Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement which joined radical social reform with the Roman Catholic faith in a movement for social justice and peace.
Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of John J. and Grace (Satterlee) Day. Her father was a newspaper sports writer whose search for a steady job caused the family to travel widely during her pre-adolescent years. She spent part of her youth (1904-1906) in California where her father worked until the San Francisco earthquake compelled him to find another job. In 1906 the family moved to Chicago where the elder Day was employed by a local newspaper. She felt extremely isolated from family and friends during those pre-adolescent years, which she remembered in one of her many books as The Long Loneliness (1952).
Even as a youngster Day developed a taste for literature and writing and did much of both. She also had several religious experiences which would affect her later in life. In 1914 she finally escaped from her restrictive family milieu by matriculating as a student at the University of Illinois in Urbana. There she promptly fell in with a small crowd of radical students, many of whom were Jewish-Americans discriminated against by the general university community. Her closest friend at the university, a wealthy young Jewish woman from Chicago who shared Day's literary and political tastes, radicalized Dorothy politically (the friend later become a prominent Communist). Even before she left the university after only two years, during which academic studies grew sterile and failed to stimulate her, Day had become a part of the pre-World War I American youth rebellion against the conventions of their parents. She and her radical friends wanted to create a new and freer society—in the language of the day, "to transvalue all values."
Bored by academic life, excited by new social, cultural, and political ideas, it was natural for Day to seek to develop herself in what was then (1916) the center of an American bohemian culture. She moved to New York where she immediately joined in the lively life of the Greenwich Village and Lower East Side rebels and radicals. Day almost immediately found a job as a feature writer on the New York Call, the nation's largest and most influential socialist daily. Soon she was involved fulltime in the city's radical political and cultural scene, meeting and becoming close to many of the era's most famous personalities. In the winter of 1917-1918 she became a close friend of the playwright Eugene O'Neill, whom she saw through many bouts with alcohol. Day also developed friendships with Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, who made her an assistant editor of their new magazine, Masses—one of the most famous radical cultural publications in American history.
But American participation in World War I led to government suppression of left-wing organizations and publications and left Day and her radical friends adrift. Troubled by her aimless life among Greenwich Village bohemians, in 1918 she took a position as a probationary nurse at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Nursing, however, failed to satisfy Day's search for meaning in life, although it did involve her in her first serious and tumultuous love affair. In 1919 she left the hospital to work for a time as a writer on the successor journal to Masses, The Liberator. This, too, brought her little satisfaction, and in 1920, for reasons still unclear, she married Barkeley Tober, an oft-wed literary promoter. Only a year later Day dissolved this, her only formal marriage.
For the next several years she seemed to drift aimlessly, working as a reporter for the New Orleans Item in 1922-1923 and also as an occasional writer for the Catholic journal Commonweal. While in New Orleans she wrote and published a commercially successful, partly autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin (1924). With the money from her novel, Day moved back to the New York area, buying a beach cottage on Staten Island. She resumed contact with the city's intellectuals and wrote occasional pieces for The New Masses. In 1925 she began living with a biologist and anarchist (one Foster Batterham), with whom she had a daughter, Tamar Teresa, born on March 3, 1927. After the daughter's birth Batterham left and Day began to immerse herself in religious literature and theology. Unknown to many of her old and close friends, Day on December 28, 1927, had herself and her daughter baptized in a small Staten Island Roman Catholic Church. For the remainder of her life she would remain a dedicated daughter of the Church. She had made a strange personal journey from a diluted childhood Protestantism through years as a rebellious bohemian, ultimately to find solace in the Catholic faith, a journey which she described poignantly in one of her autobiographical fragments, From Union Square to Rome (1938).
At first, however, even her new religious faith brought Day no clear purpose in life. In 1929 she toyed with script-writing in Hollywood but without satisfaction. A year later she moved with her small daughter to Mexico City, where they lived on the edge of poverty. That same summer she returned to the United States where the onset of the Great Depression swept her back into the movement for social reform. In December 1932 she went to Washington to report on a Communist-led hunger march. On her return to New York City she met Peter Maurin, a former French peasant and social agitator, who convinced her that radical social reform and the Roman Catholic faith could be united. Day now found a purpose in life that would remain with her for the remainder of her days. Together with Maurin she founded a movement which would carry Jesus's original message to the most dispossessed of workers. They would prove that Catholicism served the poor as well as the rich, the weak better than the mighty. Through their newspaper, Catholic Worker, and hospitality houses which they established as havens for homeless workers, Day and Maurin promoted their singular version of Catholicism as a social reform movement.
For the next 50 years Day and the Catholic Worker Movement were at the forefront of all Catholic reform efforts. Young American Roman Catholics, eager to improve secular society while remaining faithful to their church, flocked to hear Day's message. The Berrigan brothers (Daniel and Philip), Michael Harrington, and many others fell under her spell, which turned them into radical social reformers. Other Catholics influenced by Day served as activists in the industrial union movement led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s, and increasingly in the peace movement which assumed growing importance in the nuclear age. Echoes of Day's approach to religion and reform could also be found in the "liberation theology" movement which emerged in Latin America in the 1960s.
By the time she died on November 29, 1980, Day had had an enormous impact on both American Catholicism and reform. It was an impact which lived on as revealed in the pastoral letters issued by the American Roman Catholic bishops in 1983 and 1984 on the issues of nuclear weapons and the economy.
Further Reading on Dorothy Day
William D. Miller, Dorothy Day, a Biography (1982) is a full and excellent account of the subject's life and career. Two equally excellent books describe and analyze the history of the Catholic Worker Movement: William D. Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (1972) and Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America (1982). Several of Day's own books, aside from the ones cited in the article, might also be profitably consulted, especially House of Hospitality (1939) and On Pilgrimage: The Sixties (1973).