In Dorothy Day’s retelling, her radical conversion to the Catholic faith and to a life lived with and for the poor was nurtured in a cloud of incense inside St. Louis Cathedral in 1924.
Day had just turned 26, a few years after her breakup with journalist Lionel Moise, the newspaperman who would mentor Ernest Hemingway at the Kansas City Star.
In 1919, Moise had impregnated Day, nine years his junior, bullied her into having an abortion, which Day acceded to in an attempt to salvage their relationship, and then abandoned her after she did.
As a fledgling writer with a passion for chronicling the lives of the working poor, Day moved to New Orleans and got a job with the New Orleans Item. In several of her Item stories, Day posed as a “taxi dancer” at the Arcadia Dance Hall, at the corner of Burgundy and Canal, to get a first-hand account of the young women who were paid a small commission for every 10-cent dance ticket they could sell to the male patrons for a 60-second swing, shining a light on the seamy business and social arrangement.
This was during Prohibition (1920-33), but Day took her readers behind the scenes with a fine investigative series.
“Drink, dope and men of all ages and occupations – these are to be found night after night at the Arcadia,” she wrote, explaining it was “one of the three ‘free’ dance halls in which the writer worked for a week.”
Even though Day returned to New York a few months later after an unexpected “fortune” of $2,500 fell into her lap for the sale of the movie rights to a novel she had written, she journaled glowingly about New Orleans and its effect on her faith journey:
“The Memorare. Sam Putnam, a Chicago city editor I worked for, gave me Huysman’s En Retour (On Return) to read – the story of a man going to a convent every evening for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and hearing that prayer recited. I went from Chicago to New Orleans, to work on the New Orleans Item – lived in the square between the Cathedral (where I went to Benediction every evening) and the French market on the Mississippi River. This started my conversion. Having a baby a few years later finished it. I had her baptized, and began going to Mass, myself.”
The woman who in the midst of the Great Depression would join Peter Maurin in founding the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933 always said it was the birth of her daughter Tamar Teresa in 1926, and her decision to have her baptized over the objections of her common-law husband, that brought her into the church.
On the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Dec. 28, 1927, at age 30, Day was baptized at the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians in Staten Island, New York, and received first Communion the next day.
Day’s yearning to combine her Catholic faith with social justice led her to embrace a life of voluntary poverty and personal sacrifice with a deep commitment to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The Catholic Worker Movement she started now encompasses more than 180 houses of hospitality in the U.S., along with more than a dozen houses in other countries.
Twenty years after her death in 1980, New York Cardinal John O’Connor initiated her sainthood cause, and the Vatican’s approval meant she could be recognized as “Servant of God.” The U.S. bishops endorsed her cause in 2012.
And now, her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, the last of nine children born to Tamar, has written a personal account of her grandmother and mother, “Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty.” The line comes from Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whom Day read and incorporated into her life along with the theological reflections of St. Therese the Little Flower.
“She didn’t require people to make the kind of big gestures and the sacrifices she made,” said Hennessy, who will speak about her book at Loyola University later this month. “She said, ‘I don’t mean for everyone to open up soup lines and live with the destitute the rest of your life.’ She said, ‘Find out what your strengths are, find your vocation, and do what you can do with that. Whatever little bit that you can give to others, you’ve got to do it.’
“And I think that’s essential. We have so much work ahead of us right now. And we all have opportunities to do something that’s great.”
Hennessy’s life was not easy. Her father left the family just after she was born, leaving Tamar to rear nine children as a single mom. Dorothy came to Vermont regularly to help care for her grandkids, especially one four-month stint when Tamar was going through nursing school. Dorothy taught her granddaughter the rosary.
“Yes, things were always tight,” Hennessy said. “But we had this beautiful property in Vermont. We were poor in terms of money, but my mother was a gardener, so we always had fresh food. She would can food for the winter, and we always had animals. We were surrounded by beauty. We were very poor monetarily, but we were so rich in so many other ways.”
In 2015, when Pope Francis spoke before a joint session of Congress, he included Day alongside Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Trappist monk Thomas Merton as “four representatives of the American people” who used their dreams of justice, equal rights, liberty and peace to make America better.
Hennessy had no idea the pope would single out her grandmother.
“I was so shocked I nearly fell out of my chair,” Hennessy said. “I think what it means is that what she has asked us to do has somehow permeated in a very slow and steady way into people’s consciousness and into the consciousness of Pope Francis. Pope Francis is a pope after her own heart.”
The story of her grandmother and mother “is a very human story and a very hard story,” Hennessy said.
“Both Dorothy and Tamar felt this huge sense of failure in their work, but they never gave up,” she said. “I’m hoping people come away with the idea that we may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, but we have to keep trying.”
Given Day’s insistence on doing small, hidden things for others, sainthood would have been the last thing on her mind, Hennessy insists.
But it is a settled issue to her.
“There is no doubt,” Hennessy said. “They have their canonical law. They have their way of dealing with it, which is fine. It’s not that I can really say what the definition of a saint is. That’s one of the great mysteries. But, to me, there’s no doubt.”
Hennessy will speak at Loyola’s Ignatius Chapel March 23 at 7 p.m. A reception and book signing will follow. The event is sponsored by University Ministry, the Office of Mission and Ministry, the Office of University Chaplain and the Loyola Institute for Ministry.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.