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April 25, 2016 | Volume 91 Number 13


photo: A portrait of Dorothy Day by Sally K. Green.
A portrait of Dorothy Day by Sally K. Green.

Dorothy Day: working for a Christian moral order

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, is “a tall order for us to live up to,” her granddaughter Martha Hennessy said during a presentation at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Newport News April 4.

In her talk, Ms. Hennessy spoke about her grandmother and about her own involvement in the Catholic Worker Movement. She also spoke at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk the following day.

The Catholic Worker Movement is not under the authority of the Catholic Church but is rooted in the Gospel teachings, particularly Matthew 25 which says “what you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” the organization’s website said.

The Catholic Worker Movement advocates nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and the Works of Mercy as a way of life. It encourages peaceful demonstrations on such issues as racial, gender and religious discrimination, unfair labor practices, prison reform, nuclear power, violence, and war, including drone warfare, according to Mrs. Hennessy and

Such a rigid stance is not easy. Many of its members, including Ms. Day, have been arrested for their protests. Mrs. Hennessy said Ms. Day was scrutinized and harassed by the FBI during the McCarthy Era, and the IRS tried to “shut her down” several times in the 1970s because she refused to pay taxes under the pretense that the money was “going to the war machine.”

Ms. Day, a journalist, and Peter Maurin, a philosopher and French immigrant, started the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression when people were fleeing the countryside into the cities to find work, Ms. Hennessy explained.

However, Mrs. Hennessy said Ms. Day did not consider herself as the founder of the Catholic Worker but rather gave the credit to Mr.Maurin who developed a Plan of Action. That plan called for the creation of a house of hospitality to meet the desperate and immediate needs of others, the creation of a newspaper to publicize Catholic Worker ideals and the establishment of farming communes which he called agricultural universities to teach functional, practical skills.

In 1933, Ms. Day and Mr. Maurin published a newspaper called “The Catholic Worker” to publicize their ideals. The duo sold it on the streets of New York City for a penny a copy. The price remains the same today.

In 1936, The Catholic Worker Movement purchased Easton Farm in Pennsylvania to begin a farm commune. The movement opened houses of hospitality mainly in destitute areas of cities but sometimes in rural areas. The Catholic Worker opened St. Joseph House in the 1960s andMaryhouse in the 1970s, both in what was then a run-down area of New York City. That area is now prime real estate, and the organization is considering establishing the houses elsewhere in the city, Mrs. Hennessy said.

These houses of hospitality clothe, feed and shelter the poor, she explained. Today, according to the organization’s website, there are 32 Catholic Worker communities internationally and 216 in the United States, with four of them in Virginia — in Charlottesville, Norfolk,Trevilians and Spotsylvania. Each Catholic Worker community is autonomous, and there is no “Catholic Worker headquarters.”

Describing Ms. Day’s life, dedication and faith as “so beautiful,” Mrs. Hennessy said her grandmother believed spiritual practice must be the foundation for social action. Therefore Ms. Day tried to celebrate Mass daily, go to confession weekly, spend hours in Eucharistic adoration, meditate on psalms and scriptures, the daily readings, study the lives of saints and pray the rosary at bedtime. She maintained an ever-changing prayer list of family, friends and members of the community, Mrs. Hennessy said.

In his address to Congress, Pope Francis praised Ms. Day along with Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Catholic writer Thomas Merton as “great Americans.”

She became a Catholic in 1927 after having her daughter baptized in the Catholic faith.

Mrs. Hennessy called her grandmother “a Ghandian pacifist” who challenged individuals to scrutinize their lives to determine how they were practicing their faith.

Mrs. Hennessy only recently began to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps. She is a wife, a mother of three grown children, and an occupational therapist. As a teen in the 1960s and 70s she helped at a Catholic Worker farm in New York which grew crops for soup kitchens in the city, but she drifted from the Catholic Worker Movement and Catholicism in early adulthood. She later returned to her Catholic faith and to the Catholic Worker Movement five years ago as a volunteer at Maryhouse. She now splits her time between Vermont where her family lives and at Maryhouse, she said.

“It was good to come back in the Catholic Worker, but as an adult it was very challenging to learn how to practice the works of mercy, to learn how to give of one’s self and to expect no thanks or no return,” Mrs. Hennessy said.

She described the country’s economy as a failing capitalistic system that leads people to strive for profit and not social justice. Stating that the largest money makers in the economy are weapons, big pharmaceutical companies, security and privatization of prison industry, Mrs. Hennessy said the country’s values are askew. For example, she said, investing “in the war machine” has channeled money away from social justice and has resulted in social ills such as lack of health-care coverage for many and large debts on student loans.

She explained that the Catholic Worker Movement is “working for a Christian social order” that is trying to say in action “Thy will be done as it is in Heaven.”

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