Dorothy Day was an American journalist turned social activist. She was a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church, and along with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1897. The Days moved to San Francisco, California. She and her family survived the 1906 earthquake and its aftermath. Following the horrific ordeal, they moved to a tenement flat in the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. That was a huge step down in their lifestyle, but necessary because Dorothy's father was out of work. Thus was born her understanding of the shame people feel when they fail.
Dorothy's father found a position as a sports editor of a Chicago newspaper, so the family moved to the North Side into a nicer home. She began to read books that awakened her conscience with thoughts of people who were not as fortunate as she. She read Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, which inspired her to take walks in the poor side of Chicago. It was the beginning of a life-long attraction to the areas that most people would avoid.
Higher education and work
Day won an academic scholarship, then enrolled in the University of Illinois in 1914. Her reading tended to lean in a socially radical direction. Day insisted on fending for herself, not wanting her father to support her. She dropped out of college two years later and moved to New York City.
Day found work as a reporter with the city’s socialist daily paper, the Call. She covered demonstrations and rallies, and interviewed a wide range of people — from butlers to revolutionaries. Day took a position with the magazine The Masses, which opposed American involvement in the European war. Five editors were charged with sedition as a result of a federal investigation. She was not charged.
In 1917, Day went to prison for protesting women’s exclusion from the electorate. She was taken to a rural workhouse along with 39 other women with the same charge. They were not treated well and went on a hunger strike. The women were finally freed by a presidential order.
By 1922, Day was living in Chicago, working as a reporter. She had three young women as roommates, who attended Mass every Sunday and set time aside every day to pray. It became obvious to Day that "worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication ... were the noblest acts of which we are capable in this life."
Day moved back to New York in 1924. She commenced a four-year common-law marriage with Forester Batterham, an anarchist who was against marriage and religion. Day’s belief in God was steadfast by then, which caused the couple to argue.
Day discovered she was pregnant, and that, in her opinion, was a miracle. She believed she was barren from an illegal abortion years earlier as the outcome of an affair with a journalist. The abortion's aftermath was the subject of her novel The Eleventh-Virgin. Her daughter, Tamar Theresa Day, was born in March 1927. Day had her daughter baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. That act was the end of her relationship with Forester.
In 1932, Dorothy Day met Peter Maurin, a French immigrant was working as a handyman at a Catholic boys' camp in upstate New York. Together they founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. The idea was to publicize Catholic social teaching and promote steps to bring about the peaceful transformation of society. The movement began with the Catholic Worker newspaper.
Their first "House of Hospitality," which served poor and marginalized people, opened in the winter of 1933 in the slums of New York City. The idea quickly spread to other cities and then into Canada, the United Kingdom, and more than 30 communities had been founed by 1941. There are well over 100 communities today all over the world.
Catholic Workers also acted on Maurin's proposal to establish "agronomic universities," or farming communes. He settled in Mary Farm, a 10-acre parcel the Catholic Worker community had purchased in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1938. The results were mixed at best. Dorothy Day sadly observed that less work got done, the more people showed up. Sharp disagreements arose over small matters. Maurin got stuck with the chores, because other "workers" preferred to philosophize. Part of the farm was sold in 1944; the remainder was given away. Other agronomic universities were founded, but served more as farmhouses of hospitality than agricultural communes. The Peter Maurin Farm still exists, however, in Marlborough, New York.
Publishing peace and justice
Over the following many years, Day participated in protests against war-making activities, and demonstrations for peace and justice. She wound up in jail on many of those occasions. Day was 75 years old the last time she was jailed for picketing. She never strayed from her beliefs.
Day continued to write prolifically, and was quoted numerous times. One adage that distilled much of her radical Christian outlook was, "The best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them up."
Day published her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, in 1952. She later published her account of the Catholic Worker movement, in Loaves and Fishes in 1963, and in 1972, she issued On Pilgrimage: The Sixties.
Death of a servant
Dorothy Day died on 29th November, 1980, in New York City.
She was proposed for sainthood by the Claretian Missionaries in 1983. That became the cause of controversy, because some thought she was unworthy, owing to the moral transgressions she committed in her youth. However, in March 2000, the Holy See granted the Archdiocese of New York permission to bestow upon her the title, Servant of God, given to a member of the Roman Catholic Church for whom the pope (in this instance, the late John Paul II) opens a cause of sainthood.
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