Dorothy Day: From bohemian to beatitude

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Of all the modern examples of holiness, Dorothy Day may well be the most approachable. During her bohemian years, she had a number of affairs, an abortion, lived out of wedlock, attempted suicide twice, and became a radical socialist. But all the while she longed for deeper meaning, with an unquenchable desire to help the downtrodden.

Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York into a stable, middle class family. Although her Episcopalian parents were not churchgoers, they instilled in her a solid Protestant work ethic and a respect for scripture that she retained all her life. Her father, a journalist, moved the family to San Francisco in 1903. In the great earthquake of 1906, her father’s newspaper plant was destroyed, and he was left unemployed. It was Dorothy’s first encounter with misfortune, and seeing the misery of the people in the city left an indelible impression on the young girl.

Like most people, Dorothy Day was an amalgam of strength and weakness.

During her university years at the University of Illinois, Day became a member of the Socialist Party and turned away from religion. Afterward, she became a journalist at a socialist paper, and later described her life during that time as “dissolute, wasted, full of sensation and sensuality.”

Despite her dissipated lifestyle, Day continued to search for a higher purpose in life. She was never quite able to extinguish the sense of the divine.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

She bought a beach house on Staten Island after selling the film rights to her autobiographical novel, “The Eleventh Virgin.” Although she was happy with the man with whom she was living, an atheist biologist named Forster Batterham, things turned sour when she began exploring religion. Dorothy began praying, and was eventually drawn to Catholicism. When she unexpectedly became pregnant, Dorothy knew their romance would end if she baptized the child. Batterham was already unhappy with the pregnancy, and was disdainful of her newfound faith.

Undeterred, Dorothy had the child baptized and became a Catholic the day after their relationship ended for good. Heartbroken, she later recalled how she went to church and sought guidance for the future: “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor.”

Her answer came when she returned to New York and met a Christian Brothers teacher named Peter Maurin. Together, they founded the Catholic Worker Movement, with the aim to help the suffering victims of the Great Depression.

The two started a newspaper called the Catholic Worker. Day explained that the word “worker” was used to describe “those who worked with hand or brain, those who did physical, mental or spiritual work. But we thought primarily of the poor, the dispossessed, the exploited.” Day said their aim was to provide an alternative to communist solutions for caring for the poor and needy. When critics accused her of being a socialist, her rebuttal was that she was a Christian personalist, meaning someone who followed the Gospel precepts of performing works of mercy and seeing Christ in each person.

The paper was a great success. Donations and volunteers poured in, and Day founded the first of many Catholic Worker houses of hospitality to serve the homeless and unemployed in local communities. Dorothy and her volunteers also defended workers from unfair wages and dangerous working conditions. The foundation of her active ministry was an intense life of prayer, which she recommended to all her helpers. She remained faithful to her church and her ministry until her death in 1980.

Day’s legacy continues to this day, with 236 Catholic Worker communities dedicated to helping the homeless, the hungry, and victims of violence and war. Her cause for canonization has been opened by the Catholic Church.

Without that humility, she would never have changed so dramatically, much less been receptive to the call to launch great works.

Like most people, Dorothy Day was an amalgam of strength and weakness. But unlike most people, she fought heroically to conquer her faults so she could serve the forsaken people who had captured her heart. Authors James Allaire and Rosemary Broughton summarized her outlook well: “Although Dorothy spurned the suggestion that she was a saint, she took seriously the importance of becoming one; saintly people could heal the ills of this world.”

Most biographers identify Day’s defining attributes as solidarity with the poor, peacemaking, defending the downtrodden, and a love of scripture and the sacraments. But her humility stands out even more. Her penitent “have mercy on me, a sinner” was the antithesis of the self-righteous “I thank thee that I’m not like other men.”  Without that humility, she would never have changed so dramatically, much less been receptive to the call to launch great works. For that reason, she deserves her place alongside King David, Mary Magdalen, and Augustine of Hippo. As Augustine himself said, “There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].