all of Lent rereading that book and several others about her life.

On Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day’s personal reflections on her faith, the spiritual foundation of her movement, and the beauty of family life as she experienced it as a grandmother awaiting the birth of her daughter’s third child.

This modern edition includes a long biographical introduction by Mark and Louise Zwick, directors of the Houston Catholic Worker.

Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, by Robert Coles

A biography by a psychiatrist who volunteered at Catholic Worker houses towards the end of Dorothy’s life. Much of the book is transcripts of long interviews Dr. Coles recorded with Dorothy about her motivations and her spiritual struggles. I listened to this book on audio, read by a woman, and it often felt like I was actually listening to recordings of Dorothy herself. Her honesty about the struggle between the ideal of love of neighbor and the reality of the difficulty of loving the actual neighbor in front of you was very powerful.

Dorothy Day: A Catholic Life of Action, by Maura Shaw

A good biography for children, with lots of photographs. I included it in William’s unit on the Great Depression. He was excited to see our copy of the Houston Catholic Worker newspaper arrive in the mail while he was reading this book.

The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, ed. by Robert Ellsburg

I skimmed through this very long volume and looked up topics in the index that particularly interested me. I especially appreciated reading the journal entries of the last few years of her life. She kept writing in her journal until just a week or so before she died in 1980.

There are incidents recorded in the journals that she never spoke about publicly, such as her lifelong correspondence with her atheist former lover, the father of her daughter. He asked Dorothy if she would care for his current lover when the woman was dying of cancer. Dorothy agreed, assisted in her hospice care, and the woman asked to be baptized on her deathbed.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, by Paul Elie

This book advertised itself as the story of the friendship of four influential American Catholic writers–Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. From the book jacket, I got the impression that these four writers were something of an American Inklings writing group.

Well, they weren’t, so this book was a bit of a disappointment (actually a very long, verbose disappointment!). Each of the writers knew of the others but by no means did the four of them “ardently read one another’s books” or carry on a vigorous correspondence as the book’s jacket copy proclaims.

Dorothy said she was “too old” to understand Walker Percy and didn’t make any comment on Flannery O’Connor that I could find. She did exchange letters with Thomas Merton in the 1960s, and certainly she was famous enough that the three other writers knew who she was. Percy and O’Connor met once, briefly, but it didn’t sound like she particularly liked his novels either. O’Connor was intrigued by Merton, but overall I have to say there was false advertising on the back of this book.


Here are a few favorite quotes from On Pilgrimage:

On the difficulty of finding time to pray while helping her daughter care for two toddlers:

Men always–I am sure from my experience in the past–wonder what women do with their time. My son-in-law is too polite to say so, but I am sure he thinks, “Two women to two children and one house!” But the work never ends…

On the way to town Becky got sick and vomited all over herself and me and the car, which means more washing and cleaning. She had insisted on helping with the bread-baking and eaten large hunks of whole-wheat dough, apples, topped by milk, potatoes, and baked cabbage for lunch.

Home just in time for supper, and more dishes and bottles and undressings and so on. Not to speak of their innumerable rescues from imminent danger all through the day from the time they wake until the time they sleep.

How to lift the heart to God, our first beginning and last end, except to say with the soldier about to go into battle–“Lord, I’ll have no time to think of Thee but do Thou think of me.”

On leaving her daughter after the birth of her baby:

So now tomorrow I start off again ‘on pilgrimage,’ for we have here no abiding city. Much as we may want to strike our roots in, we are doomed to disappointment and unhappiness unless we preserve our detachment. It is the paradox of the Christian life, to hate father and mother, sister and brother and children on the one hand, if they stand between us and God, and on the other to follow the teaching of St. Paul: “If any man have not care of his own, and especially those of his house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel,” not to be solicitous for the things of the world, and yet to do everything with love, for the love of God.

On returning to New York City after a stay in the country:

It is always a terrible thing to come back to Mott Street. To come back in a driving rain, to men crouched on the stairs, huddled in doorways, without overcoats because they sold them perhaps the week before when it was warm, to satisfy hunger or thirst–who knows? Those without love would say, “It serves them right, drinking up their clothes.” God help us if we got just what we deserved!

Find more great book recommendations at Jessica’s.