Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, Kings County, New York. She was the daughter of John Irving Day and Grace Bryant Satterlee. Her father was born in Tennessee and had deep southern roots going back to Colonial America. He was of English and Irish stock. Her mother was born in New York and was mostly of English heritage. Her mother’s family had been in the state of New York for numerous generations and go back to Long Island, New York in Colonial American times.
Her father was a Congregationalist and her mother an Episcopalian. Her parents were married in the Episcopal Church, but both could be described at best as Christians in name only. The family rarely attended church services. Neither Dorothy or her siblings were baptized as infants into the Episcopal Church. Eventually, Dorothy took an interest in the church and was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church. But in her teenage years, her link and connection to Christianity proved to be a weak one.
Her family home life was not always a happy one. They were often living in poverty, engendered by her father’s inability to find steady work. This resulted in the family having to move several times. Her family’s financial woes were also negatively affected by her father’s like of alcoholic drink and gambling. He was especially fond of betting on the horses at the racetrack. His love of the horses and the track also were a cause for him to uproot the family, for he longed to find a permanent job writing about horses and the track. He and Dorothy were not close. Only later in life were the two able to partly mend their relationship and be civil with one another. In contrast, her relationship with her mother was a close one, especially in her young adulthood years.
Dorothy attended the University of Illinois at Urbana for two years before leaving and venturing back to New York City. Her college years began a time of her distancing herself from religion and spirituality, while at the same time her interest in social concerns and injustices began to grow. Dorothy Day stated herself of this time, “I felt then for the first time that religion was something that I must ruthlessly cut out of my life.” (From Union Square to Rome). These beliefs led her to embrace the ideas of Marxism and Communism.
During this time, she lived a Bohemian lifestyle, she was a bon vivant, who indulged in drink, and love affairs with many men, including writer Eugene O’Neill. She also began working as a journalist. She was infatuated with and entered into a relationship with Lionel Moise. He quickly ended the romance which caused Dorothy to become seriously depressed, during this time she attempted suicide. This event would affect her later in her ministry to help others and her prayer life, she could sympathize with those contemplating suicide and those who committed suicide, and she spent a great deal of her time when in intercessory prayer praying for people who had committed suicide.
Although Lionel had officially broken off their relationship, they continued to engage in romantic interludes, which resulted in Dorothy becoming pregnant. He refused to marry her and insisted she get an abortion. So, at the age of 22, she had an abortion, a decision that she regretted her whole life. Although Dorothy never wrote or discussed her getting an abortion, it had a lasting effect on her.
Only months later, she married Barkeley Tobey. She entered into the relationship and marriage on the rebound, and the marriage was a disaster. She left him and went to Chicago in an unsuccessful attempt to win back Lionel Moise. She returned to New York City and through friends she met the love of her life, Forster Batterham. Within a year, they were living as common-law spouses. Dorothy had bought a fishing cottage along the shores of Staten Island. It is during this time that Dorothy’s ideas regarding religion and spirituality began to change. She began to see God in nature and that nature was God’s Handiwork. She also began to pray, informally.
Four years into living on Staten Island, she began to notice the signs of pregnancy and this was a great joy to her, she had thought herself to be sterile after the abortion. Batterham was not overjoyed with the news of her pregnancy. The prospect of marriage and family life was not seen as appealing to him.
While living on the island she had met a nun, Sister Aloysis, who ran a community kitchen at the local Catholic parish. She began reading the Bible for herself and learning Catechism from Sister Aloysis. She felt great, simple, earthly joy living in her cottage by the sea but began to feel there must be a supernatural component to this joy. She experienced spiritual stirrings in her heart and felt “haunted by God”. A phrase that Dorothy used often.
While Batterham strongly opposed marriage and child-rearing, due to philosophical reasons and feeling they boxed him in, he felt even stronger about his dislike of religion. He vehemently opposed and was resentful of her newly-found and deepening spiritual life within the religion of the Catholic Church.
She adored Batterham, but after the birth of her only child, a daughter, Tamar Teresa Batterham, she became increasingly more devout in her spirituality and her desire of wanting a life that included her growing Catholic faith. She could no longer abide in their common-law covenant and she insisted the child be baptized into the Catholic faith. She gave him an ultimatum, marry her, or he had to leave. Batterham would not marry her, not because he didn’t love her, but because he opposed the institution of marriage. She chose God, and forced him to leave. Both she and Tamar were baptized into the Catholic faith and family. Day said of this time, “It got to the point where it was the simple question of whether I chose God or man.”
But this was not the end of the relationship between Day and Batterham. They later exchanged many letters and notes, gifts and visits in the hospital. And they always had a shared connection, their daughter Tamar. He eventually did marry and when his wife became gravely, incurably ill, Batterham called Dorothy asking her to come take care of his wife. It says a lot about Dorothy and her virtues that she did indeed go and take care of his wife.
In the last years of Dorothy’s life, Forster Batterham called her everyday and attended her funeral in 1980 and the memorial Mass held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
Some years later, during the years of the Great Depression, and wanting to put her faith into action, Dorothy, along with her grade-school-aged daughter Tamar, left her fishing cottage on Staten Island and returned to New York City (although she always returned to her fishing cottage by the sea throughout her life, when she felt overwhelmed and needed respite).
Dorothy struggled to earn a living as a single mother working as a freelance writer. It took five years — after her baptism into the Catholic faith — before she was able to solve a great question in her life, how could she merge into one both her radical convictions regarding the unjust social order found within the world and her deep religious faith.
In early December 1932, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to cover the National Hunger March. While in Washington, D.C., and on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dorothy went to the crypt in the unfinished shrine near the Catholic University and prayed, “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers for the poor.”
The very next day, upon returning to New York City, she met Peter Maurin. She came home to find him waiting for her. On her meeting Maurin, she later said it was “direct Providential intervention.” His ideas coupled with her putting them into action was indeed providence.
Peter Maurin was born Aristode Pierre as one of twenty-two children born to a strong Catholic peasant family of southern France. In France, he was educated by the Christian Catholic Brothers. In his forties, he emigrated first to Canada and homesteaded there, before coming to the United States. He was an undocumented immigrant in both countries. He eventually ended up in New York and when he and Dorothy met, he had been living in Bowery flophouses and spending his time in the Public Library and sharing his ideas with anyone who would listen. He was a natural teacher and felt “the only way to reach a man on the street is to actually meet the man on the street.”
His spirituality has often been likened to St. Francis of Assisi and he saw Dorothy Day as a new St. Catherine of Siena, the medieval saint who was a lay member of the Dominican Order, a mystic, author, reformer, and activist.
Maurin held deep beliefs in “the dignity of the worker and the dignity of labor.” He held firmly to the words and divine commandant of Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is not another commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:31 (BLT). Maurin believed that this could be achieved within the Christian Community. He began to teach her applied Catholic theology, in how to apply their religious beliefs in real hands-on ways.
Peter Maurin proposed to her a multi-pronged approach that included a newspaper — The Catholic Worker, round-table discussions that included the work of undertaking charitable community service, the opening of houses of hospitality, and the creation of farming communes. Together they collaborated his ideas with her ability to put them into real practical action.
She immediately went into action with purpose, her Fifteenth Street apartment became the first Catholic Worker house of hospitality. These Catholic Worker houses of hospitality incorporated works of mercy, prayer, work, and community. The houses of hospitality soon attracted many volunteers, who wanted to use their skills and spiritual gifts to help the poor.
“Our Lord Left Himself To Us As Food, Bread And Wine . . . It’s Far Easier To See Christ In Your Brother When You’re Sitting Down And Sharing Soup With Him. You Don’t Any Longer See The Destitute, Or The Drunk, Or The Disorderly, Or The Unworthy Poor.” – Dorothy Day (Christopher Closeup interview with Dorothy Day)
In 1938, Peter Maurin moved to one of the farming communes named Mary Farm; it was a Catholic Worker community of ten-acres in Easton, Pennsylvania. Although there were other farm communes set up, many ended up more as rural houses of hospitality than farming communes.
In 1949, Maurin died as he had lived. He was buried in a used suit and in a donated grave. Which was fitting for a man that had very little personal property and never wore a suit that had not been worn by another person prior, and he rarely had a bed of his own. A Catholic Worker farm on Staten Island was named in honor of him. It continues now as the Peter Maurin Farm in Marlborough, New York.
Dorothy Day was a pacifist even prior to her conversion to Catholicism. She used her practical journalism skills and social activism, within the bounds of her Catholic faith, to attempt to achieve social justice through the Gospel of St. Matthew — The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. She took them literally. We should endeavor to make works of peace, not war. The work of the Christian is one of works of mercy. We should accept the 25th chapter of Matthew (25:31-46) as commands, not counsel. And the performance of the corporal works of mercy are paramount: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick, ransom the captive, bury the dead.
The Catholic Worker uses literal applications of the Gospels to help make changes to the social order. The houses of hospitality provide food for those in need and shelter for the homeless, they also are used as newspaper offices, as soup kitchens and community kitchens, places of prayer and worship, and are sometimes also used as boarding houses, and schools. Whatever is needed to meet the needs of the community.
This important work begun by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin continues today with 187 Catholic Worker Houses in the United States and the across the globe.
“True love is delicate, and kind, full of gentle perception and understanding, full of beauty and grace, full of joy unutterable. There should be some flavor of this in all our love for others. We are all one. We are one flesh in the Mystical Body, as man and woman are said to be one flesh in marriage. With such a love one would see all things new; we would begin to see people as they really are, as God sees them.” – Dorothy Day (The Catholic Worker Movement. On Pilgrimage, November. An essay and meditation about love)
Alden Whitman, Dorothy Day Outspoken Catholic Activist, Dies at 83, N.Y. Times, Nov. 30, 1980
Coles, Robert (1987). Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Day, Dorothy (1997). The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist. New York, NY: HarperCollins
Day, Dorothy (2016). Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker: The Miracle of Our Continuance (Catholic Practice in North America). New York, NY: Empire State Editions – Fordham University Press
Day, Dorothy (2003). Loaves and Fishes: The Inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement. (Reprint Edition). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books
Day, Dorothy (2006). From Union Square to Rome. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books
Day, Dorothy and Sicius, Francis J. (2004). Peter Maurin: Apostle to the World. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books
Forest, Jim (2011). All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books
Hennessy, Kate (2017). Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother. New York, NY: Scribner
Kent, Deborah (2006), Dorothy Day: friend to the forgotten. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman Books
Maurin, Peter (2020). The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin: Easy Essays from the Catholic Worker (Catholic Practice in North America). New York, NY: Fordham University Press
Miller, William (1984). Dorothy Day: A Biography. New York, NY: HarperCollins
Miller, William D. (1973). A Harsh and dreadful love; Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing
Weber, Kerry (2014). Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press Films,
Documentaries, TV Interviews:
Christopher Closeup, Segment interview with Dorothy Day. (1970’s). Created by and courtesy of The Christophers, Inc., Catholic Television Show, Video via YouTube
Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. Subject Matters. Created by Salt and Light Media, interview with Kate Hennessy, season 2, episode 4, Salt and Light Media, 7 April 2017. Video via YouTube
Dorothy Day. Who Cares About Saints? Created by James Martin, SJ, episode 1, Vision Video, 16 Nov 2020. Video via YouTube.
Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story. Dir. Michael Ray Rhodes. Paulist Pictures, 1996. Film.
Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story. Dir. Martin Doblmeier. Journey Films, 2020. Documentary Film.
Who is Dorothy Day? Part II. Catholic News Service. Created by Catholic News Service, 13 Dec 2012. Video via YouTube
Ancestry.com. New York, New York, U.S., Extracted Birth Index, 1878-1909 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014. Assessed January 23, 2021
Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006. Assessed January 23, 2021
Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1880 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010.
Assessed January 31, 2021
Ancestry.com. New York, New York, U.S., Birth Index, 1910-1965 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2017. Assessed February 24, 2021
Dolan, Pamela. Following Jesus: A Sermon For Christ The King Sunday, Episcopal Church of St. Michael, November 22, 2020. Accessed February 23, 2021.
“Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection”. Special Collections & University Archives. Raynor Memorial Libraries. Accessed February 8, 2021.
☆ This blog entry is from my work in the Church History course I took at Phillips Seminary. ☆
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