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Dorothy Day as remembered by a friend


Courtesy of Geoffrey Gneuhs

Geoffrey Gneuhs - published on 12/08/21

Geoffrey Gneuhs served as chaplain to Dorothy Day and the New York Catholic Worker and offered the eulogy at her funeral in December,

On December 8, Cardinal Timothy Dolan will celebrate Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City honoring Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and marking the conclusion of the diocesan phase of her canonization cause.

On this day  in 1932 Dorothy Day, a recent convert to Catholicism, was at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, where in her words “with tears and anguish,” she prayed that God would open up for her a way to use her talents “for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

The next day, in New York City, a man named Peter Maurin, a former Christian Brother teacher, French émigré, a kind of vagabond Union Square orator, twenty years her senior, arrived at Day’s apartment. Unannounced and unknown to her, he became her teacher and mentor. No two lives could have been more opposite in their personal histories and experiences and yet, as she later wrote, “His spirit and ideas [would]…dominate the rest of my life.”

Maurin introduced her to the lives of the saints, including Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, and Thomas Aquinas and the doctrine of the common good; to the papal encyclicals on social justice and the economic order, and to the corporal works of mercy; to the writings and ideas of G.K. Chesterton; and to the philosophy of personalism of Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain. In the depths of the Great Depression, they started a monthly newspaper, The Catholic Worker, first published on May 1, 1933—as counterpoint to the Communist Daily Worker—and then opened “houses of hospitality” for the homeless and marginalized as well as farming communes, hoping to build a “new society with the shell of the old.”

The years before her conversion in 1927 Day had written for various leftist magazines, and was very much part of the Greenwich Village life of 1920s New York counting Eugene O’Neil, Malcolm Cowley, Max Eastman as friends. O’Neil, in a drunken stupor, she recalled, would recite verbatim Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of God” while they drank in the backroom of the Golden Swan, now a park of the same name, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Fourth Street.

She had many loves and great disappointments; she had an abortion. She wrote a novel, sold the rights to Hollywood, and then lived in Staten Island with her common-law husband Forster Batterham. She bore his child, a daughter named Tamar Teresa, whom Day had baptized shortly before she herself received baptism. Day’s new faith and her own desire required that she and Forster be married in the Church. An atheist, he refused and they separated.

In her memoir, The Long Loneliness, she writes that she was tired of “floundering…and had a longing for God, for true happiness….I never regretted for one minute…in becoming a Catholic.”

Her new life in faith, as she called it a pilgrimage, took form and direction from the momentous meeting with Maurin.

Day was a strict pacifist and encountered in the 1930s and 1940s criticism and censure from some members of the Church hierarchy as well as from Maurin, himself, and Catholic Worker members during World War II, several of whom went off to fight, but afterward returned to help at the various communities for the poor and homeless throughout the country.

In 1948 the gravediggers at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, New York, went on strike, against their employer the archdiocese of New York, that is, Cardinal Spellman. Catholic Workers brought food to the families of the strikers and stood on the picket line with them. Spellman ordered his seminarians to dig the graves; in effect he broke the strike. Day had written him earlier stating that the men were not only asking for better wages and conditions but “for their dignity…the right to have a union and…to talk over their grievances.” Spellman never responded to her.

During the mid-1950s Day and others went to City Hall Park and read the Bible, protesting the mandated air raid drills in which all citizens were to seek shelter, which Day argued perpetuated a war mentality that normalized the nuclear arms race. The protests grew each year until the government stopped its policy.

In the 1960s she stood with draft-resisters and protestors of the Viet Nam War, and in 1973 she joined Caesar Chavez and the farmworkers in California in 1973.

An unreconstructed pacifist, Day was also a fierce critic of the modern bureaucratic nation state, the welfare state. “Holy Mother the State,” she called it. Writing in February 1945 she declared “We believe that the social security legislation now hailed as a great victory for the poor and the worker is a great defeat for Christianity.” Christ, as she knew, never told Caesar to care for the poor.  The works of mercy were for her the way to peace.

The Catholic faith made Day; the sacraments—especially the Holy Eucharist—nourished her. In the story of her conversion, From Union Square to Rome, Day posed this to her brother John, an atheist: “I will choose Him [God] and hold fast to Him. For who else is there? Would you have me choose Nothingness?”

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