Houses of hospitality

BY THE AGE OF 25, journalist Dorothy Day (1897–1980) had survived the San Francisco Earthquake, imprisonment on a trumped-up charge of prostitution connected with socialist activism, an abortion, a failed marriage, and drinking bouts in Greenwich Village with Eugene O’Neill. Yet the decisive factor that converted her to Catholicism in 1922 was none of these—it was an immense surge of joy at the birth of her child. 

Day wrote later that there was nothing to do with such gratitude but to offer it to God. Her common-law husband not only refused to follow her into the Catholic Church but also refused to regularize their marriage. Day left him and lived as a celibate single mother for the rest of her life. 

Dynamite under wraps

Five years after her conversion, she met French intellectual Peter Maurin (1877–1949). Maurin had spent decades wandering around America doing unskilled labor, his pockets containing “easy essays” full of his ideas. Maurin, a Distributist, believed that Catholic social teaching provided an alternative to capitalism and state socialism, but that this “dynamite” had been kept under wraps. He wanted a radical new society focused on private ownership of property by everyone, ideally in a rural setting. One of his slogans was, “Feed the poor; starve the bankers.”

 Maurin saw in Day a gifted journalist who could publicize his ideas. Day found in Maurin a “rule of life” that would combine her social activism with her Catholic faith. Together, they founded the periodical the Catholic Worker, as well as a “house of hospitality” where the poor were welcomed and fed. 

A central principle of the Catholic Worker (CW) movement was the workers’ deliberate, voluntary choice to live simply alongside the poor. Today there are over 120 CW communities in the United States, and the Catholic Worker has been continuously published since 1933. 

Arrested for Jesus

Day brought to the Catholic Worker her experience with labor activism and muckraking journalism. While she renounced socialism, she used her magazine to report on labor conditions throughout the country, traveling to Appalachia to cover miners’ strikes and, at the end of her life, getting herself arrested in the company of Cesar Chavez. 

Getting arrested was in fact a regular part of Day’s ministry. She and other members of the Catholic Worker house in New York protested Cold-War–era nuclear drills by sitting on park benches when everyone else was hurrying for bomb shelters. 

Convinced that no form of violence was compatible with following Jesus or building a society based on human dignity and compassion, Day even refused to expel residents of the Catholic Worker houses whose presence was disruptive. When discontented members of the community took over one of their farms, Day and Maurin simply let them have the property. 

Slogans from the popes

Day inspired a generation of Catholic social and economic radicals, although they did not always share her traditional faith or her commitment to obey the church hierarchy. Members of the Catholic Worker movement might march in picket lines alongside Communists, but they did so holding posters with the words of the popes written on them. 

Having once rejected Christianity because it seemed to have nothing to do with material needs, Day spent her life proving her youthful self wrong by example. “Men wanted work more than they wanted bread,” she wrote, “and they wanted to be responsible for their work.” CH

By Edwin Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #104 in 2013]

Edwin Woodruff Tait is adjunct professor of religion at Huntington University and the University of St. Francis.
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