December 12, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible U.S. saints: Dorothy Day

John F. Fink(Twenty-ninth in a series of columns)

Although Dorothy Day always had a passion for social justice, the first part of her life was not that of a potential saint.

She was an ardent socialist who, after dropping out of the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1916, moved to New York, where she wrote for socialist periodicals.

She lived a bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village that included many romantic affairs, one of which ended with an abortion.

She marched in support of women’s suffrage, ending up in jail for the first of many arrests and five imprisonments.

She briefly married Barkeley Tobey, with whom she traveled to London, Paris and throughout Italy, writing as she traveled.

After her marriage broke up, she moved briefly to Chicago, working as a sales clerk, waitress and model for art classes, while continuing to write.

In 1923, her first book, The Eleventh Virgin, was published and a company bought movie rights for $5,000.

With that money, she bought a beach home in Staten Island. She invited Forster Battleham to move in with her. They became the parents of a girl when Dorothy was 28.

The birth of her child changed her life. She later wrote, “I was not going to have her floundering through many years as I had done.”

She was determined to have the baby baptized a Catholic because Dorothy had become attracted to the Catholic Church for its liturgy and devotions, and because it was “the Church of the immigrants, the Church of the poor.”

Battleham, with whom she was living, was an atheist who refused to talk about marriage.

Dorothy wrote, “I loved him. It was killing me to think of leaving him.”

But she did, on Dec. 27, 1927. The next day, she was received into the Catholic Church. She reformed her personal life while remaining just as passionate about social justice.

On Dec. 8, 1932, she covered a labor protest in Washington. While there, she went to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where she prayed “that some way would open up for me” to work more effectively for the poor.

When she returned to New York and entered her apartment, a man who introduced himself as Peter Maurin was sitting there. He had read Dorothy’s articles and was convinced that they should work together.

They began by founding The Catholic Worker. Its purpose, as Dorothy wrote in the first issue, was “to popularize and make known the encyclicals of the popes in regard to social justice and the program put forth by the Church for the ‘reconstruction of the social order.’ ” Within three years, the newspaper reached a circulation of 180,000.

Dorothy and Peter then founded Hospitality Houses for the poor. By 1936, 33 Hospitality Houses were operating from coast to coast. Then Catholic Worker Farms were started in five places.

Dorothy was also a pacifist, traveling to Rome during the Second Vatican Council to try to get the bishops to condemn all wars.

She died in 1980 at age 83.†

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