header icons

Baroness calls Dorothy Day a Saint

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, a refugee of the Russian Revolution, began working with the poor during the Great Depression, opening Catholic Friendship Houses in Toronto, Harlem and later Chicago. She went on to establish the Madonna House Lay Apostolate in 1947, which is based in Combermere, Ontario, Canada. Since her death in 1985, her lay apostolate has grown to number more than 200 staff workers serving the poor in 21 field houses around the world. Here she reflects on her early meetings with Dorothy Day.

Somewhere around 1934 or 1935, the Archbishop of Toronto, Most Reverend Neil McNeil, called me in, gave me a newspaper and said, “Here is a woman who writes as you speak.” That was interesting to hear, and I realized he had given me The Catholic Worker, which was being sent to many of the bishops of Canada and America by Dorothy Day. What I read was very interesting.

The Archbishop told me that I should go see her. I replied, “Well, I haven’t got any money,” because in those days I didn’t have two pennies to rub against one another. “Oh,” he said, “I will pay your way.” So he gave me some money and I took a train to New York.

I got to 16th Street where Dorothy Day was. I found a big apartment all filled with cots. On each cot, because it was evening, there was somebody sleeping, or lying around, for Dorothy was helping the poor women in those days. There was only one empty bed that she herself slept in. She said, “Catherine, you can sleep with me.”

I was about to go to sleep when there was a knock on the door and a woman came in. I looked at her and it seemed to me that she had syphilis — advanced syphilis at that.

She said to Dorothy, “Can I have a place to stay?” And Dorothy welcomed her warmly and said, “Oh, indeed, you can sleep with me.” I got a little worried about it. We went into the bathroom and Dorothy said, “Catherine, you can sleep in the bathtub.” I was ready to sleep in the bathtub, but, speaking as a nurse, I told Dorothy that this woman was a major health threat. If Dorothy had any open cuts or anything she might become infected herself.

It was then I certainly got my first lesson in charity. Dorothy, usually mild, gentle and kind, suddenly arose, and in a spirited voice said, “Catherine, you don’t understand. This is Christ who has come to ask for a place to sleep. He will take care of me. I am sleeping with Christ and nothing can happen to me. You have to have faith!”

Well, I had my doubts, but I didn’t say a single thing. Who is going to argue with that! I slept in the bathtub. It wasn’t very comfortable, but I managed.

The next morning she took us to a storefront they had. The question of breakfast was more or less on my mind, but nobody mentioned anything about breakfast, so I didn’t either. When we got to the storefront there was some coffee, but there was no milk and no sugar. There was bread, and Dorothy happily announced that we could use donated cod liver oil to butter our bread, which I decided I wouldn’t use at all. I preferred it dry. The bread was long so I could dip it into the coffee. That was all the breakfast we had. Of course, they didn’t have money, so what could they do?

I stuck close to Dorothy to learn about her ways and how she handled herself. After breakfast all the women left and lots of men came. Poor men. Pretty soon quite a lineup was in front of the storefront. I found that this was the time for giving food to these men. I was wondering where the food was coming from because so far I hadn’t seen anything in the kitchen.

Dorothy went down on her knees and suggested that we all should get down on our knees and start praying to St. Francis for food. This is the way she said it: “St. Francis, please give us some food. You know about the poor people. You must help us because we haven’t got anything for them to eat.”

Lo and behold, in less than an hour, a big truck came from a big store and all kinds of food was dished out. Some donor had gone to the store and told them to send it all to Dorothy.

They had a good cook, and once he received all that food he was so delighted he said, “Oh, we are going to have a wonderful soup, and some meat also, and some potatoes! Hurray, hurray!” Everybody worked in the kitchen, peeled potatoes, and did everything necessary. By noon, they started dishing out the food to the poor people. Pretty soon it was all gone, and Dorothy didn’t have anything to eat. The staff there didn’t have very much, and of course, I didn’t have anything either. The cook found some flour and made pancakes. So we had pancakes. That was better than nothing.

I looked at all this and said, “My God, we started a place like this at Friendship House in Toronto, and here I am watching the same situation.” It was really something. I took a train back home and reported all that I had seen to the Archbishop.

“Well,” he said, “She is on her way to becoming a saint, this woman.”

“I think she is already there,” I said. That was my first contact with Dorothy.

My next encounter with her was very exciting. One day when I was in Friendship House in Toronto, a Red Cross ambulance arrived and out came Dorothy and her crowd. They had just received this donated ambulance and hadn’t had time to paint over the red cross. They stayed with us and observed what we were doing. Dorothy stayed at my house, and she was very comfortable. I gave her a lovely bed and she said, “My gosh, Catherine, this is luxury.” I said, “You rate that kind of a luxury.”

Eventually I went to New York to start a Friendship House in Harlem. Then, of course, Dorothy and I were very close together-at the end of a telephone. Whenever we had enough money we used to meet at Child’s. I brought along about fifty cents, and she had fifty cents, and then we got coffee and toast and sat there and talked, talked by the hour; it was lovely. Dorothy used to come to Friendship House in Harlem, and I was at her place quite often too.

Then came World War II. Dorothy, of course, was a pacifist, but I wasn’t. I said to our staff, “I am neither for the war or against the war; you have to make up your own minds.” Dorothy said, “No War.” Many of her houses were closed because of her stance, but she survived. She really was a pacifist. In my estimation, it was a very great honor to her that she survived that war. It was extra-ordinary.

All her people came to my place to try to get everybody in Friendship House to give up any ideas of serving in the armed forces. I let them talk about it; they got a little violent. I said to them, “You are pacifists, so please don’t push anybody around.” Dorothy Day came in to quiet them too. They were shaking people by the shoulders and saying, “You must be a pacifist.” We quieted them and they started talking normally.

Dorothy and I continued to visit each other after the war. Then I came back to Canada to start Madonna House, and the last time I saw her was when I was lecturing for the Christophers in New York City. After I finished lecturing I wanted to see Dorothy because I had a feeling that she wasn’t long for this world. So I went to visit my friends in Harlem and she came there to see me, and she had a birthday party there. A lot of people gave her birthday cakes of all kinds. She asked me to cut the cakes for all the people that were there, and I did so. It was my last goodbye to her.

I think of myself as having been truly blessed with the friendship of Dorothy. It lasted from 1935 on, through Toronto, Harlem, and then back again to Canada. I must admit she was an example to me. Whenever I was afraid of something-and there are moments when one gets afraid working as a lay person, in the lay apostolate-I always remembered that Dorothy was never afraid. So I held on to her, so to speak. She was, in a way, like a saint to me. Perhaps I’m a little bit ahead of the Church in calling her a saint, but that’s the way I felt about her, very deeply. I was honored by her friendship and delighted in it.

The above is excerpted from the new book, “Blue Door Stories,” by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, available this fall through Madonna House Publications, Combermere, Ontario KOJ 1LO. For more information, visit the Madonna House web site here.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, September-October 1998.