Arts & Books

Book review: The single mother who shook up the Church

Dorothy Day is depicted in a stained-glass window at a church in New York

House of Hospitality by Dorothy Day
Gracewing, £15.99

For those who are not already acquainted with Dorothy Day, this book, the 75th anniversary edition, provides an excellent introduction to a courageous, unconventional and holy woman.

First published in 1939, it is composed of jottings, notes and personal reflections about the daunting task Day had set herself: to live a life of radical Christian loving witness among the homeless and unemployed of New York.

The author’s journey was a long one that included setbacks, sorrow and failure. Born in 1897 into a household only formally Christian and longing to find meaning to life, Day became a journalist, committed to socialist political issues.

During this period she experienced a brief, failed marriage and an abortion – later much regretted – and then settled on Staten Island along with her lover, Forster Batterham, a self-styled anarchist. In 1927, pregnant by him and determined to have her baby baptised, though she knew it would end their relationship, Day became a single mother and a Catholic convert.

For the next five years she took an assortment of jobs, sometimes in journalism, at other times more menial work, in order to support herself and her daughter, Tamar Teresa. In 1932, still unsure of her life’s purpose, but knowing it was bound up with the social misery she saw all around her, she happened to be in Washington where, on December 8, during the feast of the Immaculate Conception, she prayed to know the concrete form of her vocation.

“When I got back to New York,” she recalled, “Peter Maurin was at the house waiting for me.” This odd figure, from a French peasant background, who had worked as a farm labourer for years in the US and Canada, had already developed his own response to the Gospel, arguing it with anyone who would listen.

This conviction was that only “voluntary poverty”, practised by those who had means, would fulfil the needs of the poor and also change society. He was the answer to Day’s prayer, providing her with the theoretical basis for her vocation.

Between them, along with a few supporters, they opened the first “House of Hospitality” in a New York tenement block. It was the start of a venture which still continues. The book describes the first five years of the movement, from May 1933, when the first issue of the Catholic Worker, the newspaper Day started in order to spread their ideas, was published, until 1938.

Written with understated humour, resignation and a passionate commitment to her newfound apostolate, Day is honest about the difficulties – which sometimes threatened to overwhelm her – of this arduous Christian witness.

The House of Hospitality, operating along the lines of a medieval hospice, did not turn away those who knocked on its doors. This meant constant noise, day and night (“one gets used to these things”). There was the ever-present uncertainty of how to afford their daily bread – as well as beds, blankets, sheets and pillows – in keeping with the principle of giving help to those who asked for it.

Day had to accept a complete lack of privacy, along with ever-growing demands on her time, and became familiar with the smell of unwashed bodies (“I do penance through my nose,” she commented wryly).

She gradually came to realise that if God wanted her to undertake this task, he would provide the means. “It is lacking in faith in God to be discouraged,” she wrote.

Much recourse was made to the ever-reliable St Joseph. “Our lives are made up of little miracles day by day,” Day noted. Peter Maurin suggested having a big pot of vegetable soup on the stove, a continual supply that would be renewed daily, alongside a pot of coffee. It made the kitchen, the only heated room in the house, the focus of discussions, fellowship and welcome.

This was the era of the Great Depression, with thousands out of work and communist agitators fomenting unrest and strikes. The Catholic Worker, which at its zenith had a circulation of 100,000, sought to combat communist ideology with its radical Christian alternative: recognising the human dignity of the workers rather than exploiting them for the purpose of class warfare. Day never forgot that the movement was intended to care for the spiritual welfare of the poor as well as their material needs.

Sometimes the book chronicles its author’s “feelings of almost hopelessness and desperation”. She has to remind herself that “just because I feel that everything is useless and going to pieces and badly done and futile, it is not really that way at all. Everything … is in the hands of God.”

Day also worried about not giving enough time to her daughter’s needs, “being constantly on the go, having to leave her in the care of others”. She admitted: “Never before have I had such a complete sense of failure, of utter misery.”

Dorothy Day’s canonisation Cause has been opened in New York. This moving journal, which provides a vivid account of the trials of a saint in the making, should be read by all who would like to know her better.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/7/15).

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