header icons

Dorothy Day: Writings from Commonweal. Ed. by Patrick Jordan. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2002.

If anyone can lay claim to a role in the development of the Catholic Worker movement, it isCommonweal magazine, a periodical edited by Catholic lay people since 1924.

It was Commonweal’s editor at the time, George N. Shuster, who sent Peter Maurin to Dorothy Day (they met on December 8, 1932 on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception). Peter was looking for someone to help him implement the program he had developed, and especially someone who could edit a newspaper. Together Dorothy and Peter founded the Catholic Worker movement.

When Peter had first visited Commonweal, the staff was very busy putting out the magazine. John Brunini, an assistant, thought he would be helpful and get rid of him. Schuster’s high estimation of Peter was clear when he upbraided his assistant, saying, “You might have been entertaining angels.” Shuster suggested to Peter that he contact Dorothy Day. Dorothy said she probably would not have taken Peter seriously if she had not gone to Washington, D. C., to cover the Hunger March and then prayed at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for a way to unite her faith with the social concerns which she had so often expressed before her conversion. Nor would she have responded to Peter if she had not been reading the lives of the saints, “canonized and as yet uncanonized, St. John Bosco and Rose Hawthorne for instance-I probably would have listened, but continued to write rather than act.” But she did listen and begin to act on Peter’s Catholic Worker program. (Several years later Dorothy mentioned in her column that John Brunini came to cook a nice meal at the Worker).

Over the years there were many references to Commonweal in Dorothy’s “On Pilgrimage” column in the paper.

After these many years we have today’s magazine editor of Commonweal, Pat Jordan, reintroducing us to the world of Dorothy Day and Pete Maurin and the Catholic Worker movement via the articles Day wrote for Commonweal magazine from 1929 through 1973. Dorothy Day: Writings from Commonweal is a good read and provides many insights to Dorothy and the development of the Catholic Worker. The reader will see many sides of Dorothy Day, journalist.

The articles range from accounts of Dorothy’s travels in Mexico to homey, charming stories of her daughter at bedtime and applications of the lives of the saints to family life, to prophetic challenges on important issues. One of Dorothy’s best-known articles appears here-“The Scandal of the Works of Mercy.”

Dorothy as usual taunts us with the choice: “Holy Mother the State” or “Holy Mother the Church,” yet writes about “my bitterness was most bitter” in regards to the human element in the Church. Dorothy, however, is unique in seeing herself as part of the problem and the need for her own conversion and reformation, which sets her apart from the usual breed of malcontents and nay sayers which have emerged in the name of progress, while decimating the Body of Christ and making a living off this.

Dorothy repeats again the powerfulness of trying to live out the Gospel, and especially of voluntary poverty. She quotes John Cort who says voluntary poverty is the most important contribution of the CW movement.

Very interesting is Dorothy’s explanation for accepting the Laetare medal from Notre Dame, even though they had a ROTC program, while she refused an honorary degree from the Benedictines at St. John’s College for that very reason.

One of the most interesting discoveries was a letter Dorothy Day wrote to Commonweal in 1948 where she listed all the reasons people go to war-“all blindly selfish,” and often related to oil-and even more interesting was the Common-weal editor’s response at the time fiercely attacking Dorothy because he disagreed with her and supported war:

“This letter puts everything in question once more, and naturally so because Dorothy Day wrote it, and her contemporaries have learned to expect from her no compromise, no acceptance of hate, no deviation from what she considers the demands of absolute justice and charity. That is why we cannot conceal our surprise at the passage in which she lists the reasons-all blindly selfish-for which men go to war. That passage reflects an automatism, a determinism unworthy of her thinking and style; it could have been written by one who knew nothing of the human heart and who denied the soul. It could not have been written by Charles Pèguy; perhaps it should not have been written by Dorothy Day” (p. 102).

The book recalls our own involvement with the Workers and Dorothy day. As a teenager in the seminary we learned about Dorothy and the Worker through Jim Clarke, a captain in the now famous New York Fire Department turned pacifist and then seminarian at the behest of Dorothy Day. Jim used his age and wisdom to make sure the young seminarians received the New York Catholic Worker newspaper. We have been receiving it ever since.

It was as an older seminarian a few years later that we made the famous Catholic Worker, “Hugo,” retreat, which Dorothy loved and promoted and which impacted us strongly. In fact, Dorothy called it “bread for the strong.”

In the fifties we were able to promote Dorothy’s most important book, The Long Loneliness, in bookstores we founded to promote the pre-Vatican II renaissance.

Our personal encounter with Dorothy was in the late fifties when my mother visited her at the farm. This was the beginning of a correspondence between her and Dorothy. When we visited, Dorothy was very welcoming and open to sharing with us, even though she appeared tired. Our participation in the famous “Hugo” retreat and knowing the priests who gave the retreat stood us in good stead with Dorothy. While at lunch she shared with us about the serious illness of Ed Willock (who is featured in chapter 34 of the Commonwealbook-a fascinating chapter for us). Dorothy asked a favor of us.

Ed Willock, a former Catholic Worker, had a serious stroke and had become incapacitated. Dorothy asked if we would take several of his children to live with a family in New England, since Dorothy Willock was having a hard time raising twelve children alone.

People like Ed Willock on the East Coast and Julian Pleasants and the Geisslers at South Bend (read Notre Dame) took the bull by the horns and attempted to live out their roles as Catholic lay people and address the issue of “lay spirituality.” They formed communities and built their own houses-quite a feat since they had many children. We remain in touch with the Geisslers and Julian Pleasants to this day.

With Carol Jackson Ed founded a magazine for lay people called Integrity. We had visited their offices as seminarians and subscribed to the magazine made famous by Ed’s famous cartoon of the kind of cross we all want to embrace-one padded with foam rubber. As Dorothy said, “The magazine Integrity became so popular that young people flocked to it and visitors came from all over the country to sit around the office and discuss the ideas in the last month’s or the future month’s articles. Ed himself had to fix up a room in the basement where he could hide out if he wished to get any work done” (p. 149)-which is probably where he was when we seminarians visited.

After the seminary we lost touch with Jim Clarke, the fireman, and more decades than we would like to admit had passed. Louise and I and our children were visiting the New York Worker as Houston Catholic Workers and assisting at the weekly liturgy. The celebrant was Jim Clarke who had introduced us to The Catholic Worker years before. He had aged well.

Louise and I had met several decades earlier on December 8, 1962, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

M.L.Z., L.Y.Z.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, July-August 2004.