When Dorothy Day became Catholic, she wrote a short memoir, From Union Square to Rome, addressed to her younger brother.
In her memoir, Day responded to her brother’s objections to Catholicism, including to the Eucharist. Dorothy wrote:
“I suppose I never felt this objection, this repulsion, because long before I became a radical I had felt deeply the mysteries of faith... Remember, I read the Bible when I was twelve, and I knew what my conscience was, and what was good and evil. I had accepted the doctrine of the Holy Eucharist.”
The God who loves us is present to us in the Eucharist, she told her brother. “By daily going to him for the gift of himself as daily bread, I am convinced of [God’s] love,” she writes.
And Dorothy believed, as St. Teresa of Avila would say, that the only way to measure our love for God is by the love we show our neighbor.
Servant of God Dorothy Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, to a culturally Christian family. When Dorothy was six, her family relocated to Oakland, California.
Soon after they moved, the catastrophic San Francisco earthquake of 1906 struck. Dorothy was only eight years old, but she remembered her mother feeding some of the 250,000 people whose homes had been destroyed. The post-disaster solidarity and “the joy of doing good, of sharing whatever we had with others after the earthquake,” she recalled, left an impression on her.
After graduating high school at 16, Dorothy attended the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana for two years. Dorothy was inspired by journalists like Jack London and Uptown Sinclair who detailed the horrors and injustices of America’s industrial age. She loved the Russian anarchist Kropotkin and was inspired by the stories of saints. “Whatever I had read as a child about the saints had thrilled me. I could see the nobility of giving one’s life for the sick, the maimed, the leper,” she said.
She recognized that American religion lacked the saints’ heroic witness. Preachers did not make a connection between Sunday services and the pain of working men and women. “Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?” Dorothy wondered.
In 1916, out of tuition money, Dorothy left the university for New York City. She got a reporting job at the socialist newspaper The Call. One of her first assignments was to interview the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. Another was to live on five dollars a week, like many families in New York’s overcrowded tenements.
Dorothy built an eclectic stable of literary and artist friends in Greenwich Village who spent their nights drinking, smoking cigarettes, and discussing great books and ideas. After several unhappy and tragic relationships and an unsuccessful novel, Dorothy caught a break. She sold her novel’s movie rights and bought a cottage on Staten Island, where she met the great love of her life and soon-to-be father of her daughter, Forster Batterham.
“I have always felt that it was life with Forster that brought me natural happiness [and] that brought me to God,” she said.
When she became pregnant, Dorothy gradually found herself praying daily. Forster did not understand Dorothy’s developing religiosity. Soon, the peaceful happiness of their relationship frayed.
Eventually, after Dorothy and her daughter, Tamar Teresa, were both baptized, Forster and Dorothy went their anguished, separate ways. But they remained in close contact for most of their lives, exchanging letters and, in their final years, daily phone calls.
Dorothy broke up with Forster in 1929: a year of crisis not just for Dorothy but for the nation. On October 24—Black Friday—the stock market crashed. The Great Depression brought mass evictions, crop destruction, and hunger.
Following her conversion, Dorothy was forbidden by her confessors from taking part in Communist-organized actions, protesting government inaction and demanding relief for workers. So she wrote about these efforts for Catholic magazines. In December 1932, Dorothy covered the Hunger Marches and Farmer’s Strike in Washington D.C. for Commonweal and America Magazine.
This march would change her life. “Where was the Catholic leadership?” she wondered as she wrote about the desperate, hungry marchers and their brutal treatment by riot police and soldiers. “These are Christ’s poor,” she wrote, “He was one of them. He was a man like other men, and He chose His friends amongst the ordinary workers.”
The next day—the feast of the Immaculate Conception—Dorothy prayed after Mass in the recently dedicated National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. “I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor,” she said.
When Dorothy returned to New York City, a man named Peter Maurin was waiting for her.
Peter Maurin, “whose spirit and ideas [would] dominate the rest of my life,” she wrote, called on Dorothy the day after she returned and began educating her in Catholic Social Teaching and personalism: a Catholic alternative to communism.
Inspired by the French Personalists Emmanuel Mounier, Charles Peguy, and Jacques Maritain, Peter Maurin believed that U.S. Catholics, instead of becoming assimilated into the dominant WASP culture, could set about creating a new society based in cult (worship of God), culture, and cultivation—just like the Irish monks who evangelized Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Dorothy credited her prayer after Mass in Washington for preparing her for Peter’s message. “If I had not said those prayers down in Washington, I probably would have listened, but continued to write rather than act,” she said.
Together, Peter and Dorothy started The Catholic Worker newspaper: “an attempt to popularize and make known the encyclicals of the Popes in regard to social justice and the program put forth by the Church for the ‘reconstruction of the social order,’” as they wrote in their first editorial in May of 1933.
They would not send away homeless or hungry visitors from their newspaper offices without first giving them a cup of coffee or bowl of soup. Hungry workers began to flock to The Catholic Worker for bread—and hope. Soon, they opened up a cooperative apartment for women who were out of work and homeless.
“The Catholic Worker grew from an intense desire to realize the Mystical Body of Christ in a way which was new and attentive to the hard-working marginalized,” wrote Professor Katharine Harmon of Holy Cross College.
Dorothy and Peter were in close contact with Rev. Virgil Michel, O.S.B., one of the Benedictines who was an architect of the Liturgical Movement in the United States.
The Liturgical Movement drew inspiration from Scripture and the writings and practice of the early Church to help Catholics understand “the heart of the liturgy as the worship of the Body of Christ, inextricably linked with the Church’s teaching on service to the poor and social justice for the suffering members of the Body of Christ,” according to Catholic Workers Mark and Louise Zwick.
Dorothy took seriously the Mystical Body of Christ: the Church on earth and in heaven, united in the Eucharistic Lord. “We cannot live alone. We cannot go to Heaven alone. Otherwise, as Péguy said, God will say to us, ‘Where are the others?’” Day wrote in 1940.
Dorothy felt deeply that to be baptized into Christ was to be “all members one of another.” She connected the Mystical Body of Christ to Catholics’ economic life and work. The Catholic Worker highlighted cooperative businesses, credit unions, and an economy based on human dignity. “It is with all these means that we can live as though we believed indeed that we are all members one of another,” she wrote.
The mystical Body of Christ was the foundation of Dorothy’s objection to war: from the Spanish Civil War to World War II to the Vietnam War. She even testified at the Second Vatican Council against nuclear weapons.
At the last Eucharistic Congress in the United States, in Philadelphia in 1976, Dorothy Day spoke on the Eucharist, the brotherhood of all men, and the perversion of our function as co-creators by making and waging terrible war. She gave her speech on August 6, the anniversary of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. “Our Creator gave us life, and the Eucharist to sustain our life. But we gave the world instruments of death of inconceivable magnitude,” she said.
Dorothy died four years later, on November 29, 1980.
We Catholics take Christ’s words “This is my body… This is my blood,” seriously, but do we take just as seriously his command: “Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor” (Mk 10:21)? Or “seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness,* and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt. 6:33)?
Dorothy did not explain away the Gospel. Rather, the Gospel became the explanation for her life. And a life modeled on the Gospel becomes beautiful.
“It is not human efforts or stratagems that bring people closer to God,” Pope Francis recently wrote of Dorothy Day, “but rather the grace that flows from charity, the beauty that flows from witness, the love that becomes concrete acts.”
Dorothy was fond of the Russian author Dostoevsky’s words “the world will be saved by beauty.” And Dorothy Day’s life shines with the great beauty that comes from love that chooses to be poor for others, just like Jesus, who did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, but takes on our humble humanity—and the even more humble appearances of bread and wine—to draw near to us, out of love for us.
Renée Roden is a journalist and Catholic Worker living in Chicago.
Help the children and youth in your life grow closer to Jesus in the Eucharist through the witness of Dorothy Day today! Download Katie Bogner's children's activities—perfect for home, classroom and parish settings!
This blog post is part of our series on American Eucharistic Witnesses. These are holy men and women who lived, loved, and served on the very soil upon which we now stand. They all testify—in unique and powerful ways—to what it means to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and go on mission with him for the life of the world. Each month from now through the National Eucharistic Congress in July 2024, we will feature a new witness. Old and young, men and women, representing different cultural families and vocations, these men and women show us—in living color—what holiness looks like. We are also thrilled to partner with American artist Connor Miller, who is creating an original woodcut print of each witness to help us visually engage with this creative new series.