Controversial "Saint" Befriends Motley Poets

by Richard Kovac

I didn't expect to ever be doing hagiography, an ugly looking word for writing the history of a saint. But since it appears that Dorothy Day, whom I knew a little, will someday be canonized a saint, in writing this fragment I've become a hagiographer.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) with Frenchman Peter Maurin, co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which now has near to 200 houses worldwide. She was against the Vietnam war, and so was I, at a time when American Catholics weren't supposed to be against the war, and were harassed by those who believed Catholicism and pacifism mixed poorly.

I went to the Catholic Worker on Christie Street in Manhattan in search of support, and found that Dorothy Day had led Catholic pacifists for years. But she was very ecumenical, and also supported Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King. Some of those who sought Dorothy liked her as much for the radical she had been before her conversion, as for the works of hospitality and charity the Catholic Worker had been performing among the poor since the depression.

The Catholic Worker community was like a monastic institution without vows, with a strong emphasis on sharing the life of the poor. I joined Dorothy for vespers several times at the later Catholic Worker house on East First Street - which is still thriving, and where the Catholic Worker newspaper continues to be published, selling for a penny a copy. "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior...." I don't think Dorothy neglected vespers for the last forty years of her life.

Although a contradiction to many because of the contradictory nature of the times, she was also a clear sign of devotion to the church and its bishops. She disliked the kind of "chic" liturgy that used a dirty coffee mug for communion wine, and once said that if women were ordained priests, the church would become a ladies' tea social. (My own young reaction was how can you change a ladies' tea social into a ladies' tea social.) She was friendly to the rejected, including gays, without like some, pretending to justify homosexuality.

She was no reputable "hag" for the purposes of hagiography. She had been "in" in radical circles, dated Eugene O'Neil - and continued her friendship with radicals and her sympathy with the struggling poet or playwright. Her early reputation was as a journalist. She also wrote briefly for Hollywood.

I went with Dorothy to the trial of a young draft resister in New Jersey in 1968. If anything, Dorothy was chagrined when the young man accepted a compromise with authorities of probation. In Southeast Asia that same day, there were hundreds in the deep pits known as "tiger caves", and mothers and infants were seared by napalm and white phosphorus. She opposed civil defense measures. Once after being jailed, she wrote of terrible conditions in the Women's House of Detention.

Dorothy seemed adjusted to a life of poverty and rubbing elbows on an hourly basis with the most wretched. During my brief stay at the Catholic Worker, she shared a two room apartment in a tenement with a street lady she had rescued.

Dorothy once asked me to hold her cane. I did so, spinning it so it made a circle without falling. This amused her, but I was sure it was auspicious of the great things in store for me. She was seldom amused tho, and most of the time seemed sober and serious, in touch with the suffering of others.

"Poverty is nice when you have some money," Max Nix once cynically concluded. The existence of a Catholic Worker volunteer can be as excruciating as a street person's. But Dorothy rejoiced in her poverty.

The transformation of Dorothy Day from a radical journalist who had an abortion, to the leading voice of conscience among Catholics - at least among the laity, for Dorothy had never taken any vows - was greatly assisted by Peter Maurin. Maurin wrote the brilliant "Easy Essays", a prophetic analysis of society during the great depression, based on the social teachings of the church. Maurin's life was so poor that once, when he arrived to deliver a lecture, he was ignored because he was mistaken for a tramp. Dorothy was always impeccably neat in spite of the duress of her poverty.

The best biography of Dorothy Day is by William Miller, formerly of Marquette University, where the Catholic Worker archives are located.

So much for my vignette of hagiography - a brief synopsis. Surely there were a thousand who knew Dorothy Day better than I, who only served soup to the poor on a dozen occasions.

I used to think they had canonized Dorothy Day before her departure from us, and that the last thing she needed was someone else hanging on. About being canonized a saint, she said, "I would not want to be dismissed so readily." The last thing she said to me was, "Pass the butter."

I've left out most of her virtues to emphasize the sensational or droll. The best way to get acquainted with Dorothy Day is to read her autobiography, "The Long Loneliness", and other books by her and others that resulted from the practice of Christian hospitality and works of mercy in the Catholic Worker Movement. An atheist can be a Catholic Worker and may get to heaven that way.

"We have no party line," is a Catholic Worker motto, although many of her followers have deviated from her orthodoxy. In any case, there are thousands who follow Dorothy Day in helping the poor and stranded - to use her own phrase - on "blind and naked faith".

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