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Peter Maurin, Saint and Scholar of the Catholic Worker

The Core Ideas–the Vision

Peter Maurin

The person who created the Catholic Worker philosophy, and in partnership with Dorothy Day, lived the vision of the Catholic Worker movement, is Peter Maurin.

Peter Maurin taught Dorothy Day not everything she knew, but just about everything.

They met in 1933, Peter having been sent to Dorothy Day by George Schuster of Commonweal magazine. He had sought out Dorothy Day particularly because she was a journalist, hoping she would publish a newspaper where his ideas would be expressed. Dorothy Day was not too sure about Peter at first, as he talked too much with a heavy French accent, but her sister Tessa had welcomed him to their apartment and she listened.

Dorothy had gone to Washington, D. C. to cover a hunger march of the unemployed. During this time she felt very strongly the separation from her previous friends who were protesting under the socialist banner. Where, now that she was a Catholic, could she find a way to use her talents for her fellow workers, for the poor? On December 8 of 1932 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) she went to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University there in Washington and spent the morning in prayer, asking God to help her find a way to integrate her new faith with her concern for the poor. (Ironically, this is the same day, December 8 on which the editors of the Houston Catholic Worker met, years later).

When she returned to New York, Peter Maurin was waiting for her.

Dorothy described her favorable impression of Peter in her autobiography, saying, “I found waiting for me a short, stocky man in his mid-fifties, as ragged and rugged as any of the marchers I had left. He was intensely alive, on the alert, even when silent, engaged in reading or in thought. When he talked, the tilt of his head, his animated expression, the warm glow in his eyes, the gestures of his hand, his shoulders, his whole body, compelled your attention.”

Dorothy noted things at that first meeting, characteristics of Peter that were confirmed in the years she knew him: “He spoke in terms of ideas, rather than personalities. While others were always analyzing, talking about one another, using one another’s lives and attitudes to illustrate ideas, Peter was always impersonal, delicately scrupulous never to talk about others, never to make the derogatory remark.”

According to her book, The Long Loneliness, when he met Dorothy, Peter began at once on what he called her education. For weeks afterward he came every afternoon and talked for hours about his ideas–about a Catholic outline of history, about the lives of the saints, the teachings of the early Church writers, contemporary personalist philosophy and the program of action he had developed to implement the Gospels and Catholic social teaching–the teaching of the Popes. He made many suggestions for Dorothy’s reading.

The program of action that Peter Maurin presented to Dorothy consisted in roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought, houses of hospitality (where Catholics could practice the works of mercy as outlined in Matthew 25:31ff. and in Church tradition), and agronomic universities. These actions were to be taken in the framework of a life centered on cult, culture and cultivation, or in other words, worship, learning and the land.

Peter did not “spoon feed” Dorothy. He used a “soup ladle.” He was very persistent, since he was looking for apostles to share his work.

What Dorothy found to be most striking was Peter’s “correlation of the material and the spiritual.” Here was the integration of work and faith that she had been seeking.

Announce, not Denounce

Dorothy remembered that Peter “made you feel a sense of mission as soon as you met him. He did not begin by tearing down, or by painting so intense a picture of misery and injustice that you burned to change the world. Instead, he aroused in you a sense of your own capacities for work, for accomplishment. He made you feel that you and all men had great and generous hearts with which to love God. If you once recognized this fact in yourself you would expect and find it in others. The art of human contacts, Peter called it happily. But it was seeing Christ in others, loving the Christ you saw in others. Greater than this, it was having faith in the Christ in others without being able to see Him. Blessed is he that believes without seeing.”

Peter Maurin called attention to injustices, but his approach was positive–presenting hope and a vision for the future.

Peter embraced the Word and the richness of the lived traditions of the Church, recapturing for contemporary expression the incredible vision and practice of faith, hospitality to travelers and the poor, the community of early Benedictine monasteries, Irish monks in medieval times, and great examples of the lives of the saints.

From Where did Peter Maurin Come?

At the time that he met Dorothy Day, Aristide Peter Maurin had made his own synthesis of the ideas he had first learned in his devout Catholic family in France, where as they walked back and forth to the village his father taught him about the “shock maxims” of the Gospel, and in his education in schools taught by the Christian Brothers. When he grew up he was for several years a novice in the Christian Brothers, where he received an excellent education in liturgy and theology, in the lives of the saints and in Benedictine spirituality. Both as a novice and upon leaving the order he participated in a Catholic movement called Le Sillon in France. According to Arthur Sheehan in his book Peter Maurin: Gay Believer(Hanover House, 1959–so named before the meaning of the word gay had changed), this movement and study clubs in which he participated emphasized a joyful, yet ascetic, faith like that of St. Philip Neri, a faith which involved the commitment of one’s whole soul, imagination, feelings and emotions as well as the intellect. The dream was that with intense Christian commitment, love, responsibility and action for social justice, social problems would disappear as people noted, “See how these Christians love one another.”

Even when he was a novice in the Christian Brothers Peter was obliged to participate in the French military service. The army contradicted everything he believed in and it was an unpleasant time for him. After two years of service he was periodically called up for the reserves for another two weeks.

This military conscription compromised Peter’s Christian pacifist principles. He knew well the natural law on the right of self-defense and the philosophical conditions for a just war, but his way was that of St. Francis, of following the Gospel counsels of perfection.

Peter Maurin made a decision to leave France, where his family had owned their farm for almost 1,500 years, to go to Canada, where he would not be required to continue military service and where he could join the large group of French immigrants already there. He left the Le Sillon movement in which he had actively participated, recognizing that while it had offered so much encouragement and hope to many, it lacked serious scholarship and had become political. (Sheehan, p. 75)

He had been reading Peter Kropotkin, especially Fields, Factories and Workshops andMutual Aid, where small crafts were presented as a supplement to farming. Before leaving his country Peter Maurin spent some months in the south of France studying small-craft industries.

Peter moved to Canada as a homesteader, a pioneer. After a couple of very hard years on the land there, he came to the United States, where he worked at various jobs and eventually setting up a successful French school in Chicago. He accepted an invitation to teach French in New York. He was an undocumented immigrant in both countries.

It was at this time that he, who had been searching for a way to live out his vocation in this new country and culture, made the decision to no longer accept pay for his lessons, but to offer his work as a gift, allowing students to pay him what they thought they were worth. This was the beginning of his life of voluntary poverty.

In New York Peter developed his ideas and program of action and wrote many essays in his free verse style. He visited priests, editors and others, explaining his program, seeking people to implement it. He was well received by many well-read and active Catholics and invited some of them later to publish articles in the Catholic Worker. He also went often to Union Square and spoke to the crowds about his ideas.

He became friends with Fr. Joseph B. Scully, a New York pastor, helping him without pay at his summer camp for children and making it his home for five years. This was the same Fr. Scully who was asked by Cardinal Hayes about Peter Maurin when he began the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. The priest responded, “He knows his stuff.” (Sheehan, p. 88).

How to Begin

In sharing his ideas with Dorothy, Peter asked her to “popularize this program for immediate needs, which would be the seed for a long-range program, a green revolution, by publishing a paper. Dorothy, a journalist from a newspaper family, saw the need for a newspaper, but wondered how it could practically be started. As she recounted, “Peter did not pretend to be practical along these lines. ‘I enunciate the principles’, he declared grandly.” Dorothy asked the practical question, “But where do we get the money?” Peter’s answer set the tone for the functioning of the whole Catholic Worker movement:

“In the history of the saints, capital was raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”

St. Francis de Sales, he told her, scattered leaflets like any radical. St. John of God sold newspapers on the streets.

Dorothy had been reading about the life of Rose Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s daughter, who had started a hospice in New York for the poor who had cancer. Her method of raising money simply by telling people what she was going to do appealed to Dorothy. Perhaps she could start in a small way.

“The thing to do is to start,” Peter kept saying.

Peter thought of asking his friend Fr. Joseph Scully, who had a large parish, for the use of his church basement and a mimeograph machine. Dorothy Day also wanted to meet Fr. Scully and so one day she went to the rectory. When she discovered that Fr. Scully had gone out, whe went to the church for a visit. As she recounts, “There was Peter, the only other one besides myself in the church at that moment, and he did not see me come in, but sat there before the Blessed Sacrament, motionless, quiet, absorbed, gazing altarward. Every now and then I saw his forefinger rise, count off a few points, and then stillness again.”

Dorothy didn’t wait much longer that day for Fr. Scully, but thought instead of printers. She could have twenty-five hundred copies of an eight-page tabloid printed for fifty-seven dollars by the Paulist Press.

And so, The Catholic Worker newspaper began.

Dorothy used her kitchen as an editorial office and her brother John helped to write headlines and with the layout. Dorothy used two small checks she had received for writing articles to pay the first printing bill, rather than the gas and electric.

But Peter Maurin was not very happy with the first issue. He had thought the newspaper would simply be filled with his own ideas. When the first issue came out on May Day with articles about labor, strikes, unemployment, columns written by other people and muckraking accounts, in addition to half a dozen of Peter’s “Easy Essays,” as Dorothy’s brother John named his style of writing, Peter protested.

“Everybody’s paper is nobody’s paper,” he said. Even his name was misspelled on the first issue, as Maurain instead of Maurin.

By the second issue of the paper Peter had removed his name as one of the editors. Since he had a specific program and the newspaper was carrying many viewpoints, he thought it better to be a contributor rather than an editor. “As an editor,” he said, “it will be assumed that I sponsor or advocate any reform suggested in the pages of the Catholic Worker. I would rather definitely sign my own work, letting it be understood what I stand for.”

Arthur Sheehan tells us that the talk by Peter on houses of hospitality was featured in the October issue so that it might be sent to the Bishops’ meeting at a national conference of Catholic Charities of New York. In his campaign to develop houses of hospitality for the poor, Peter quoted a Fifth century Church Council which required Catholic bishops to provide houses of hospitality in each parish church, open to the poor, the sick, the orphaned, the old.

The immediate result, however, was the beginning of the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality. A young woman who read the paper came in to demand that the editors start giving hospitality instead of just writing about it. An apartment was rented that very afternoon and hospitality began. As an educated Christian Peter was not a fundamentalist, but he emphasized literally accepting Christ’s teaching.

Other Beginnings

Along with houses of hospitality, other parts of Peter Maurin’s program were developed during those early years of the Worker.

Prominent professors from Columbia and Jesuit and Benedictine priests came to speak as Peter began his lecture series for the clarification of thought, a tradition that continues to this day in the CW. Peter Maurin knew these speakers and they came at his invitation. They also brought their students to help out in the house of hospitality and to learn about Peter’s idea of scholars and workers sharing and working together.

In 1936 a twenty-eight acre farm was found and farming communes began. This farm and the others that later began to dot the country were a big challenge because many families or single people who came to live and work on the farms knew little about farming. Arthur Sheehan, described the reality: “The new farmers went out to plant hopefully, but when weeding time came they did not have the readiness to work patiently hour after hour at this difficult aspect of cultivation. Peter advised planting in seed frames until plants were an inch high, then transplanting to the harrowed fields. When this was done, weeding could be done quickly with a cultivator.”

Peter didn’t like buying store foods. He insisted that farms raise what they eat and eat what they raise. He believed in eating only what was raised in your local area–for example, if you were in New York or Pennsylvania, you would eat tomatoes instead of oranges.

Peter tried to instill a philosophy of labor at the farms and everywhere, saying, “One must use the whole man to be holy,” with the idea of balancing the intellectual and manual labor. The farms put flesh on the distributist economics of Fr. Vincent McNabb, Chesterton and Belloc which Peter endorsed.

At the Easton farm the church was two miles away; Peter walked to Mass to receive Communion each day. In the evenings the groups joined together in the Rosary, offering a prayer to St. Isidore, patron of the commune.

Peter Maurin also was very supportive of Interracial Councils in their beginning stages and in the struggle for justice for African Americans. He started a house of hospitality in Harlem.

On Meeting Peter Maurin

In one of the first houses of hospitality Stanley Vishnewski, who joined the Catholic Worker at age 18 and never left it, met Peter Maurin when he stayed to dinner after his first day as a volunteer in New York. In his book Wings of the Dawn (published by the Catholic Worker), he tells of Peter’s conversation at that meal:

“I had not yet been introduced to Peter but he did not wait for an introduction. At that moment his face became alive and animated. He pointed his finger at me and said, ‘In the first centuries of Christianity the poor were fed, clothed and sheltered at a personal sacrifice and the pagans said about the Christians: “See how they love each other.”

Peter continued. “I am for tradition and not for revolution. In the Catholic Worker we must try to have the voluntary poverty of Saint Francis, the charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, the intellectual approach of St. Dominic, the easy conversations about things that matter of St. Philip Neri, the manual labor of St. Benedict.”

Peter visited universities, Bishops and people in the financial world, including the Wall Street Journal, to discuss economics and his program.

John Moody, of Moody’s Investors’ Service described his meeting with Peter Maurin:

“Anyone who has met Peter knows that he can, on first appearance, make the shivers creep up your spine when he begins to talk. If, when he starts in, you are leaning back in an easy chair, you will find yourself sitting up erect in that chair before he has talked five minutes. He can cram more truth into your cranium at high speed in a single hour than any ordinary person can do in a week.

That morning his theme was social justice. He gave me, among other things, a gist of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which up to that time I had not digested at all. But Peter had digested it, and he made its contents so clear to me that a short time thereafter I was able to give a brief talk on it to a small group of high-brow Wall Streeters, and actually tell them some things they didn’t already know.” (Sheehan, p. 105)

Critique of Economic Systems

In analyzing the history of the world economy, Maurin concluded that recent centuries had led only to destruction as economics became more and more controlled by self-interest and materialism and consumerism. With Nicholas Berdyaev, he decried the triumph of the will to power and affluence over the will to holiness and genius which had taken place when the center of life, the spiritual, was pushed to the margins.

Peter Maurin looked at contemporary economic systems and found them lacking in the light of Catholic social teaching.

When the alternatives of the capitalist system and the Marxist philosophies were argued, Peter pointed out the deficiencies of both. He presented a practical alternative vision where each person would have creative labor, where workers owned the means of production, and art, handicrafts, skilled trades, cooperatives and agrarian life replaced mass production, material consumption and collectivism.

As Time magazine put it, “His message was simple and uncompromising: Capitalism, with its foundations in usury and its dehumanizing of man by the machine, is just as bad for mankind as socialism with its depersonalizing state.”

The lending of money at interest was critiqued by Maurin as a fundamental problem in our economic system. He quoted the prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church who condemned the practice. He may have foreseen the horrendous inequalities and injustices, the lack of care for the human person which exist today because of indebtedness to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Communitarian Personalism

Peter read widely and was especially familiar with and influenced by the personalist writers such as Emmanuel Mounier, Nicholas Berdyaev, Jacques Maritain and Leon Bloy, and translated them from French to English for the paper.

The personalist philosophy emphasized the dignity of the human person and the challenge of taking personal responsibility instead of waiting for governments or bureaucracies to obtain funding in order to act. Personalism was also Peter’s alternative to those who wanted a Catholic political party. He believed in building a new society within the shell of the old.

The personalists, including Peter Maurin, believed that the dignity of the human person could only be affirmed with the revival and primacy of the spiritual. As Marc Ellis points out in his book, Peter Maurin (Paulist Press, 1981), for him “A humanism without God was to set forces in motion that would take humankind into a new Dark Age, where all would be possible and permissible and the person would count for nothing.” This, as like so many of Maurin’s ideas, was prophetic.

The holocaust and today’s culture of death were the result of this new Dark Age.

Maurin saw the inherent dangers in the political theories opposed to the spiritual. He predicted and the Catholic Worker protested strongly in the 1930’s the growing totalitarianism in Germany and other countries, made possible in part by the growth of technology and bureaucracy, where all citizens were registered and became numbers with personal information attached.

Those who extolled human progress as the great goal of life and civilization had, according to Maurin and the personalists, missed the whole meaning of history, centered in God.

Criticize the Church?

William Miller points out in A Harsh and Dreadful Love (Image Books,1973), that Peter Maurin did not waste his energy criticizing the Church. As he tells us, “It is perhaps because he was free and so full of his program that Maurin never seemed to have found it necessary to expend any of his energy as a critic of the Church. Personalist radicalism found the idea of the Church no obstacle to its philosophy or methods; to the contrary, it was only through personalist radicalism that the dynamite of the Church could be ignited. Maurin thus united orthodoxy with radicalism, and this principle was understood and has been faithfully followed by Dorothy Day.” (p.39)


When Peter Maurin died in 1949, Time magazine described his funeral:

“Dressed in a castoff suit and consigned to a donated grave, the mortal remains of a poor man were buried last week. These arrangements were appropriate; during most of his life Peter Maurin had slept in no bed of his own and worn no suit that someone had not given away. But to his funeral among the teeming pushcart-crowded slums of lower Manhattan Cardinal Spellman himself sent his representative. There were priests representing many Catholic orders and there were laymen, rich and poor, from places as far away as Chicago. All night long before the funeral they had come to the rickety storefront where the body lay, to say a prayer or touch their rosaries to the folded hands. For many of them were sure that Peter Maurin was a saint.”

L’Osservatore Romano, published in Vatican City, carried Peter Maurin’s obituary on the front page.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 4, July-August 1996.