November 29 – Dorothy Day

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Dorothy Day, faithful servant

Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, USA, in 1897, but was brought up in Chicago. Her family were nominal Anglicans – religion was not a feature of her up bringing. She became a journalist after leaving university and involved herself heavily in left wing radical causes. During this time, she had two love affairs. The first culminated in an abortion, and the second in the birth of an illegitimate child.

“By little and by little” she felt called to join the Catholic Church. She had read the Bible during a brief stint in jail earlier in her life, and the Gospel had attracted her. She occasionally dropped into the local Catholic Church and was taken with the atmosphere and the devotion of the worshippers there. A local nun befriended her and taught her about the faith and the Catholic Church. When her daughter was born, Dorothy arranged for her to be baptised by the local Catholic priest, and shortly after she herself became a member of the Catholic Church. This amazed her friends and caused a rift with her de facto husband. Being an atheist and an anarchist, he refused to be married by either Church or State, so they made the painful decision to separate.

Dorothy Day recognised that the Catholic Church was rich, but she felt that it welcomed the poor and genuinely tried to help them, and this attracted her. She and some friends founded a religious newspaper – The Catholic Worker. This paper concentrated on social issues and ran on a shoestring. The staff received no salaries and worked for their keep. The paper was sold on the streets for one cent a copy and they never knew where the money for the next printer’s bill was coming from. The Catholic Worker advocated the establishment of Houses of Hospitality – refuges for the poor and destitute. The idea took on, and these Houses sprang up in parishes all over the USA. These Houses proved to be a godsend, especially during the Depression years of the 1930’s. For the rest of her life, Dorothy Day lived in one of them.

She was a great communicator, especially through her writing. She embraced all the great social issues of the time and gave them a Christian perspective. Alleviation of poverty, peace, unionism, civil rights and the Anti-Vietnam movement all attracted her support. She was an enthusiastic demonstrator and picketer, and on several occasions was jailed for her efforts. She was much in demand as a speaker, both in the USA and overseas. Her guiding vision was that she wanted to help create a world in which it was easier to be good.

Her writings reveal her as a humble, compassionate person, for whom Christianity and life were the same thing. She was a very human person. When things got too noisy for her, she would open the door of her room and call for Holy Silence and, late in life, after a supper of baked potatoes and over-spiced cabbage, she wrote that she was in favour of becoming a vegetarian only if the vegetables were cooked right.

Dorothy Day died on the 29th November 1980, aged 83.

God of surprises,

We remember before you

the life and warmth of Dorothy Day.

For her boundless enthusiasm,

for her pioneering spirit,

for her work among the poor, we thank you.

God our God, grant us the grace to follow her example.   

Rev Ross Mackinnon