The Catholic Worker is just around the corner from my rectory, and ever since I moved to that neighborhood on the Lower East Side, I have felt blessed by the proximity. I should really say Catholic Workers, with an s, because there are actually two Worker communities a stone’s throw from each other. One is St. Joseph House, the community for men on East First Street. The other is Maryhouse for women on East Third Street. Each community is a combination of volunteers and older men and women in need of some help in getting around. In addition, each house provides various forms of outreach in the form of clothing and meals for those who come in from the street. On Saturday evenings, after Evening Prayer, one of the Maryhouse volunteers shows a video for residents and any neighborhood people who might happen by. I attend on most Saturdays, impressed at how easily the mingling of different kinds of people takes place those evenings.
I thought of the Catholic Workers especially last month, because Nov. 8 was the date Dorothy Day was born, and Nov. 29 was the 25th anniversary of her death. The latter was observed with a Mass followed by a talk by Robert Ellsberg, a former editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper and now editor in chief of Orbis Books. Dorothy, together with the movement’s co-founder, Peter Maurin, first began to distribute the newspaper on Union Square in 1933. It continues to be published regularly and is still sold for a token one cent. Its subscribers are all over the world. Recently a visitor from Zambia staying at Nativity asked to have his name put on the mailing list, so I gave the information to Frank Donovan, an octogenarian friend of Dorothy’s who is the paper’s business manager.
I first heard of Dorothy Day over 40 years ago from a friend who told me of her classic autobiography, The Long Loneliness. It describes her conversion to Catholicism and subsequent dedication to a life of service to the poor and the disenfranchised, lived out in accord with the principles of Gospel nonviolence—principles that led her to oppose war of all kinds—a stance that brought many to criticize her during World War II. Reading The Long Loneliness in the 1960’s and subsequently following her column in The Catholic Worker newspaper, On Pilgrimage, kept me abreast of her travels around the country and even abroad. She went to India with Eileen Egan and met Mother Teresa, who subsequently visited the Catholic Worker.
My first personal encounter with Dorothy Day occurred at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, N.Y., in the 1960’s, during a retreat led by her friend, the Rev. John Hugo. I had not yet entered religious life, and when I asked Father Hugo for suggestions about a congregation, he said, “It doesn’t matter which one.” But when the time came I joined the Jesuits, and that circumstance eventually led me to Nativity, where I first lived in the 1970’s and where I had the humbling experience, while celebrating Mass, of seeing Dorothy seated a few pews away in those modest surroundings. Dorothy’s presence at Nativity is still very much alive. In the little chapel used for weekday Mass, the first thing people see on entering is an icon-like drawing of her opposite the door. And with her friend Frank Donovan generally present for those late afternoon liturgies, one senses her abiding spirit.
Even at America, her spirit is also present through bound copies of articles she wrote for us in the early 1930’s. One, “Hunger Marchers in Washington,” appeared on Dec. 24, 1932, when the Great Depression was tightening its painful grip. Dorothy was there with the marchers, just as she was present in Tennessee in 1936 to lend support to a union trying to help evicted sharecroppers. That experience she described in an article that appeared in America on March 7, 1936, “Sharecroppers.” It begins: “It was seventeen above zero when we started out this morning,” and goes on to describe the misery and hunger of families with sick children, trying to survive in tents and barns.
Today, the neighborhood around the two Catholic Worker houses has been gentrified, and Dorothy would be saddened to know of the many displacements of low-income neighbors, driven out by the upward spiral of rents in tenements that once housed immigrants. But changes in the neighborhood notwithstanding, poor people know where to seek help, so they continue to find their way to both Worker houses, aware that they will receive not only material assistance, but the respectful welcome that distinguishes Catholic Worker houses across the country.