Dorothy Day is pictured in this undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Milwaukee Journal)

Dorothy Day is pictured in this undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Milwaukee Journal)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (CNS) — Dorothy Day means many things to many people.

A daughter of the Church. A saint for our time. A countercultural saint. The face of Catholic social justice. An icon of mercy.

All were among the ways Day was remembered during a conference May 13-15 examining her life and legacy as part of the events marking the 125th anniversary of the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne. The conference was co-sponsored by Our Sunday Visitor.

Day, who died in 1980 at age 83, is known as the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, with its houses of hospitality, The Catholic Worker newspaper and farming communes.

The movement started in 1933 in New York when Day and French intellectual Peter Maurin began publishing the newspaper and opened a house of hospitality for hungry, out-of-work people in the midst of the Great Depression. The movement continues today, with more than 230 communities in the U.S. and around the world, according to a Catholic Worker website.

Brandon Vogt, an author and blogger, spoke of Dorothy Day during one session as a faithful Catholic and activist and called her more than a social worker. “For Dorothy, an encounter with the poor was an encounter with Christ,” Vogt said.

“Dorothy Day was a true daughter of the church,” Vogt told the 120 people in attendance. “She puts a face on Catholic social justice.”

Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books and editor of Day’s published diaries and letters, was deeply influenced by the social activist. He spoke of Day praying at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in 1932, asking that God help her to use her talents to alleviate the sufferings of poor people. She returned to New York to find Maurin outside her apartment. He gave her a Catholic framework for the movement, he said.

Day also was a pacifist during World War II and the Vietnam War, which opened her to wide criticism, Ellsberg explained. She and fellow Catholic Worker members protested against institutions they believed contributed to poverty and injustice. In the 1970s, she joined protests on behalf of the United Farm Workers in the organization’s quest for just wages and safe working conditions in California and was arrested and jailed.

Jesus’ incarnation was pivotal for Day, Ellsberg said. He quoted her writing: “The mystery of the poor is Jesus. What we do for them, we do for Jesus.”

As Day’s vocation to work with the poor became clearer and more defined through the houses of hospitality, with it came sacrifices, Ellsberg added. Day experienced some of the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, he said, and felt at times that she deeply let down her fellow Catholic Workers when she had been brusque to them or refused their requests.

Still, her abiding love for the poor carried her through, he said, citing a passage she wrote: “Where there is no love, put love, and there will be love.” Ultimately, Ellsberg believes, Day’s example of holiness is not for the few or only for Catholic Workers, but that each person, as Day wrote, is called to serve others.

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large for the National Review Online, told participants in another session that she sees a strong connection between Day and Pope Francis and a church that reaches to the marginalized. She pointed to the spirit of hospitality in Catholic Worker houses. “Give them good coffee, and they may stay for the Gospel,” she said.

Before Day became a Catholic in 1927, she had an abortion, the result of an unhappy love affair with Lionel Moise, an older man strongly opposed to marriage and children. When he learned that Day was pregnant with his child, he pressured her to get an abortion and told her he was leaving the country.

Day was wounded by her abortion, Lopez said, but after joining the Catholic Church, she found consolation in the confessional and clung to the mercy of Christ.

“Dorothy Day is a holy woman who has been gifted to us,” Lopez added. “We need to let the fullness of Dorothy Day’s life be known.”

Martha Hennessy, Day’s granddaughter, also addressed conference-goers. She remembered Day — calling her “Granny” — as serious but also warm. Day would travel to the farm where her only child, Tamar, lived with her husband and nine children. Martha married and raised her family and returned to the Catholic Church in 2004.

Hennessy said her work at Maryhouse, one of two Catholic Worker houses in New York, has deeply affected her. Cooking soup and serving it to poor people, she said, is such a simple act, “but really, it changes ourselves.”

Lance Richey, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Francis and a conference organizer, described Day as a “model for everyone who wants to embrace what is best about America, while at the same time critiquing our culture in light of the Gospel demands of voluntary poverty and non-violence.”

“She defied our usual political categories, and tried to define her life solely in terms of the Gospel,” he told Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort-Wayne-South Bend. “At a time when the church in our country is divided between left and right, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, she showed a way to follow Jesus which transcended these categories.”

Day, he added, “called us to a radical discipleship which embodied the fullness of our Catholic faith.”


Erlandson writes for the Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.