Sunday, November 16, 1997
In the clatter of spoons on soup bowls and excited voices absorbed into murmurs in the smoke-filled first-floor kitchen of St. Joseph House last week, it was hard to tell the poor from their helpers.
The house was not unlike a home, its inhabitants restless siblings in an uncommonly large family, which was as Dorothy Day would have it.
They are, after all, her children continuing her life’s work.
A couple of dozen people had taken shelter for the night in the five-story hostel on First St. in the heart of the Bowery, and another couple of hundred poor and homeless, society’s derelicts and rejects, had just been fed that day.
It has been 100 years, almost to the day, since Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn Heights, and 17 years since she died at her movement’s Maryhouse for women at 55 E. Third St.
Her life encompassed a breathtaking pilgrimage, including a period of fast living that gave way to an ascetic, intellectual and spiritual quest that seared generations of Roman Catholics.
By 30, she had run with the suffragettes and had drunk intellectuals under the table in Greenwich Village. After the birth of her daughter in 1927, Day converted to Catholicism.
In 1933, with mentor Peter Maurin, she started The Catholic Worker movement and the newspaper of the same name.
Reared an Episcopalian, she practiced a brand of Catholicism leavened by her earlier radicalism that scorched the Church’s leaders with its purity.
She took to heart the Sermon on the Mount, living among and as one of the poor, as the Bible said Christians should.
But it was her pacifism, social activism and philosophy of nonviolence that often brought her in conflict with the Church’s hierarchy and with governments everywhere. It would lead to her being jailed and fined numerous times in New York and elsewhere.
Supporters like Jesuit priest the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, a friend of Day and an ardent peace activist, said the Church eventually adopted some of her pacifism, but it never was an easy fit.
“They couldn’t sleep at night with Dorothy around,” Berrigan said.
“The Church was very uncomfortable with her. The Church was officially silent all during the Vietnam War and approved the Second World War. She said no war.”
In the very same Catholic Church she drove to distraction with her radicalism, the air now is filled with talk of sainthood for her.
Such talk sets the teeth of Day disciples such as Carmen Trotta and Joanne Kennedy on edge.
Day’s granddaughter Kate Hennessy, in a rueful reminiscence in a recent issue of The Catholic Worker, explained the wariness in her own way.
She said her grandmother turned the life of poverty into something dynamic, full of richly simple moments. But the “impulse to send her off into sainthood, which can be as lethal as complete rejection,” risks placing her beyond the reach of average folks, she said.
In Trotta and Kennedy and countless other young people of conscience who continue to commit to the movement, Day could not have found more faithful followers.
Kennedy, who aspired to be a criminal defense attorney, bagged law school after completing the first year at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
“I was starting to lose faith in that, anyway,” she said.
As others tidied up after a meal at St. Joe’s, as the movement’s unpaid staff calls the place at 36 E. First St., Trotta sat sharing smokes and enduring good-natured ribbing from Kennedy.
At another table, next to a stack of recent issues of the movement’s 1-cent newspaper, The Catholic Worker, Gerry Howard talked to a couple of indifferent companions.
Kennedy, 29, was chatting about the movement’s work with the poor and an ideal of personal responsibility.
“I believe that each person takes care of the other,” she said. “It is not about evangelization, not about making people feel like they are getting a handout, or even about me feeling good about myself because I’m doing this thing. It is about the dignity of every human being.”
Kennedy came to the New York City Catholic Worker community seven months ago from another one in Des Moines.
About 125 hospitality houses, farms and communes inspired by Day are now spread across the nation and seven countries.
Howard, 48, lived in the abyss of homelessness for nine years, including six in the subway tunnels near the St. Joseph House. Transit police officers roused him from sleep daily in time for him to get on the soup line at the hospitality house, where he found his salvation.
Walking down First St. one day 2 1/2 years ago, wracked with the pain of his myriad sufferings, Howard said he burst into uncontrollable sobbing.
“I was trying to figure out why my life was going the way it had gone for so long and wanted a way to turn it around,” he said.
A staffer beckoned him inside and allowed him into the basement, where he spent a couple of hours crying and begging God and pleading with his parents, long dead, to forgive him for the shame that was his life at the time.
Six months later, he walked back into the life of a son that, because of his addiction to crack, he had never seen. He has been clean since and now has a job at an antique shop. He continues to live at the house as he puts back together pieces of a life shattered by addiction.
The movement does not consider the assistance the shelter shared with Howard as charity.
Trotta decries the practice in some churches in the city where they set aside a few cots a night for the poor and homeless only to turn them out in the morning.
“The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor,” Trotta said. “Someone said, ‘You must pray that the poor forgive you the charity you give them,’ because in reality all that the Earth contains is meant for us to share.”
The ideal that Dorothy Day lived, and which The Catholic Worker movement continues to practice, Trotta said, is that “each Christian conscious of a duty in the Lord . . . should take in one of the homeless as an honored guest into their homes.
She Urged Action, Duty
Trotta, behind the desk later in the day at the Mary Gearhart Gallery at 252 Mott St., where an exhibit of Day’s photographs and writings are on display through Dec. 7, railed against the American government, the World Bank, the greed of American corporations and society’s complacency in the face of injustices everywhere.
Reared a Catholic and a rock-ribbed Republican in Inwood, L.I., Trotta came to the movement disillusioned with the lies of American history and the Church. Private studies, he said, allowed him to shed his “mindless conservatism” and led him to The Catholic Worker movement.
Some visitors to the exhibit, devotees of Mother Teresa, departed, and Trotta mentioned how someone called Day “The Mother Teresa of Mott St.” in a recent article on Cardinal O’Connor’s assertion that he would begin the formal process to declare Day a saint.
Trotta did not take the comment as a compliment to Day.
“I am not speaking against Mother Teresa . . . ” he said, “but I have a devotion to the sort of sharpness of Dorothy Day, that doing of charity that didn’t come at the expense of justice, of speaking out about justice.”
Making Dorothy Day a saint could allow people to shirk this duty that she expects of them, some of her supporters say.
“I don’t care to be dismissed so easily,” she had said when during her own life people thrust sainthood on her.
Patrick Jordan, the managing editor of Commonweal magazine, who lived at St. Joseph House from 1969 to 1975, said making her a saint would be good if it meant that her whole life would be taught, not just the part that the Church finds comfortable.
“When the lives of the saints are recounted, often you only hear certain aspects of those lives,” Jordan said.
“If you study more deeply, you find out that some of these people were very challenging, not only to individuals and society, but to the Church itself.”
Day’s pacifism, her real attempt to love her neighbor, sacrifice herself for just causes, place herself in God’s hands and pray for her persecutor, were all a real part of her legacy.
“If those aspects of her life were forgotten because of her canonization,” Jordan said, “then that would be a loss to the whole Church.”
Said Berrigan: “Anyone who knew Dorothy or has done any reading of what she wrote would say she is already a saint. She doesn’t need this official kind of mark on her life.”
The Road to Sainthood
A long-time friend of Dorothy Day’s likened the Catholic Church’s canonization ritual to shooting someone out of a cannon.
Some of the early Christians did come by sainthood in a sudden and violent fashion, but today the Catholic Church puts candidates through a complex, decades-long saint-making ritual.
- The process begins with a local bishop, in this case, Cardinal O’Connor, confirming the local fame of a servant of God for good works or martyrdom after examining evidence gathered by an informal guild of supporters. That examination, even before the process moves to Rome, can take years. O’Connor is about to embark on that process.
- A bishop then will argue the person’s cause before a Congregation of the Causes of Saints, which will investigate the candidate’s heroic practice of virtues in a trial-like setting. Success at this level would lead to the candidate being declared “venerable.”
- The candidate would be deemed “blessed” when two provable miracles occur in his or her name after death.
- A third miracle would allow the person’s cause to be taken up again so he or she could be canonized as a saint.