March 27, 2015

Dorothy Day: ‘A theologian with street cred’

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty prepares to sign a copy of her book, Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians, for Phyllis Schickel. A Presbyterian minister and chair of the theology department at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Hinson-Hasty gave a talk on Day on March 12 as part of the annual Cardinal Ritter House Irish Coffee lecture series. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell)

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty prepares to sign a copy of her book, Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians, for Phyllis Schickel. A Presbyterian minister and chair of the theology department at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Hinson-Hasty gave a talk on Day on March 12 as part of the annual Cardinal Ritter House Irish Coffee lecture series. (Photo by Patricia Happel Cornwell)

By Patricia Happel Cornwell (Special to The Criterion)

NEW ALBANY—Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Ph.D., calls Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, a “theologian with street cred.”

Hinson-Hasty was guest lecturer at the Cardinal Ritter House’s annual Irish Coffee event in New Albany on March 12. Chairperson of the theology department at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., Hinson-Hasty is a Presbyterian minister. Day is the subject of her new book, Dorothy Day for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

As a crowd of about 50 enjoyed Irish coffee and snacks, Hinson-Hasty discussed Day’s remarkable life and legacy.

“Dorothy Day was no armchair theologian herself,” Hinson-Hasty said. “She did more than talk about her faith. Her story has the potential to change the way we live in community.”

She told her audience, “When I started researching Day, I soon learned there are very few people to whom Dorothy Day can be compared. Day is unique in all regards. Since learning about Day, I have been unable to teach or write in the same way.”

Born in 1897, Day had only a high school diploma and two years of college, but she became a noted activist and writer on racism, peace and other social justice issues. She corresponded with the likes of Trappist Father Thomas Merton, Jesuit peace activist Father Daniel Berrigan, and labor leader Cesar Chavez.

With French immigrant Peter Maurin, Day launched the Catholic Worker Movement and Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933 in New York. They opened “houses of hospitality” for the poor and marginalized in cities from New York and San Francisco to Tell City and Louisville. The house in Louisville continues to serve as “Casa Latina” for poor immigrant women.

An adult convert to Catholicism, Day was jailed several times for protesting for the rights of women and underpaid or unemployed workers. She was also arrested for protesting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. She lived in voluntary poverty as a sign of solidarity with the poor, and called the Catholic Church “the Church of the poor.”

Day was a single mother, journalist and organizer, and “her program of action was sustained by her life of prayer,” Hinson-Hasty said. “She went to Mass every day, practiced silence, went on retreats, and discovered the linkage between social action and prayer.

“There were Catholic officials and government leaders alike who kept their eye on Dorothy Day,” she said.

In 1939, Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York openly opposed Day’s support of a strike by the city’s grave diggers and crossed the picket line with several priests. In the1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee maintained a file on Day’s associations with Communists.

“Day overcame the stigma of her socialism because of her consistent, authentic enacting of her faith,” Hinson-Hasty said, “literally embodying the Beatitudes.”

Day once stated, “We are pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers.”

Day was no stranger to Indiana. She visited Indianapolis, Lafayette, St. Meinrad and Tell City, as well as Louisville and Bardstown, Ky., “dozens of times,” Hinson-Hasty said.

Cardinal Ritter and Dorothy Day share the distinction of being threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. The cardinal is noted for desegregating Catholic schools in Indianapolis and St. Louis 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision made segregation illegal. In 1938, the Klan marched to the SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Indianapolis to protest then-Bishop Ritter’s integration of Catholic schools.

While in Georgia in 1957, Day and a companion were shot at by Klan members for visiting an integrated farming commune.

Day died in 1980. The Catholic Church has opened her cause for sainthood, thus giving her the title “Servant of God.”

David Hock, president of Ritter Birthplace Foundation, said, “I see Cardinal Ritter and Dorothy Day as being on the same page because they were both very courageous in their commitment to following their conscience, and doing what they believed deeply was the ‘right thing.’ They were both progressive in seeing that ‘the least of our brothers’ was remembered.”

Hock told the gathering, “Sometimes I wonder what Cardinal Ritter would think about what we’re doing with this house. I think that having a Presbyterian teacher from a Catholic college would be something he’d be happy about. And whether they ever knew each other while on Earth, I’m sure Dorothy Day and Cardinal Ritter are good friends now.”
 

(Patricia Happel Cornwell is a freelance writer and a member of St. Joseph Parish in Corydon. For information about the Cardinal Ritter Birthplace Foundation, go to www.cardinalritterhouse.org. To make a donation, checks should be made payable to Cardinal Ritter Birthplace Foundation, 1218 E. Oak St., New Albany, IN 47150.)

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