Dorothy Day was an American social activist, journalist, and Catholic convert who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement. She spent much of her life advocating for the poor and marginalized and was known for her commitment to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and social justice.
Early Life and Career
Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, to Grace and John Day. Her father was a journalist and a lover of literature, and her mother was a devout Episcopalian. The family moved to San Francisco when Dorothy was six years old, and she spent her childhood in the Bay Area.
After high school, Dorothy attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but dropped out after two years. She moved to New York City in 1916 and began working as a journalist for several socialist and communist newspapers, including The Masses and The Liberator.
In 1920, Dorothy traveled to Italy to cover the aftermath of World War I and was deeply affected by what she saw there. She later wrote, “I felt the need for a philosophy of life which would make sense of it all.” She returned to the United States and continued to work as a journalist, but began to search for deeper meaning in her life.
Conversion to Catholicism
In 1926, Dorothy gave birth to a daughter, Tamar, out of wedlock. She was deeply ashamed of this and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Around this time, she also began to explore Christianity, attending services at several different churches.
In 1927, Dorothy had a profound religious experience while staying at a retreat house run by the Catholic Church. She was deeply moved by the Eucharist and decided to convert to Catholicism. She later wrote, “I had never felt such a sensation before. It was as though a door had opened and I had stepped into a room filled with light.”
After her conversion, Dorothy felt called to use her writing and her activism to serve the poor and marginalized. She began attending Mass daily and praying the rosary and started volunteering at a settlement house in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Founding the Catholic Worker Movement
In 1932, Dorothy and a French immigrant and fellow Catholic named Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker Movement. The movement was based on the principles of nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and hospitality to the poor.
The first Catholic Worker house opened in New York City in 1933 and quickly became a hub for social activism and community building. The Catholic Worker Movement grew rapidly, and by the 1940s, there were more than 30 Catholic Worker houses across the United States.
The Catholic Worker Movement also published a newspaper called The Catholic Worker, which advocated for social justice and Catholic social teaching. The paper was initially written and edited by Dorothy and Peter Maurin and became an important voice in the Catholic Church and the broader labor movement.
Activism and Imprisonment
Dorothy was deeply committed to nonviolence and social justice and was involved in a number of protests and demonstrations throughout her life. She was arrested several times for her activism, including a 1940 protest against the draft, and a 1955 protest against nuclear weapons testing.
In 1955, Dorothy traveled to Rome to cover the canonization of St. Therese of Lisieux. While there, she met with Pope Pius XII and urged him to speak out against nuclear weapons. She later wrote, “I begged him to put out an encyclical on modern war, on nuclear war.”
In 1973, Dorothy was arrested for her participation in a protest against the Vietnam War. She was 75 years old at the time and was sentenced to 10 days in jail. Despite her advanced age, she refused to accept special treatment and insisted on being treated like any other prisoner. Her time in jail was difficult, but she continued to pray and write letters to her family and friends.
Later Years and Legacy
Dorothy continued to be active in the Catholic Worker Movement until her death in 1980 at the age of 83. She remained committed to her principles of nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and social justice until the end of her life.
Dorothy’s legacy continues to inspire people around the world. The Catholic Worker Movement still operates more than 200 houses of hospitality, and The Catholic Worker newspaper continues to be published. In addition, Dorothy’s writings have been widely read and studied, and she is regarded as one of the most important American Catholic figures of the 20th century.
In 2000, the cause for Dorothy’s canonization was officially opened by the Catholic Church. She was declared a “Servant of God,” which is the first step in the canonization process. In 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a statement calling for Dorothy’s canonization, citing her “prophetic witness” and her commitment to “the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.”
Dorothy Day’s life and work continue to inspire people of all faiths and backgrounds. Her commitment to social justice, her embrace of voluntary poverty, and her unwavering faith in God serve as a powerful reminder of the potential for goodness and compassion in all of us. As she once wrote, “We cannot build a better world without love, and love cannot exist without sacrifice.”
Notable Quotes by Dorothy Day
Dorothy Day was known for her strong convictions and her ability to articulate her beliefs in a clear and compelling manner. Here are some of her most notable quotes:
- “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?”
- “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists of conspiring to teach to do, but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”
- “The mystery of the poor is this: that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him.”
- “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
- “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
- “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
- “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
- “The only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
- “We are not expecting utopia here on this earth. But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.”
- “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.”
- “The final word is love.”
These quotes reflect Dorothy Day’s deep commitment to social justice, her faith in God, and her belief in the power of love and community to create positive change in the world.