The Washington Post Saturday, May 10, 2008; Page B09
Carrying on a Message Of Mercy and Rescue
After 75 Years, Catholic Workers True to Dorothy Day
By Colman McCarthy
On the back patio of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House at 503 Rock
Creek Church Rd. in the District's Petworth neighborhood, sacks of
potatoes and onions lay next to crates of tomatoes, green beans,
cabbage, lettuce and broccoli. Further down, tables brimmed with
At 10 a.m. last Wednesday, and nearly every Wednesday going back more
than two decades, the elderly and infirm, or anyone strained by the
high cost of just getting by, have come for the shared bounty.
Thousands have been fed all these years.
They receive, too, words of comfort from the five-member Catholic
Worker community. Its leader is Arthur Laffin. He had spent the
morning gleaning leftover food at a Florida Avenue wholesale produce
market and was now passing it on. If anyone has been steadfast to
Dorothy Day's brand of Christianity, it is the community on Rock Creek
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Catholic Worker.
Resolutely, it has been a lay pacifist and social justice movement,
one as independent of the Catholic hierarchy as it is spiritually tied
to Christ's call to serve the poor and combat Caesar with the moral
force of nonviolence.
Five homeless families live at the 13-room Worker house that opened in
1981. Thursday afternoons, the community distributes food at McPherson
and Lafayette squares. On Monday mornings, it stages an antiwar vigil
at the Pentagon, with another one at noon Fridays at the White House.
Like Day, Washington 's Catholic Workers are pacifists. Like her, they
live in voluntary poverty and are loyal sacramental Catholics. And
when the United States goes to war, they are often jailed on
nonviolent protest, civil disobedience charges.
It was on May 1, 1933, when Dorothy Day, then 36, went to a Communist
Party rally in New York 's Union Square . She worked the Depression-era
crowd, handing out her eight-page newspaper, the Catholic Worker.
Included with articles about poverty, unemployment and injustice was
Day's editorial laying out the paper's mission: " . . . For those who
are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain. For those who
think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their
plight -- this little paper is addressed. It is printed to call their
attention to the fact the Catholic Church has a social program, to let
them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their
spiritual but for their material welfare."
Upon Day's death in 1980 at age 83 on Manhattan 's Lower East Side ,
where she had lived a half-century with the Bowery's lost and lonely,
speculation arose that the communal movement would soon vanish without
its founder's energy. The opposite has happened. The Rock Creek Church
Road house and the other 184 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality are
carrying on the works of mercy and rescue in all parts of the United
States. They accept no federal money and seek no tax exemption.
Three years after the first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper,
circulation rose from 2,500 copies to more than 150,000. Still eight
pages published monthly, now with a circulation of 25,000, it is the
country's only paper that can rightly claim that it has held to one
editorial line, one typographical layout and one price: a penny a
In her column, "On Pilgrimage," Day ranged from reportage on the
doings at the Worker's soup and bread lines to criticism of the church
hierarchy. In the 1960s, when a Catholic cardinal went to the White
House for a prayer service with Richard Nixon and when another
cardinal was in Vietnam blessing U.S. warplanes, Day unloaded: "What a
confusion we have gotten into when Christian prelates sprinkle holy
water on scrap metal to be used for obliteration bombing and name
bombers for the Holy Innocents, for Our Lady of Mercy; who bless a man
about to press a button which releases death to 50,000 human beings,
including little babies, children, the sick, the aged . . ."
Day, Brooklyn-born and raised in no religion, embraced Catholicism in
1927 when she was 30. Before that, and hustling around as a freelance
reporter in Greenwich Village, she gassed the nights away with Eugene
O'Neill, drank with John Dos Passos, went to jail for women's rights
with suffragist Alice Paul, read Peter Kropotkin, had an abortion and
bore a child in a common-law marriage that sputtered out.
There ought to be something more, she thought. To the alarm of her
Bohemian pals in the speakeasies and on the barricades, she found the
elusive something in the Catholic Church and its social teachings.
During the next 50 years, she would attend daily Mass, pray the
monastic hours, feed and house uncounted thousands of jobless and
homeless, write eight books, be hounded by the FBI, bond with labor
unions, be imprisoned on civil disobedience charges (so often that a
New York jail had a "Dorothy Day suite"), get the paper out, be
uncompromising in her commitment to nonviolence and be invited by
Eunice Kennedy Shriver to spend time in Hyannisport to take a break
from all the frenzy.
She would be written about by Robert Coles, Garry Wills, Dwight
Macdonald, Michael Harrington and scores of other scribes. Commonweal
magazine called her "the most significant, interesting and influential
person in the history of American Catholicism." No writer has been
closer to Day than Robert Ellsberg. This month, Marquette University
Press is publishing "The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day,"
a 669-page volume that Ellsberg spent three years pulling together.
After Day died Nov. 29, 1980, no Catholic bishop attended her Requiem
Mass. Years later, when she was not around to rebuke churchmen for
their just-war theories, it was safe to call on the Vatican to create
Saint Dorothy. One promoter for sainthood was Cardinal John O'Connor
of New York , in front of whose St. Patrick's Cathedral Day and fellow
Catholic Workers had often protested the Vietnam War that the
cardinal, as the U.S. church's military vicar, backed.
If Day ever is canonized, it might be as the patron saint of holy irony.
Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the
Center for Teaching Peace and teaches courses on nonviolence at six