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Dorothy Day (1897 – 1980)

…..was an American journalist turned social activist and devout member of the Catholic Church. She became known for her social justice campaigns in defence of the poor, the forsaken, the hungry and the homeless.

Dorothy Day had initially lived a bohemian lifestyle, with two common law marriages

and an abortion, which she later wrote about in her semi-autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin. In the early 20th Century she wrote passionately about women’s rights, free love and condoned birth control as a feminist issue.

Our Lady Help of Christians church on Staten Island.

With the birth of her daughter, Tamar, she entered a period of spiritual awakening, which led her to embrace Catholicism. She was baptised into the Catholic faith in December 1927 at Our Lady Help of Christians parish on Staten Island. She was deeply influenced by Our Lord's Teaching in The Sermon on the Mount.

Alongside Peter Maurin, she founded the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933, espousing pacifism, non-violence, and hospitality for the impoverished and downtrodden.

A born activist, she heard Our Lord calling her to implement His teaching in the American society of the day. The Catholic Workers' Union was founded by her to inspire a society which ignored the poor to listen to Our Lord's firm teaching.

To make known the aims of the movement, it published The Catholic Worker newspaper. The publication took a pacifist, radical position in an apathetic 1930s America.

This movement grew, and out of it came a "house of hospitality" in the slums of New York City, and subsequently farms for the poor to live and work together communally were created elsewhere in the United States. The Catholic Worker Movement quickly spread through the States, to Canada, and to the United Kingdom; more than 30 independent but affiliated Catholic Worker communities had been founded by 1941, and well over 100 communities exist today worldwide.

In 1941, she wrote this "Epistle" to her Catholic Worker Houses:

"Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making weapons... We will try daily, hourly, to pray for an end to the war. Let us add that unless we combine this prayer with almsgiving, in giving to the least of God’s children, and fasting in order that we may help feed the hungry, and penance in recognition of our share in the guilty, our prayer may become empty words. (To all Catholic Worker houses, Dec. 1941)

As she matured into the Catholic faith, Dorothy Day followed a progressive attitude toward social and economic rights, coupled with an orthodox, traditional sense of Catholic morality and piety. She had seen the ill-effects of the sexual revolution in the 1920s (when she had her abortion), and it drove her to despise the hedonistic sixties with its glorification of the so-called sexual revolution.

"We must practice the presence of God. He said that when two or three are gathered together, there He is in the midst of them. He is with us in our kitchens, at our tables, in our breadlines, with our visitors, on our farms. What we do is very little. But it is like the little boy with a few loaves and fishes. Christ took that little and increased it. He will do the rest. What we do is so little we may seem to be constantly failing. But so did He fail. He met with apparent failure on the Cross. But unless the seed fall into the Earth and die, there is no harvest. And why must we see results? Our work is to sow. Another generation will be reaping the harvest.” — 1940

In March of 2000, Pope John Paul II officially bestowed upon her the title of Servant of God.

A friend of mine, a former Parish Priest in Sacramento in the sixties / seventies, had a tremendous respect for Dorothy Day, whom he heard and met when she visited the city. At that time, she was recognised as a tireless advocate for the poor. The movement she founded, The Catholic Worker, still provides food and shelter for the poor in cities across the United States (including Sacramento) and other parts of the world.

But Dorothy was also to be found on picket lines (she was arrested multiple times), and her books and columns promoted a brand of Catholicism that made her a sign of contradiction for many. The FBI had a 500-page file on her and three times recommended to the Attorney-General that she be charged with sedition while at the same time, ironically, Time magazine included her in a cover story about “Living saints.”

Exposition at Our Lady Help of Christians, Staten Island

Those who considered her a saint did so for good reason, however. Dorothy spent a significant part of her day in prayer – at least three hours – so much so that one wonders how she found time for all her social activism. Her special love was the Book of Psalms, a vestige of her Protestant upbringing, and those who knew her well say those verses punctuated her entire day. But she didn’t just take them directly from her Bible. She read them from the Breviary, the Office read by priests, religious and many lay people each day. Her devotion to that prayer was total. While out on her many lecturing tours, for example, there were three things that had to be in her case: her diary, her Breviary and a jar of instant coffee, and she couldn’t say which was the most essential.

In addition to the Breviary, she loved the Rosary. It was her favourite prayer when walking on the beach, and she frequently turned to it when she couldn’t sleep. She was also attended daily Mass, and she loved to spend her afternoons in the little Italian church around the corner from the House of Hospitality in Manhattan, in order “to rest in the presence of Christ on the Altar.”

"We need to make more of a heaven here, and have a long range view of a new social order wherein justice dwells, which is neither capitalist nor communist nor totalitarian in any way." (Feb. 7, 1969).

Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is the same Christ in the Stranger


Heavenly Father, grant that we may be moved by your Holy Spirit,

to share Dorothy Day’s compassion and concern

as true disciples of the Lord Jesus, giving ourselves as she did

to the love and care of the neediest members of Christ’s Body

and committing our lives to bring the light and hope,

the justice and peace of the Gospel to all your people.

This we pray through Christ, our Lord Amen

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