History

Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker

Dorothy Day was the bold advocate for social change. She believed that even though we could petition for large scale legislative change, it was better (and faster) to make small change at the personal level.

Dorothy grew up in the early 1900’s in New York in a family of journalists and social activists. It was not her family’s dream that she too would become a journalist. However, she found deep motivation to write as an activist for human rights. These included justice for workers, minorities, and women’s voting rights. Dorothy lived a radical life but had a great deal of personal struggle through these early years. After a failed relationship in September of 1919, Day had an abortion from her relationship with Lionel Moise. This decision created significant damage, but led to a powerful witness that she would spend the rest of her life telling.

Day soon got into another relationship which became a quasi-common-law marriage. After some time with Forster Batterham, she was pregnant again. Against Forster’s wishes, the baby was born and Dorothy decided to baptize her into the Catholic Church. During the later years of her relationship with Forster, she began getting to know several people who not only identified as Catholic, but acted like it also. She saw a great deal of service to the poor that really attracted her to later be baptized herself, following her daughter, Tamar.

In the years following, she made use of her journalism skills and began writing for papers representing minority groups. It was through this avenue that Peter Maurin had come to know who she was. Peter showed up on Dorothy’s front step after getting her address from the paper and immediately began preaching to her the need for urgent change. With the great depression happening during this time, employment was poor, living conditions harsh and support resources non-existent. The crazy 55 year old Maurin carried conversation with her as if they had known each other for years. Thinking the man crazy for his over-the-top ideas and french temperament, she initially blew him off.

After much prayer and thought, she considered his ideas of starting a newspaper, sold for a penny, that would publish articles outlining current injustices and thoughts on human dignity. The paper started slow but ballooned after union workers began clinging to it. It was soon named The Catholic Worker. Eventually, Dorothy and Peter would write about houses to shelter the homeless and farms to feed them, in an ideal world. Soon after they wrote about these ideas, a woman approached them and asked, “So I understand you have Houses of Hospitality…” Later that day, Dorothy and Peter walked down the street to rent out several apartments and begin their first Catholic Worker house.

In the years to follow, several more houses would open up along with several farms and retreat houses. Today there are more than 200 communities of Catholic Workers around the world.

To learn more about the history of the movement, take a look at this sweet documentary that was just released recently: https://www.pbs.org/video/revolution-of-the-heart-the-dorothy-day-story-lwz697/

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