The Episcopal Life
July 7, 2008
Diaries shed light on a reluctant saint
By Jerry Hames and Daniel Burke
[Episcopal Life] Those who have been inspired by the work of Dorothy
Day, founder of Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality, farming
communes and retreat centers, now know more about her intimate,
spiritual thoughts from her personal journals which were published
The Sermon on the Mount characterized all of her work, finding
expression in her practice of nonviolence and solidarity with workers
and the poor. For Dorothy Day, to be a Christian meant not only
participating fervently in prayer and liturgy, but also finding Christ
She was born in Brooklyn , New York , in 1897, the third child of Grace
and John Day . When her family moved to Chicago , she was baptized in
the Episcopal Church. At the University of Illinois at Urbana , she
became interested in radical social causes as a way to help workers
and the poor. In 1916, she left the university and moved to New York
City where she converted to Roman Catholicism, worked as a journalist
on socialist newspapers, participated in protest movements and
developed friendships with many famous artists and writers. She died
In one passage in her diary she laments her "great depression of
spirits" on a sunny Sunday in 1938, as flies swarm around piles of
garbage and drunks and the insane, who visit the Catholic Worker house
in Pittsburgh for food and shelter, surround her and oppress her.
"Job is to hide it from others," Day notes, "to accept it as penance,
reparation, and to pray constantly for an increase in my heart of the
love of God and man."
A 'Servant of God'
Over the course of the 20th century, few people practiced a love of
the divine, and the divine in others, as assiduously as Day did. The
co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement 75 years ago made "works of
mercy" -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and comforting the
sick -- the center of her life.
For that, the Vatican named Day a "Servant of God" in 2000, placing
her on the path to sainthood.
She's been called "the most significant, interesting, and influential
person in the history of American Catholicism," and been made the
subject of numerous biographies, plays and documentaries.
Titled "The Duty of Delight" ( Marquette University Press, 669 pp.,
$42), the diaries span from 1934 to just days before Day's death in
1980, and offer a uniquely intimate look at a modern, saint-like
figure grappling with the joys and struggles of everyday life.
"Given her place in the history of American Catholicism, the complete
journals of Dorothy Day is bound to be a spiritual classic," said the
Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit weekly America and the
author of "My Life with the Saints."
"It shows how many plain, old human problems she had to face ... that
holiness makes its home among humanity," added Martin.
As matriarch of the Catholic Worker movement, including its "houses of
hospitality" scattered throughout the U.S. , Day's problems abounded.
Bed bugs bit, volunteers bickered and bill collectors threatened. As
wars raged, fellow Catholics questioned the movement's unbending
The journals reveal Day's determination to press on, following the
"little way" of her heroine, St. Therese of Lisieux. For nearly five
decades, she rose at dawn to attend Mass, prayed the monastic hours,
wrote anguished letters to God, examined her conscience and labored to
"be gentle and charitable in thought, word and deed."
An exemplary Christian
Day herself chastised those who would call her a saint. The difference
between a saint and a holy person, said writer Paul Elie, is that "a
saint makes other people want to be like her." And by that criterion,
Day is already among the elect, said Rosalie Riegle, a former Catholic
Worker who has written a biography of Day and a history of the
Day's diaries, "very clearly show an exemplary and contemporary
Christian, one we can and should use to guide our own path," Riegle
said. "I know I personally have been having more conversations with
God since reading 'The Duty of Delight.'"
Robert Ellsberg, himself a former Episcopalian and convert to
Catholicism worked with Day the last five years of her life and edited
this compilation of her diaries. He said her record tells an important
story. "I think you come away with an even deeper appreciation for
what it took for her to remain faithful to her vocation for all those
decades," Ellsberg said.
Writing in America , Ellsberg said that when he joined the Day's
community in 1975, he was not motivated by explicitly religious
interests. "Like Dorothy, I had been raised in the Episcopal Church,
but I had pretty much drifted away from organized religion. What drew
me to the Catholic Worker [community] was Dorothy's lifetime of
consistent opposition to war, and the fact that her convictions were
rooted in solidarity with the poor and those who suffered.
"Ultimately, I came to appreciate not just Dorothy's antiwar
convictions but the deeper tradition and spirituality that sustained
her. I understood nothing about Dorothy if I did not realize the
importance of the sacraments, prayer, liturgy and the communion of
saints, in which her witness was rooted. When I understood that, I
felt a need to become a Catholic myself."
He said he chatted with her in her room one day when he drew up his
courage to admit that he was thinking of becoming a Roman Catholic.
"She was very quiet for a few moments, and I wondered whether she had
heard me. Finally, she asked, 'well, you're an Episcopalian, right?'"
"Yes," I replied, "that is how I was raised."
"That's what I thought," she said. "My father said only policemen and
washerwomen were Catholics and that if I wanted to go to church I
could always be an Episcopalian. So I did go to the Episcopal Church
as I was growing up and I suppose it did me some good.... But I always
felt the Episcopal Church was a little well-to-do."
She squinted, Ellsberg said, "the way she did whenever she was saying
something a little mischievous."
Now, Ellsberg says, seen from a distance of more than 25 years, he
believes that Dorothy Day was more than just a hero for radical
Catholics. "At a time when the church is so greatly divided between
ideological factions, Dorothy was truly a saint of 'common
ground'—someone who held in tension a great love for the church along
with deep suffering over its sins and failings."
-- Jerry Hames is editor emeritus of Episcopal Life. Daniel Burke is a
writer for Religion News Service.