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Portraits from the Early Catholic Worker Movement

Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker: The Miracle of Our Continuance. Photographs by Vivian Cherry, Text by Dorothy Day, Edited, with an Introduction and additional text by Kate Hennessy

Reviewed by Susan Gallagher

More than 80 years have passed since the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 and despite myriad challenges, its work of prayer and action is still unfolding in farms and houses of hospitality around the country. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker: The Miracle of Our Continuance casts a look back to the 1950’s and documents life at two Catholic Worker farms and at the House of Hospitality in New York City. The book, which was edited by Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s youngest grandchild, is a collaboration, with introduction and text by Hennessy, photographs by Vivian Cherry, and also text drawn from Dorothy Day’s articles in The Catholic Worker newspaper.

Cherry’s luminous black and white photographs, a number of which have not been published before, were taken in 1955 and 1959. Coupled with excerpts from Dorothy’s writing, these photographs document the labors that are synonymous with the early Worker Movement: The baking of bread and preparation of soup, the food line, the production and distribution of the newspaper. They place the reader within the daily life and rhythm of the movement.   Prayer and protest, farm life and family life were also part of the Catholic Worker story and these threads, too, are documented in this volume.

Hennessy writes of Dorothy Day’s skill in taking delight in the “gifts of beauty that surround us” (88), even if in the midst of poverty and sometimes squalor: A tree blooming on a street full of tenements (87), the “tremendous energy and joy of life” in her 19-month- old granddaughter (93), or springtime at Peter Maurin Farm, when “the lilac buds are bursting out” and “[c]rows cry out in the woods” (63). Borrowing from John Ruskin, Dorothy called this appreciation for the unexpected beauty we encounter amidst the ordinary the “duty of delight” and saw it as “one of the works of mercy that we perform for ourselves” (88). In this same way, Cherry’s strong and honest photographs remind us of the beauty that permeates the life of voluntary poverty and service.

Numerous portraits of guests who came to the House of Hospitality reinforce the reader’s sense of immediacy. We see the expressions on the faces of the men in the food line (photo 2). We notice that many of the guests seated at the tables eating bread and soup have no teeth (photo 11). We observe that the unnamed woman clutching a wrinkled paper bag at 223 Christie Street is wearing stained socks and a shoe with a broken strap (photo 18). We learn that Slim Ridlon (photo 12, second from the right) arrived at the Catholic Worker at age 17 and was cared for at the Worker for more that 60 years. We are reminded that the guests being fed are not just “the poor”, but individual human persons.

Hennessy writes, “Hospitality lies at the heart of the Catholic Worker… Hospitality is the sharing of not only poverty but also riches in the form of community. No questions are asked and no demands are made of those who arrive in need” (33). Dorothy Day explains, “We are a family, not an institution, in atmosphere…” (35).

The Catholic Worker family includes not just guests, but also the workers themselves who stood shoulder to shoulder with Dorothy writing the paper, preparing the meals, farming the land, protesting and praying. In photos and text, readers come face to face with an eccentric and beloved community of fellow laborers. The colorful Ammon Hennacy was an anarchist, pacifist and romantic who Dorothy called “an inspiration and a reproach” (51). Father Clarence Duffy, a priest and a farmer who spent 20 years with the Catholic Worker, is pictured at Peter Maurin Farm feeding goats (photo 32) and chickens (photo 31), wielding a shovel (photo 33) and saying Mass (photo 56). John Filigar and Hans Tunnesen, both former seamen who worked at Catholic Worker farms for decades until their deaths in 1982 and 1973 respectively, appear at work (photos 34-36, 38), at prayer (photo 57), and at the dinner table (photo 40). There is Stanley Vishnewski, writer and laborer, who came to the Worker in 1933 at age 17 and stayed until his death 1979. Stanley is never in the forefront, but always present in the background, working on the newspaper (photo 21), in conversation (photo 37), at the table (photo 41), at prayer (photo 40), and assisting at Mass (photo 57). Dorothy wrote that Stanley had “all but saved my life on two different occasions” (77). After his death, a year before Dorothy’s own, Dorothy wrote, “I miss Stanley.” After encountering him in this book, we readers miss him too. Those of us who are part of the Catholic Worker in 2017 and might not know of these individuals, or might only know their names, can meet them as friends and fellows — eccentric, stubborn, exasperating and beloved–through their portraits in word and image. For, as Dorothy wrote, “Here … we must, in this neighborhood, on this street, in this parish, regain a sense of community which is the basis for peace in the world” (36).

These bonds of community were an essential support for the demanding labor of serving people in need and performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy day after day. The work was exhausting and the challenges immense as is implied by the book’s subtitle, “The Miracle of Our Continuance.” Dorothy wrote, “There is no end to the needs in work like ours. People go on eating.

Meals come around with appalling regularity. [People] come in for clothes, for carfare, for help to fill out forms, and when they can get a bed nowhere else, … or they are just out of the hospital, then they stay with us for a while and we get to feel them part of the Catholic Worker family” (34-35). The financial pressures were enormous and there was no telling from week to week if there would be money for rent or the heating bill or the printing of the newspaper.

There were other pressures as well. During the 1950’s when the photos were taken, McCarthyism and the threat of atomic war were looming. Catholic Workers protested, arguing that our resources should be used for the poor, not for the military (photos 53-54). Dorothy (then in her early 60’s) and other workers were arrested and jailed for their protests. “It was not an easy thing to do, physically speaking,” Dorothy wrote of her jail time (110). The pacifist stance of the Catholic Worker also drew the ire of many, both within the Catholic Church and in the broader community. Another trial for the Worker community was the challenge of living side by side with the troubled guests who suffered from addiction or mental illness. Dorothy wrote, “Sometimes the house is like the reception ward at Bellevue Psychiatric. One can only bow one’s head to the storm and pray. The Jesus prayer helps me” (120).

The prayer life of the community is much in evidence (photos 40,57-62) and Dorothy wrote, “I am convinced that the life of prayer, to pray without ceasing, is one of prime importance” (121).   Images of people in prayer punctuate the book and seem to establish the rhythm of the household as much as the routine of preparing and serving meals for the ceaseless flow of guests.

But if prayer was an essential support for the work, so was humor. Writing about her habit of praying silently throughout the day, Dorothy said, “I’d pray out loud, but there are enough people around here talking to themselves” (121).   She also wrote about the Worker tradition of saying compline (night prayer) every evening. Once, to Dorothy’s great amusement, Hans Tunnesen (who was unfamiliar with the word “compline” and with the tradition of the Liturgy of the Hours) came into the room asking, “Shall we complain?” (83). Hennessy reports that her grandmother had a vibrant sense of humor and laughed often, and the wonderful portrait on the book’s cover allows us a rare glimpse of Dorothy’s smile.

Another revelation of the book is its depiction of the private family life of Dorothy, her daughter and grandchildren. We see a birthday party with balloons and cake (photo 45-48, 50-51). We witness the grandchildren reading and coloring and singing (photo 43, 44, 42, 49. We find Dorothy at the spinning wheel (photo 52). These intimate images are honest and unaffected, and in them we see all the nuances of a multi-generational family – commotion, exhaustion, trust and love. Dorothy and her family believed in the importance of manual labor, on the farm and in the home because as Hennessy explains, using one’s hand helps a person “to rediscover the sacramentality of things” (106).   Likewise, Cherry’s photographs and the text that accompanies them reveal the holiness of the everyday in the continuing pilgrimage that is the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy wrote, “It is a living God and a living faith that we are trying to express” (37). We see both in this profoundly loving book.


Houston Catholic Worker, October-December 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4.