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NewspaperRoots of the Catholic Worker Movement: Saints and Philosophers who Influenced Dorothy Day and Peter MaurinMy Friendship with Dorothy Day (Helene Iswolsky)

My Friendship with Dorothy Day (Helene Iswolsky)

Helene Iswolsky, Daughter of the last Tsarist Ambassador to France, a Russian emigré who had become a friend of Dorothy Day, gave talks at the Catholic Worker on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Soloviev. Dorothy described one of these occasions in the October 1949 CW:

“The first week in September we had Helene Iswolsky at the farm at Newburgh, giving a course on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Soloviev, the three great Russians. “In a field where poison grows,” she began her course, “you will find its antidote. The same soil produces both.” She spoke of Soloviev who told of the glories of the Incarnation, and is the link between the east and the west. She spoke of the three great men who emphasized the dignity of the human person. “To love Russia,” Berdyaev said, “is the way of the cross.” These three men wrote of the struggle of man towards God and to all of them the golden key which opened the doors of prisons and led out of darkness was the key of love. To listen to such talks is not only to learn more of Christ, but to learn to love the Russians who are truly Christ-bearers in their sufferings and poverty. The ruthlessness of the revolution, Helene Iswolsky said, was due to the degradation of the human person from which they have suffered for centuries. We hope Miss Iswolsky will give us some more evenings this winter.”

It was through her friendship with Helene Iswolsky, who had come to know the Benedictine monks at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois, where the beautiful liturgy of the East was celebrated, that Dorothy encountered them. Iswolsky encouraged Dorothy’s interest in St. Procopius and in Byzantine liturgy and theology. Dorothy became a Benedictine Oblate of the Eastern rite at St. Procopius.

I had lunch with Julie Kernan, who said, “I want you to meet Dorothy Day and see her House of Hospitality.” I had heard of the Catholic Worker and was eager to meet the woman who had founded it, with the French peasant Peter Maurin. So we set off for Mott Street, near Chinatown, where the House was then located. As we entered the main hall, I immediately sensed that it was an unusual, strange and rather frightening world. However, it seemed aglow with its own brightness. I saw for the first time, the scene that became familiar to me, yet always deeply stirred me. Along the stretching, refectory tables, the poor were crowded, seated on the long, wooden benches, some leaning on the tables, others crouched as if half asleep. Large coffee bowls and chunks of bread were placed before them. In their midst, sat a little gray-haired man. He might have come from an old French woodcut. He was speaking English with a heavy, French accent.

This is Peter Maurin,” said Julie, leading me to him and giving my name. “So you are Helene Iswolsky,” cried Peter, grasping my hand. “I have read your book, Soviet Man now. . .” I was amazed that the little book published in France had reached Peter here in the slums of New York and had found an echo in this extraordinary old man. He told me he read the book in French, then found an English translation. (I was unaware that it had been translated.) He had given it to Dorothy Day-“We both liked it,” he concluded with one of his rapid, eloquent gestures.

Soviet Man had actually been my introduction to the Catholic Worker. I was immediately accepted into the family, or rather, I had been accepted before I ever came to Mott Street.

“Now let us go upstairs and meet Dorothy,” said Julie, leading me up a creaky stairway to the third floor. We went through a small hallway with several doors and knocked at one.

“Come in,” said a low, quiet voice. We entered what at first seemed to be a nursery. There were several cribs in the room, with a baby in each one; in the midst of them stood a tall woman with clear-cut features, blue eyes and with thick braids of blond hair wound around her head. There was something full of repose about this figure, in spite of the fact that the babies were quite noisy and loud voices were heard in an adjacent room. For the time, her room was shared by a few of the Bowery’s motherless offspring, and the people next door had just arrived from a bout in the neighboring saloon. During the twenty-five years that I have known Dorothy, I have always found her sharing her room or giving it up, and usually exposed to the most varied sounds. And yet that extraordinary repose which I felt on our first meeting never ceased to emanate from her.

During my first visit to the Catholic Worker, Dorothy talked about Dostoevsky, I discovered that she knew the great Russian classics and could quote them (in English, of course) as frequently s myself, and even more profusely than I did. But what impressed me most was not her culture, which was extensive, but her way of life, sharing the lost of the poorest, and not as an outsider, patronizing them, helping them at a distance, but as one of them, a member of that vast family living under the sign of destitution and misery.

 

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Grisha’s (my brother’s) funeral was held in the Russian Orthodox cathedral of Our Lady of Protection. The Mass was sung by the Afsonky quartet, highly trained singes from the cathedral choir. The beauty of the Byzantine funeral service, so deeply consoling, and the presence of so many loving friends helped me to live through those painful hours. But all the courage I could summon would not have been enough had it not been for the tall white-haired quiet woman at my side. For Dorothy Day appeared as I was ready to break down, bringing me that strength and peace which she has always given me in times of stress and suffering.

 

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I sought refuge at the Catholic Worker, where Dorothy always made me welcome. In the past years, I had grown very close to her and her “little people.” She had helped me face my brother’s death and my own disability, after my fall. Now once more she gave me her strong moral support. Though I was far away from Dorothy and Peter’s way of life, I had not forgotten the deep emotion that I had felt at the Maryfarm Angelus. I visited the community as often as I could. I often attended retreats and conferences held by the Catholic Worker, and one summer Dorothy let me arrange a Third Hour weekend at Maryfarm. This was one of our most successful meetings, reminding me of Emmanuel Mounier’s gatherings and the atmosphere of Esprit (in France).

Dorothy Day spoke at many of our meetings (ecumenical meetings of The Third Hour). She had actually been involved in ecumenical work for years, without thinking of it as such, since the poor of all creeds and nationalities came to her breadline and to her Houses of Hospitality.

(From Helene Iswolsky’s autobiography, No Time to Grieve; An autobiographical Journey from Russia to Paris to New York. Philadelphia: The Winchell Company, 1985).

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 3, May-June 2000.