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Meeting Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin

Stanley visited the Catholic Worker when he was and idealistic 18-year-old and began to help. He could never decide if he wanted to stay or not for sure, but died as a Catholic Worker at age 80.

One morning in the Williamsburg branch of the public library I picked up The Life of Christ by Giovanni Papini, freely translated by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I fell in love with the personality of Christ. He was a man who was more than a man. My eyes seemed to open as I read:

“But he who wishes to come with me, said Jesus, must go and sell that which he has and give it to the poor and he shall have treasures in Heaven. Poverty is the first requisite for the citizenship of the Kingdom.”

“Jesus is the poor man, infinitely and rigorously poor. Poor with an absolute poverty! The prince of poverty! The Lord of perfect destitution! The poor man who lives with the poor, who has come for the poor, who speaks to the poor, who gives to the poor, who works for the poor! Poor among the poor, destitute among the destitute, beggar among the beggars! The poor man of a great and eternal poverty! The happy and rich poor man, who accepts poverty, who desires poverty, who weds himself to poverty, who chants of poverty!

It was late afternoon when I finished reading the book. I walked home in a state of exaltation. I had found a Leader whom I could serve.

I left the library and headed for the nearest church where I went up to the altar to pray. Christ had become a personal God to me. There were tears in my eyes as I prayed. Christ was real. He was present on the altar. He was not an abstraction. He needed me. I prayed that He would find a work for me to do.

I got the habit of visiting churches to spend time in prayer. I begged Christ to use me for whatever work He had in mind for me. I wanted an Apostolate that would absorb my entire time and my love. I didn’t care for money. Papini had convinced me that money was dung and as dung it was to be thrown on the dung heap. I didn’t want to work at a job I hated in order to make “dung” which I did not want in order to buy things I didn’t need. What I wanted to do was give my life as a gift to some Catholic apostolic lay group. It was to that intention that I directed my prayers and efforts.

My prayers were answered one day in the spring of 1934. I picked up a copy of The Catholic Worker in the Williamsburg branch of the public library. The format of the paper was of magazine size even though it called itself a newspaper. I was impressed and deeply moved when I had finished reading the paper. I knew that I had found my vocation.

I was at the office of the Catholic Worker by ten o’clock the next morning. The door was locked. I held my hand against my forehead and tried to peer into the darkened store. There was nobody moving inside. I continued to press my forehead against the glass. In the dim interior I could make out two desks, a book case and in the middle of the room a pot bellied stove.

I studied the display in the window. It consisted of a large tryptich cardboard on which two copies of the paper were pasted. It also gave a list of books. I took my pencil and wrote the titles on the back of an envelope: The Great Commandment by Father Patrick Healy, The Making of Europe by Christopher Dawson, Nazareth and Social Chaos by Father Vincent McNabb, O.P. …

A tall woman, her head covered by a babushka and wearing a long dress that almost covered her shoes, came down the street wheeling a baby carriage. When she reached the stoop, she stopped. The baby carriage was loaded with pots and pans, bulging paper bags, and a heap of clothes. An infant was sleeping under all the clutter. I remember thinking that a slight joggle would bury the baby under the avalanche.

I stood up. “Do you know when the Catholic Worker opens?” I asked her.

She said, “I am going in there right now.”

“Are you Dorothy Day?” I asked.

The woman straightened up. “No, I am not,” she said. My name is Margaret Polk. I help out here.”
“Does Dorothy Day live here?” I asked.

“She went to Staten Island,” Margaret said, “to see her daughter, Tamar. “She’s in school there.”

“I guess I’ll come back some other time,” I said.

“Don’t you want to come in?” Margaret asked. She took the baby in her arms and went down to unlock the door.

When we were inside she pushed a switch and a sudden burst of light illuminated the store. “The bundles go in that box, she said.”

A hand painted sign, tacked to the wall above it read: “Help yourself to what you need.” I threw the clothes into the half-empty box.

A row of chairs was backed against the wall. In the center of the room was a pot-bellied stove. In the back was a book case that held a series of Catholic encyclopedias.

The first of the two desks which I had noticed was an old-fashioned roll-top desk, which was supported upright by two torn, coverless encyclopedias. On top of this desk there was an upright typewriter. I learned later that this was Dorothy Day’s desk. The other desk was a metal-topped kitchen table. It held two large wooden file cabinets and three boxes of white business size envelopes.

Over this table was a hand-printed sign saying, “The First duty of a Christian is to Return Thanks.” The quotation was by Saint Ambrose. The sign was put up by Dorothy Day, as I later learned, because a visitor had argued that it was wrong to thank people who gave clothes and money to the poor. “It is they who should thank the poor,” he said, “because the poor, by accepting their alms, open up the gates of heaven to them.”

Dorothy, I was then told, had said to the critic: “In justice, one has to give thanks to those who send us money to do the work.” She then had the sign made and placed on the wall.

In the kitchen Margaret was holding the baby in one arm while she lit the gas under a kettle. I took the pots and pans out of the carriage and placed them on a round table. Margaret then put the baby in the carriage.

“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked.

“Barbara,” she said. “What’s yours?”

“Stanley,” I said. “Stanley Vishnewski. I am a Lithuanian.”

“So am I,” Margaret said.

“Laba diena!” (good day) I said.

“I forgot how to speak Lithuanian,” Margaret said. ”But sit down and I will make you some coffee.”

The door opened. An old man came in. He wore a shabby, ill-fitting suit and heavy shoes. His pockets bulged with newspapers and pamphlets. I remember how the hob-nails in his shoes clattered, against the floor, as he went past us without speaking. I had the impression that he did not see us.

“That’s Peter Maurin,” Mary Sheehan said. “He writes the Easy Essays for the paper. He lives up in Harlem.”

I looked at the doorway through which the man had gone. I had thought that he was some tramp who had come in looking for something to eat.

Mary Sheehan must have sensed what I was thinking. “Peter doesn’t care how he looks,” she said. “He always has his nose stuck in a book. But what a brain he has. He knows everything about history. He could make a lot of money as a teacher.”

I stepped aside to let Mary go ahead of me and then followed her into the kitchen. Peter Maurin was already sitting at the table. He was reading a pamphlet. Mary sat down next to him.

“Sit here,” Margaret told me. “I’ll put the food out.”

I noticed that there was an extra plate set at the table, Margaret must have read my thoughts. “That’s the Christ plate. We always set an extra plate for anyone who comes.”

“Always plenty of water for more soup,” Mary Sheehan said.

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.”

“Today,” he continued, “the poor are fed, clothed and sheltered by the politicians at the expense of the taxpayers.

“And because the poor are no longer fed, clothed, and sheltered at a personal sacrifice but at the expense of the taxpayers Pagans say about the Christians, ‘See how they pass the buck.’”

Peter spoke in a rhythmical singsong. At that time I did not realize that he was reciting one of his own Easy Essays, but I had a feeling that he was quoting from something that had already been written. When he finished, he stared at me as if waiting for me to comment on what he had just said.

Peter refrained from talking during meal. Mary and Margaret did most of the talking. I just listened. During the course of the meal Margaret told Peter that I was a Lithuanian.

Peter put his fork down and looked at me through a pair of glasses which were perched precariously on the edge of his nose. “So you are a Lithuanian,” he said. “The Third Order of St. Francis was strong for many years in Lithuania. “

“I was impressed by Peter’s remark. He was the first person I had met, away from the Lithuanian community, who knew anything about my own culture. Most people didn’t even know where Lithuania was on the map.

“My people come from the country,” I said. “They were Lithuanian peasants.”

“I am a French peasant,” Peter said. “I was born on a farm in the southern part of France. My family owned the farm for 1500 years, since the time of St. Augustine. We had seven cows, some sheep and a mare. We used oxen to plow the fields. We raised most of the food we ate. My father worked the land until he was ninety years old.”

Peter had moved his chair in order to be closer to me. Peter talked as though addressing an audience. He raised his voice slightly. He mentioned names of saints I had never heard of before.

“I am for tradition and not for revolution,” he said. “In the Catholic Worker we must try to have the voluntary poverty of St. Francis, the charity of St. 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.”

When he had concluded a statement he would stop talking and lean forward and with his finger pointed at me. I, of course, said nothing. I didn’t know what to say. It was a new experience, for me, to have an adult treat me as an intellectual equal.

Later I learned more of Peter’s method of conducting discussions. He had expected me then to make some comment on what he was saying. He had wanted me to state what was on my mind. Once I had commented on what he had just said he would then have proceeded to carry on the conversation from there.

Peter would never dominate a conversation. He believed that a person had a right to finish a statement without being interrupted.

I finally asked the question that was on my mind. “What is the purpose of the Catholic Worker?”

“The purpose of the Catholic Worker,” he said, “is to create a society where it will be easier for men to be good. A society where each person will consider himself to be his brother’s keeper. A society where each one will try to serve and to be the least. God wants us to be our brother’s keeper. He wants us to feed the hungry at a personal sacrifice. He wants us to clothe the naked at a personal sacrifice. He wants us to shelter the homeless. To serve man for God’s sake, that is what God wants us to do!”

I was fascinated by Peter’s flow of language and his learning. I was impressed by what he was saying. I had never met a man who talked like he did. Peter was warming up to his subject.

“We need enthusiasm,” Peter said. “Nothing can be accomplished in the work of social reconstruction without enthusiasm.”

I was happy to hear Peter say this. I realized that the only talent I had was enthusiasm, enthusiasm, and more enthusiasm!

The next day I was back at the Catholic Worker full of enthusiasm, addressing en-velopes.

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. The envelopes had all been addressed. After we had finished our sandwiches and coffee I sat down in a corner and started reading a copy of Commonweal when I noticed a tall, angular woman standing in the open doorway looking straight at me. She had a cigarette in her hand. Her hair was cut in the style they used to call “page boy.” She stared intently at me for a few seconds, and then walked towards the desk and sat down.

“You must be Stanley,” she said, “the young man who wrote us that enthusiastic letter. We are happy that you were able to come. Have they been keeping you busy?”

I knew, without asking, that this woman was Dorothy Day. I was eighteen and she was thirty-six that afternoon when we first met. I thought then that she was very old. But when I reached the age of thirty-six she was no longer old, but appeared middle-aged. Today, as I write, she seems to me to be one of the youngest persons, in spirit, that I know.”

But I knew nothing about Dorothy’s background and little about the Catholic Worker that afternoon, as I sat talking with her. I told her about my desire to work for the Church. She listened to what I had to say. I felt that she was interested in me and my ambitions. “I also want to be a writer.”

A quizzical smile played about Dorothy’s lips. She lit a cigarette. She blew a puff of smoke in the air. “Writing is hard work,” she said “But if you want to become a writer you will become one. Nothing will stop you. What I would like you to do for the next issue of the paper is to copy out a list of quotes from Rerum Novarum that we can use as fillers in the paper. She went through her desk and took out a paperback copy of the Encyclical and handed it to me. “Use my typewriter.”

I inserted a sheet of paper and using two fingers began typing out what I thought were suitable quotes.

“Don’t make them too long,” Dorothy said. “The shorter the better.”

I read the pamphlet carefully, line by line, and weighed each thought carefully in my mind. About a half-hour went by before I began to type.

“Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that freedom from sorrow and abundance of earthly riches are no guarantee of that beatitude that shall never end, but rather to the contrary; that the rich shall tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ—threatenings so strange in the mouth of our Lord; and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all that we possess.”

When I finished typing out two pages I brought them to Dorothy, who was sitting in the kitchen. She read them carefully and when she had finished looked up at me and said, “You did a good job.”

When I walked home that night over the Williamsburg
Bridge I was in a state of happiness. I had been accepted into the Catholic Worker movement.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, September-October 2006. Excerpted from Wings of the Dawn by Stanley Vishnewski, published in New York by The Catholic Worker, n.d.)