Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a journalist and social activist. She co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper, which carries on her dedication to peace and the works of mercy.
When Pope Francis addressed a joint session of the United States Congress on September 24, 2015, he spoke about Dorothy as an example of someone who worked to build a better future and who shaped the fundamental values of the American people:
“In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”
Of Dorothy’s many attractive qualities, there is one that stands out: she practiced what she preached. She loved the poor, she lived with the poor, and she lived as a poor person herself. She once wrote:
“The solution proposed… in the Gospels, is that of voluntary poverty and the works of mercy. It is the little way. It is within the power of all. Everybody can begin here and now…We have the greatest weapons in the world, greater than any hydrogen or atom bomb, and they are the weapons of poverty and prayer, fasting and alms, the reckless spending of ourselves in God’s service and for His poor. Without poverty we will not have learned love, and love, at the end, is the measure by which we shall be judged.”
Sr. Mary Elizabeth, our foundress, met Dorothy in 1966 when they were both invited to speak at the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. This is Sister’s recollection of Dorothy:
“That’s where I met her personally, but I had known about her and read about her because in my younger days as a nurse I had worked with the Catholic Worker in Baltimore when it first started. I volunteered there for a short time while I was doing my studies at Mercy Hospital. So I knew about Dorothy and read about her and admired her very much. When she came to Loyola to speak I invited her to the house and she came. But my first meeting with her was at Wernersville.
“I admired her ability to live completely with the poor, and to share with them absolutely anything and everything she had. She never kept anything for herself alone. She was the poorest person I think I’ve ever met. Wherever they have a Catholic Worker house around Washington or Baltimore they always had a room for Dorothy, but Dorothy insisted that her room be used for the poor when she was not there. So many times when she would arrive from somewhere – if they didn’t know ahead of time – there was already a poor person sleeping in her room and she slept in somebody else’s bed. And if you knew Dorothy’s houses at that point in history, that was not like ‘I’ll sleep in your bed tonight,’ because a lot of those beds were wet in over and over again, and they smelled of urine terribly, and Dorothy would just go lay in one as if it were her own.
“She was the most selfless person I think I’ve ever heard of, and I really admired that tremendously. She was so detached. A very detached person. Except from her opinions, which she had a right to stand up for. But she was extremely detached. And very humble. But she did have a temper. I saw her one night put a priest in his place because he was speaking against the teachings of the Church. She really put him right where he belonged. She could handle any argument, anyone. But as I say she was simply, totally unattached to herself.
“The same thing came up when she spoke at Loyola. She was a controversial figure so they did have bouncers, so to speak, for her talk. And they almost had to use them because one man stood up. I think these people were sent by her enemies to talk out loud and heckle her.
“And so this guy stood up and said was it true that she had been arrested on a morals charge at one time. And she said ‘Yes, it’s true.’ But she said, ‘Worse than that.’
“And he said, ‘What?’
“And she said ‘I just remembered I have two coats in my closet at home and I can only use one.’ Which really carried a big message with it.
“And I thought, ‘God, isn’t she admirable?’ To say a thing like that in public, and not to defend herself on the morals charge whatsoever, but just simply to say yes, that she just remembered that she had two winter coats at home in the closet and she could only wear one. She just was a woman of principle, at any expense to herself whatsoever. Never did she come first, she was always last in whatever God’s cause was. So that’s why I admired her. I certainly don’t have her virtues, but I admire them.”
On Dorothy’s visit to the Joseph House in May 1966:
“She came, and knowing how poor she lived, and knowing that certainly I was not rich in any way shape or form, but knowing also that she lived in this total disorder and total untidiness, and I at that point in life was very tidy, because I had the energy to be tidy, I was worried because my place looked nice even though it was very poor. And I thought, ‘Is she going to think that I don’t care about poverty?’ I was really concerned that maybe she would be offended by that. And when she walked in the front door I had a little classroom on the side in what would be the living room, and they had desks and chairs and a little library, and that’s of course what she saw first. So I thought, ‘Well, I wonder what she’s going to think?’
“And she looked at it and looked at it and she looked around and she said, ‘I would give my right arm to have a place like this.’ [laughter] So I breathed easy. Yes, she was really a wonderful woman.
“So she gave us a talk that night in one of the classrooms. We had a classroom upstairs. And she went to Mass. And when it was over, I had put her in one of the back bedrooms where she would be quiet. All my things were very poor, and she had a little poor rocking chair with no arms on it. And so I went back to see if she wanted anything before she retired, and she was sitting in the little rocking chair in her night gown, and rocking back and forth and preparing for the Mass in the morning. She was reading the prayers of the Mass for the next morning and was preparing for that.
“She really was a very holy person. Extremely holy, very prayerful and just. Justice was a big thing with her. And justice was a big thing with me and I think that’s another reason I liked her so much. I didn’t fear poverty as much as I feared injustice for the poor.”
For more information about Dorothy Day, please visit http://www.catholicworker.org
Below you can see two cards Dorothy sent to Sr. Mary Elizabeth, who was a lay person at the time and known as Mae Gintling: