My first real piece of journalism, written as a cover story for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine nearly 13 (gulp) years ago, and adapted from my journalism school masters project, was about the early effort to have Day canonized.
The Reluctant Saint
Will The Movement To Canonize Social Activist Dorothy Day Overshadow The Movement She Founded?
December 26, 1999
The message “Christ Died for Our Sins” looms in large letters above the Uptown Baptist Church on Wilson Avenue. Below, among the adult bookstores and hair-weave emporiums, men with shopping bags sit on corners, looking as if they need a shave and something to eat. Half a block north, on Kenmore Avenue, sits St. Francis of Assisi House—an oasis in the middle of what Chris Wilkey calls “the center of homelessness on the North Side.”
Wilkey is a Catholic Worker, one of a group of self-proclaimed anarchists living together at St. Francis, which the Workers call a house of hospitality and others would call a homeless shelter. Here, Workers and their guests adhere to the tenets established by the groups co-founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Most of those tenets involve serving the poor.
Wilkey and the other Workers serve dinner to anyone who wanders in each weeknight at 5:30. Much of the meal comes from the House’s back-yard vegetable garden, and when it can’t be grown in the back yard, the Workers rely on Chicago’s back alleys.
“Dumpster diving” provides such staples as yogurt, soy milk, pop, rice and pasta. “We know of some great dumpsters — especially in the suburbs where they don’t lock them up.”says Wilkey, a 28-year-old who, like his co-Workers, looks as if he might have been plucked from the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert.
A run-down yet cozy place littered with books (among them, “Steal This Urine Test” by Abbie Hoffman and “America, Inc.: Who Owns and Operates the U.S.?” by Morton Mintz and Jerry Cohen), St. Francis House celebrated its 25th anniversary as a Catholic Worker house of hospitality last fall. At any given time it houses 12 to 15 guests of both sexes and five unpaid Workers, who share rooms with the guests.
Seth Jensen, a student at Berea College in Kentucky, was one of the workers living in the house last summer. Clad in a T-shirt and plaid shorts with foppish locks and Sally Jessy-style glasses, Jensen looks like any other college student. But this student was fresh out of a stint in a Bridgman, Mich., jail on a misdemeanor trespass charge for protesting “nuclearism.”
“When I was in jail … or when I’m handing out leaflets, like poor people trying to sell a watch on the street, I feel a solidarity with those who society has cast off,” says Jensen. Asked if his life, like Day’s, is one of selfless giving, he demurs, “I’m not selfless. I get an incredible amount out of doing this. There’s a lot of joy in that house. Don’t think of me as a saint.”
Whether or not they know it, Wilkey and Jensen are walking testaments to the life Day lived and to the movement she founded. Day would have applauded Wilkey’s efficient use of available resources to feed the poor, and she would have championed Jensen for going to jail for his beliefs — something she did countless times in her life. Jensen’s voice even echoes what Day herself once said when asked if she thought she was a saint: “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Nearly 70 years ago Day, a journalist, Roman Catholic convert, political activist, pacifist and anarchist who had read Russian revolutionary literature, met Maurin, a French peasant, former Christian Brother, hobo and intellectual. Together they started a monthly newspaper in New York City dedicated to denouncing both capitalism and communism, and revealing injustice wherever they encountered it. They called their paper The Catholic Worker, sold it for a penny (which it still costs) and, with it, called out to church members to live up to a social doctrine the two felt was being ignored. Along the way, Day and Maurin began practicing what they preached. Influenced by Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, they started feeding and housing the poor, the drunk, the afflicted.
The Catholic Worker’s original house of hospitality on New York’s Lower East Side eventually spawned other Catholic Worker houses across the country. A movement began, and over the years, Day’s road toward sainthood ran alongside it.
Since she died in 1980 at age 84, Day’s life has been heralded by people from Catholic Workers to Catholic cardinals. Her life is celebrated in as many ways as there are people who claim her as their own, and the movement to have her canonized is controversial for as many reasons.
Her views about the Catholic Church often differed from those within the church itself. But her people — Catholic Workers, unionists, pacifists, suffragists, anarchists and, above all, the desperately poor — have clung to her memory as she once clung to her rosary and her beloved books.
Yet, it is the same church she often clashed with in life that has taken up Day’s cause in death. In a homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Nov. 9, 1997, marking Day’s 100th birthday, Cardinal John O’Connor, archbishop of New York, threw his diocese’s considerable weight behind the cause. Although many of Day’s friends and colleagues support canonization, they express ambivalence, even diffidence, about it.
“I don’t really know or care, to tell you the truth,” says one of Day’s closest friends, Nina Polcyn-Moore, who lives in Evanston. “Whether she gets canonized or not, it’s not too vital.”
Says another friend, Frank Donovan, a Catholic Worker at Maryhouse, a house of hospitality in New York, “So many other saints have been plasterized, and their messages get lost.”
Writers great and small have written about what Dorothy Day looked like, as if having happened upon one they should attempt to capture the essence of a saint while she’s still of this world — that elusive thing, a saint made real.
“Her face — patient, gentle and understanding,” wrote the critic Dwight Macdonald in a 1952 New Yorker profile, “might suggest a passive temperament were it not for her wide, mobile mouth and the expression of her eyes, which is at times dreamily remote, at times as naively expectant as a young girl’s, but always alive.”
“I remember the many evenings I would go to the office and pray the rosary with Dorothy and the members of the Catholic Worker. I was about 7 years old,” wrote Felicia D. Carl of Brooklyn in a letter to Salt of the Earth (Salt) magazine in 1987. “There was such a magic around this tall and, to me, beautiful lady who dressed funny.”
“An awesome woman, tall, lantern jawed, with Modigliani eyes,” wrote Garry Wills in Esquire in 1983.
The baby who would become that long, lean woman with striking eyes was born on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn on Nov. 8, 1897, the third of five children born to John and Grace Day. John Day, a sportswriter, moved the family to the West Coast when Dorothy was 6. Her father’s side of the family was Calvinist and her mother’s Episcopalian, but neither parent imposed any kind of religion on their children. It was at this time, however, that Dorothy first began to get a sense of the awesome power religion would have over her soul.
In her 1952 autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” Day wrote, “I began to be afraid of God, of death, of eternity. As soon as I closed my eyes at night the blackness of death surrounded me. I believed and yet I was afraid of nothingness. What would it be like to sink into that immensity? If I fell asleep, God became in my ears a great noise that became louder and louder and approached nearer and nearer to me until I woke up sweating with fear and shrieking for my mother.”
The Oakland newspaper John Day wrote for burned down during the earthquake of 1906, and he took a job as sports editor at the Inter-Ocean in Chicago. The family settled above a tavern on 37th Street near Cottage Grove Avenue.
It was in Chicago that Dorothy first learned about Catholicism. While living on the South Side, she became friendly with a Catholic girl who shared with her that religion’s different traditions.
“I do not know what saint it was, and I cannot remember any of the incidents of the life,” she wrote. “I only remember my feeling of lofty enthusiasm and how my heart almost burst with desire to take part in such high endeavor.”
When Day was 15, she began to identify more with the poor. She felt that a great injustice had taken place, that so few were so rich when so many were very poor. What might have been the idealism of youth in some remained the central core of Day’s lifetime of beliefs. “From my earliest remembrance the destitute were always looked upon as the shiftless, the worthless, those without talent of any kind, let alone the ability to make a living for themselves,” she wrote. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?”
This anger at social conditions changed Day from a happy, pious child to an inquisitive, more skeptical young woman. She was extremely close to her family but felt the need to flee the comforts of home.
Day entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she found Dostoyevsky and lost God. Among books and professors and intellectuals, she flourished. Jack London and Upton Sinclair were favorite writers, but she especially loved the Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Gorky. Some of the Russians she read were anarchists — the journalist, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and the terrorist, Vera Figner, were influential. While she was slowly gaining a direction, however, her faith was dripping away.
A professor told her class that “religion was something which had brought great comfort to people throughout the ages,” and so it should not be criticized. Day wrote, “(The class) inferred that the strong did not need such props. In my youthful arrogance, in my feeling that I was one of the strong, I felt then for the first time that religion was something that I must ruthlessly cut out of my life.”
Continue reading the Trib’s archived version…