While Day’s cause for canonization was introduced in 2000, she believed that “there are many saints, here, there and everywhere and not only the canonized saints that Rome draws to our attention.” At the same time, she “didn’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
She probably didn’t do it consciously, but it was almost as if Dorothy Day found the notion of sainthood had grown tarnished and irrelevant. Briskly, practically, as she did everything, she dusted it off and made it serviceable. In a world of violence, social upheaval and war, she called for saints who would disarm the heart.
A casting director looking for saint material would’ve rejected her on multiple grounds: a leaning towards Communism, multiple relationships with men, an abortion and a child born out of wedlock. With tongue firmly in cheek, she summed up the gossipy accusations against her in a 1936 letter: “I’m supposed to be an immoral woman, with illegitimate children, a drunkard, a racketeer, running an expensive apartment on the side, with money in several banks, owning property, in the pay of Moscow, etc.”
Stir into the mix the narrow-minded church of her day, whose leaders wouldn’t dream of listening to “radical” lay women. The vast majority of Catholics then saw their role as following the rules, and were content to pay, pray and obey.
Early in her career during her first visit. to the south, Dorothy was shocked by the poverty in Arkansas. Never one to dither, she telegraphed Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, also a lady who got things done. Mrs. Roosevelt contacted the governor, who—unsurprisingly—stonewalled.
No amount of brisk bureaucratic subterfuge could stop her for long. The Catholic Worker newspaper she edited and wrote skyrocketed from 2500 to 35,000 copies printed in its first six months. By 1938 they’d reached 190,000 copies. Ever the writer, she first proposed houses of hospitality in print, but didn’t actually begin one until a desperate young woman told her she’d been sleeping in subways with a friend, who in desperation, had thrown herself in front of a train. Gradually, Dorothy and her staff rented other apartments and houses for the homeless. It was all rather ragged, with no one drawing a salary. Yet in those first five years, more than thirty houses of hospitality were founded beyond the shaky, original New York beginning in Dorothy’s apartment. Today 227 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless. (www.catholicworker.org)
Even a few excerpts from her letters are enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that sainthood is a sunny stroll through a flowery meadow. She knew that when the Catholic Worker failed, it was often because of her explosive judgmentalism. Like the rest of us who recognize bundles of contradictions within, she regretted parts of her early life, and what seems to have been a constant impatience with others.
One of her favorite quotes was Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s, “the world will be saved by beauty.” She tried to live out Ruskin’s “duty of delight.” Throughout her life, she loved reading, opera, films and nature. The sea brought her peace and strength; wisely, she visited it often. Even a half-hour ride on the ferry brought the taste of salt spray, the wheeling arcs of gulls, sunset, silence, refreshment. Living with neediness, congestion and often chaos, she turned to nature for quiet space.
Excerpt from When the Saints Came Marching In, Liturgical Press. Kathy will be speaking on the North American Saints and on grandparenting at the Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference, Santa Clara Convention Center, on November 30. For details see: