A Saint for the Times: New York’s Dorothy Day

John Cardinal O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, proposed recently the canonization of Dorothy Day. If she makes it through that long process, it would only be fitting for the Pope to come to New York to proclaim her a saint. Born here at 71 Pineapple Street, Brooklyn, she died on the Lower East Side 83 years later, a turbulent New York kind of woman who probably wouldn’t have appreciated the honor. “When they call you a saint,” she said, “it means basically that you are not to be taken seriously.”

In this gut-buster of a holiday season, when the fury of snatch, grab and yank of merchandise off the counters approaches a demented bacchanalia, the life of Dorothy Day has an astringent meaning for us. If she isn’t being taken seriously, she ought to be.

Sometimes she is yoked with Mother Teresa, but the two women weren’t alike. Mother Teresa was a European figure. Dorothy Day was American, a combative New Yorker to the end. The good Albanian nun seemed to offer the out-of-control materialist a means of buying forgiveness for his gluttony; Dorothy Day accepted contributions for her soup kitchens, too, but writing out checks to the 100 neediest wasn’t enough. “It is no use turning people away to an agency, to the city or the state or the Catholic Charities,” she said. “It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy. Often you can only give the price of a meal, or a bed on the Bowery. Often you can only hope that it will be spent for that. Often you can literally take off a garment if it only be a scarf and warm some shivering brother.”

You must give “personally,” she preached. It must be a “personal sacrifice.” She understood that many a recipient of clothes or money or food would trade them for drugs, but so be it. What drove her nutty was converting the poor, the sick and the maimed in body and spirit into “cases” and “clients.” Giving was as much for the giver as for the givee, and thus it had to be personal, skin touching, eye meeting eye in an act of mutual embrace.

The advocatus diaboli , whose role in the canonization process is to bring up everything of derogatory nature in the life of the person proposed for sainthood, won’t have to look far for material with Dorothy. She was a modern woman at the dawn of our modernity, one of the first to fall into the traps laid for us by the rolelessness of 20th-century social freedom.

The woman went through various forms of hell before she got her first peek at heaven when she embraced the Catholic religion. She had the experience of lying on the abortionist’s couch, waiting for the father of the fetus, an alcoholic, itinerant newspaperman she’d fallen in love with, to come and take her home, but, like millions of her sisters before and after, she made her way back to her abode, bleeding and in pain, alone. She must have loved that man as she came later to love the God of Christianity, because she chased off to Chicago after him and shared him with a certain Mae, who was probably both a drug addict and a prostitute. Whatever the details, both of them were arrested on a morals charge when Chicago police raided the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World, where the women had taken shelter.

This was not Dorothy Day’s first prison stay. She was arrested in 1917 for picketing for Votes for Women in front of the White House and dragged off to jail where, she related, “a guard tried to grab me. I fought back-I wasn’t being nonviolent-I fought back.” During that jail stay, she also succeeded in literally taking a bite out of the warden.

She lived and died an eclectic, nondogmatic left-winger. In pre-World War I days, she made a meager living from New York’s socialist daily, The Call , and then moved on to work for The Masses until it was shut down by the Government as punishment for the magazine’s opposition to the war. Through her early years, Dorothy also slung hash, did clerical work and for a short time was a contract Hollywood screenwriter.

Although she disliked being connected with flapper-era Greenwich Village in people’s minds, she was a well-known figure in places like the Hell Hole and Romany Marie’s. It has been said by some that she was the inspiration for the character of Josie Hogan in Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten . However that may be, there were nights when she lay next to him in bed, comforting him as he shivered with the D.T.’s.

She was a modern woman, even to being a single, unwed mother. Although earlier she had been married to a small-time confidence man, the father of her daughter wasn’t a louse so much as a recognizable type, a guy who drew back from commitment. After the birth of her daughter, Tamar, whose name means “little palm tree” in Hebrew, he didn’t leave the picture entirely, but he was there without really being there.

How could a woman with a biography like that be considered for sainthood? But who better to think about on this island where 100,000 other women with tangled histories go home from the office every night to order takeout and ask: “Why am I here? Is shopping all there is to it?”

After Dorothy, whose parents were of nonchurchgoing WASP background, became a Roman Catholic, she brought her new faith and her old socialist beliefs together to found the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933. In a few years, the paper had a circulation of nearly 200,000, although it lost readers when Dorothy, always the pacifist, would not support the Second World War. Shortly after founding the newspaper, she started opening Houses of Hospitality, which gave shelter, food, clothes and succor to all who came. They’ve had their ups and downs, but at last count, there were no fewer than 141 of them around the world.

Being unpopular meant nothing to her. She courted unpopularity in the 1930’s when she opposed fascism, racism and anti-Semitism; she got a dose of the same in the 1950’s when she resisted McCarthyism and the Cold War, prompting J. Edgar Hoover to say, “She is consciously or unconsciously being used by communist groups.”

If she were here now, there’d be no fashionable buzz. She wouldn’t be Tina meat, not this one who disliked abortions, disliked homosexuality and put family life before all. Perhaps with her personal history, she thought she knew. With people like Dorothy, you can always pick and choose. You can remember her as a feminist, as a woman who led the opposition to our foreign policy for decades, and you can forget she also said, “When man takes to himself the right to use sex as pleasure alone, cutting it away from its creative aspect by artificial birth control, by perverse practices, he is denying ‘the absolute Supremacy of the Creative Deity.'” Well, she tried it both ways and decided that human life is more than a pig roast, that the problems of human existence transcend stumbling out of Barneys loaded down with packages, trying to figure out how to get a cab.

I met her once. She was an old lady then, with her hair braided and pinned in the back so that she looked like the grandmother she was, but she had the fast, fierce eye of an eagle. It gleamed and it was quick. If they make a saint out of her, they won’t be putting Dorothy Day on any dashboards.

Dorothea, ora pro nobis .