She was a women’s suffragist, arrested in 1917 at a White House protest, but she may never have voted. In spite of that paradox, Dorothy Day lived a singular life of principled action, personal sacrifice and a belief that a new world could be born within the shell of the old. She shared her vision with a Hartford audience in 1934.
It was a timely visit. Born out of the Great Depression, Dorothy’s group the Catholic Worker fought poverty, unemployment, violence, and despair. Connecticut activists had also been mobilizing.
In 1930 the International Workers Order established a Hartford chapter to fund services for Jewish workers who did not have unions. In 1932 the Hartford Association of the Unemployed packed City Hall to demand decent living conditions.
Jobless workers hired to expand Brainard Airport in 1933 put down their tools until the mayor guaranteed a wage “to show something for our work.” Later that summer hundreds of WWI veterans left the city to join thousands in Washington D.C. calling for the cash bonus they had been promised. Hundreds of hunger marchers from around the state descended on the state Capitol to lobby for an appropriation of $12 million for Connecticut’s hungry families.
In stark contrast to radical Hartford organizing, the Catholic Church had a dismal record on behalf of those damaged by the Depression crisis. In fact, some priests openly espoused fascism and looked to Europe for leadership. For instance, Fr. Andrew J. Kelly, pastor of Hartford’s St. Anthony Church, convinced 500 women in his parish to donate their gold wedding bands to Benito Mussolini. The dictator had just waged war on Ethiopia, leaving Italy’s treasury broke.
Dorothy Day’s social conscience began to take shape while she was enrolled in a Chicago high school, reading Jack London and Upton Sinclair, walking through the city’s slums to the Stockyards made infamous by Sinclair’s novel The Jungle.
She was barely nineteen when she got her first red card, signing up with the Wobblies (the nickname of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW). One line in the IWW’s 1905 Preamble struck a chord:
…It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old (emphasis added).
That last sentence later became a centerpiece of the Catholic Worker community’s ethos.
Dorothy moved to New York City and was hired as a reporter for The Call, an influential socialist daily. She wrote for Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth and The Masses magazine. She covered workers’ demonstrations and organizing efforts, publicized speeches by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and interviewed the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Dorothy considered herself a radical, but as she wrote in her autobiography, “not a good one,” and not in the same class as her contemporaries. When she met Peter Maurin in 1932, however, she found her true calling, as a Catholic pacifist committed to a life of social justice. Together they organized the Catholic Worker on Manhattan’s lower east side. They developed a community grounded in voluntary poverty, works of mercy, and nonviolent action.
Peter, Dorothy, and their comrades established houses of hospitality, where the poor and homeless lived with an intentional community of CW adherents. There are now over two hundred such houses around the world, including two in Hartford (St. Martin de Porres and St. Brigid houses).
The Catholic Worker aided the creation of the National Maritime Union and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Dorothy witnessed the historic auto workers’ 1936-37 sit down strike in Flint, Michigan which she described as “nonviolence in action.” She and her comrades were active with the United Farm Workers and the UFW successful boycotts of grapes and lettuce in the 1960s and 70s.
In October 1934, Dorothy Day spoke at the St. Joseph Cathedral on Farmington Avenue. She had been invited to address a communion breakfast sponsored by the “Ladies of St. Joseph.”
Two hundred women attended and heard her story of the founding of the Catholic Worker. They undoubtedly bought copies of her group’s newspaper, which began publishing a year earlier. Its first issue featured an article entitled “Blowing the Dynamite,” a provocative headline calling for Catholics to “blow the lid” off the Church’s grossly inadequate social programs. “Plenty of charity but too little justice,” Dorothy wrote.
Within a short time, The Catholic Worker had a circulation of 150,000. As it did in 1933, the paper still costs a penny per copy.
Dorothy Day – November 8, 1897 to November 29, 1980