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Remembering Dorothy Day

Posted by Ryan Hall

This post-election day is a good day to remember a champion for peace and justice, Dorothy Day.  This article is part of our daily email stories, quotes and poems that you can sign up for here.

By Rivera Sun for Campaign Nonviolence

Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, NY. Her family moved twice in her childhood, once to San Francisco, and then to Chicago after her father lost his job when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed the newspaper facilities where he had been employed. Dorothy was an avid reader in her teens and enjoyed Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. She proved a lukewarm university student, however, though she continued to read extensively.

Dorothy Day was involved in social justice causes from a young age. She was imprisoned in 1917 for her actions with Alice Paul’s nonviolent Silent Sentinels during the American Women’s Suffrage Movement. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail, and maintained a hunger strike for 10 of the 15 days she eventually served. In the 1920s, she led a bohemian lifestyle, eventually marrying and having a child, Tamar Teresa, before separating from her husband. She worked as a writer and a journalist to support herself, and it was on one of her assignments for Commonweal that she was led to offer a prayer that was answered with the events of the rest of her life.

Wikipedia reports, “During the Hunger March (of the Unemployed Councils) in D.C. in December 1932, she noted that she was filled with pride watching the marchers, but she couldn’t do much with her conversion. She writes in her autobiography: “I could write, I could protest, to arouse the conscience, but where was the Catholic leadership in the gathering of bands of men and women together, for the actual works of mercy that the comrades had always made part of their technique in reaching the workers?” Later, she visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in northeast D.C. to offer a prayer to find a way to use her gifts and talents to help her fellow workers and the poor.”

In 1932, shortly after that experience, she met Peter Maurin, and together, they founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement that combines direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. Within a few years, thirty-three Catholic Worker houses had been established. Criticism of the Catholic Workers’ (and particularly Dorothy Day’s) anti-war stance during WWII dropped that number to only eleven. Today, approximately 120 Catholic Worker communities serve in the United States, with new houses of hospitality opening every year.

On May 1st, 1933, Dorothy Day released the first edition of the Catholic Worker Newspaper. It cost a penny a copy – which is still the price to this day. By the end of 1933, it had a circulation of 100,000 readers. Like the Catholic Worker houses, however, the pacifist stance during WWII caused many to unsubscribe. From the peak readership of 190,000, the circulation plummeted to only 50,000 in 1946.

Through all the challenges, Dorothy Day maintained her faith and commitment to nonviolence, ending poverty, pacifism, and service. When the Catholic Workers rose to confront nuclear weapons development in the 1950s, Dorothy Day was arrested for civil disobedience during a nuclear bomb evacuation drill. The Catholic Worker newspaper had been running articles on racial justice since its inception in 1933 and when the Civil Rights Movement erupted, they continued to support the movement. During the Vietnam War, Dorothy Day supported conscientious objectors and nonviolent actions against the war. Dorothy Day, at the age of 76, traveled to California in 1973 to stand with Cesar Chavez and the striking farm workers where she was arrested and imprisoned for ten days.

She died in 1980 of a heart condition. Her daughter Tamar Teresa was at her side. The Catholic Worker website reports: So many people came to her funeral at Nativity Church in New York City that many had to stand outside on the sidewalk. During her life, Dorothy Day refused to let people “dismiss her as a saint”. At her death, many of her admirers used the word openly. A “permanent revolution” had been initiated by Dorothy’s leadership, grounded in the Sermon on the Mount for which she had “prayed, spoken, written, fasted, protested, suffered humiliation and gone to prison”.

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Photo Credit: By Unknown photographer, Public Domain,

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