July 7, 2005

‘Saint Dorothy’?

On June 7th, at the Catholic Center on First Avenue in Manhattan, a meeting was held unlike any in which I have ever been involved. Approximately 35 Catholic lay men and women were gathered with one of our vicars general, Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan; my priest-secretary, Msgr. Gregory A. Mustaciuolo; and me to discuss how we might work together to have a New Yorker whose name is Dorothy Day made a saint of the Church.

Bishop Sullivan was there, he explained, because he came to admire Dorothy Day many years ago when he read her autobiography, "The Long Loneliness," as a student at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie and later became closely connected with her work as a priest serving in a needy neighborhood of Lower Manhattan. "My friends and I would go to the local public school each Saturday morning to obtain from the janitor the milk that was left over from the children’s lunches" he reported. "We would bring it to one of Dorothy Day’s two Houses of Hospitality for the poor, and they were always very grateful."

Msgr. Mustaciuolo, together with Mr. George Horton of our Catholic Charities Office who has been for years instrumental in the move to have Dorothy Day declared a saint of the Church, had organized the meeting for a core-group of supporters of various charitable agencies established by Dorothy Day. Shortly before his death, John Cardinal O’Connor had named monsignor the "postulator" of the "cause" of Dorothy Day, that is to say, the one in charge of advancing her case in favor of canonization, first, on the local scene, and later, before the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in the Vatican. Monsignor, who served also as Cardinal O’Connor’s priest secretary, was the ideal choice, inasmuch as he had been for many years a devoted student of the life and spirituality of Dorothy Day and had put together a significant collection of books and articles about her and by her.

The meeting was a great success. Dorothy Day’s granddaughter spoke movingly of her grandmother’s struggles and achievements for the neediest in the various cities in which she lived and worked. One of Dorothy Day’s biographers, Robert Ellsberg, sketched her life story briefly and lovingly. Paul Elie, author of "The Life You Save May Be Yours," gave a meditation; and the editors of the Houston Catholic Worker, founded by Dorothy Day, joined in the discussions that followed. Finally, Patricia Handal, who is heading a "Guild" to work toward the canonization of Terence Cardinal Cooke, described her work in detail and offered her expertise.

When I was invited to speak, I told a story whose beginning was not unlike that of Bishop Sullivan’s. When I was in a high school seminary in the 1950s, I observed, the parish priest who had encouraged me to enter the seminary gave me a copy of "The Long Loneliness" and told me to read it and tell him what I thought of it. I do not recall exactly what I told him, but I know what was in my head: "This is a saint if ever there was one."

Frankly, for some that opinion might not be altogether appealing. For in the life of Dorothy Day there was much that could occasion considerable concern. Before she made her way to the Lord and His Church, she pursued a, let us say, "Bohemian" lifestyle, full of excesses of all kinds. She lived with men in common law arrangements. She had a child in her womb killed by an abortionist. She consorted with communists and anarchists. She was jailed for controversial demonstrations on behalf of workers, women’s suffrage, and the rights of the imprisoned. She preached a pacifism that knew no limit, and she wrote at least one book which in her later years she regretted so much that she declared she would do anything if she could have every copy of it destroyed.

In brief, she was anything but saintly in her early years: a statement that could be made with equal validity, for example, about St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Camillus de Lellis, and the saint who anointed the feet of the Savior with perfume and wiped them with her hair.

However, once she discovered the Lord and His Church in 1918 through hours of prayer in St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village and Our Lady Help of Christians Church on Staten Island, Dorothy Day was "re-born" in the way that the aforementioned Savior told the proud and powerful Nicodemus he needed to be "re-born." (Cf. Gospel according to St. John 3: 3-8) She went to Mass and Communion every day. She confessed her sins to a priest every week. She meditated on the Scriptures whenever she had a free moment. She prayed the Rosary with never-failing delight. And all the while, she handed herself over totally to the humble and courageous service of the poorest of the poor by fighting for their causes in her newspaper, The Catholic Worker, which published as many as 180,000 copies a month; by providing them food, clothing and shelter in her "Houses of Hospitality," which today number over 130 in urban centers across the nation; by demonstrating for them; by showering uncompromising love over even the most ungrateful of them; and especially by praying and denying herself even the most ordinary of pleasures and conveniences for them.

Dorothy Day sought no accolades. She dismissed any suggestion that she was a saint, though she took extraordinary delight in studying the lives of the saints. She accepted the rejection of certain women’s groups who could not forgive her condemnation of abortion, just as she accepted the rejection of a great number of her followers who could not understand her uncompromising commitment to peace. She told Church leaders in no uncertain terms when she thought they were mistaken in matters of social policy, but stood foursquare with them in matters of faith and morals.

When she passed away in 1980 at the age of 83, in the little "House of Hospitality" she shared with the poor and abandoned on Staten Island, she was among the most respected women in the Church and, indeed, in the world, honored by editorial writers, civil rights leaders, labor unions, universities, and in a way that meant the world to her, by Pope Paul VI, who had her come to Communion at one of his Masses after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

Will Dorothy Day ever be declared a saint by the Church of her beloved Savior? I, of course, do not know. Still, in my own mind she is marvelously saintly, for whatever that might be worth. For those who share this conviction, there is something they might wish to do, namely, join the "Guild of Dorothy Day," which was founded on June 7, 2005, in the meeting described above, and secondly, ask the Lord to help the process along by speaking to Him of her in prayer. To join the "Guild," one can contact:

Reverend Monsignor Gregory Mustaciuolo

Archdiocese of New York

1011 First Avenue

New York, New York 10022

Telephone: (212) 371-1000

Monsignor will send all who write or telephone his office printed materials about Dorothy Day, and the Lord and His Church will take it from there.

One final note:On Monday, June 20th, I received a letter from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints informing me that a preliminary examination of a miraculous cure obtained through the intercession of the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, indicated that the "cause" of this other New Yorker who lived his life for the poor was moving forward very well indeed. I opened the letter just after I had finished putting together the outline for this article. While I dare not jump to any conclusions, I cannot help but feel that someone in the "great beyond" may have been trying to tell me to be more hopeful about seeing Dorothy Day brought to the altar. From what I know of Dorothy Day, I am quite sure it was not she. Rather, I suspect it was one of those tens of thousands of poorly paid workers, derelicts, prisoners and homeless whom she fed, clothed, housed, championed, loved and led to the God who was born in a stable, earned His bread as a carpenter and had "nowhere to lay His head."

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York