Day, Dorothy

views updated May 21 2018

Dorothy Day

born november 8, 1897
brooklyn, new york

died november 29, 1980
new york, new york

journalist, advocate for the poor

"For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight—this little paper is addressed."

from the first edition of the catholic worker

The Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in the United States, had a stranglehold on Americans in May 1933. Newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) had launched his New Deal legislation to attempt to begin to pull America from the depths. On May 1, Dorothy Day, a tall, slender, thirty-five year old, walked among people at Union Square in New York City distributing for a penny a copy the first edition of her newspaper, the Catholic Worker. The edition boldly proclaimed: "To Our Readers: For those who are sitting on park benches in the warm spring sunlight. For those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain. For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work. For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight—this little paper is addressed. It is printed to call their attention to the fact that the Catholic Church has a social program—to let them know that there are men of God who are working not only for their spiritual, but for their material welfare." Day, a convert to Catholicism, believed in applying Christian principles to help the poor. Beginning in the 1930s Depression era, Day and the CatholicWorker became a ray of hope for the poor and hungry, a voice for the powerless, challenging the wealthy, churches, government, and employers who had ignored the needy.

Early life

The third of five children, Dorothy May Day was born to John I. Day and Grace Satterlee Day in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. John Day was a horse-racing enthusiast, and his career as a sportswriter centered on the horse-racing circuit. He was a respected but distant father who demanded an orderly, quiet family life, free of visitors. Dorothy rarely mentioned him except to say that when she was an adult, her radical ideas displeased him. On the other hand, Dorothy was close to her mother, who had an optimistic, cheery personality. Dorothy's sister Della was born two years after Dorothy. The two would be very close throughout their lives. Dorothy was the seeker and prober, always pushing boundaries, while Della's calm, good-natured personality would help moderate Dorothy's intensity.

In 1904 John moved his family to a bungalow in Oakland, California, near the Idora Park racetrack. Life was comfortable and uneventful for the family until April 18, 1906, when the earth shook mightily underneath them. While Oakland was not drastically affected, the earthquake left half of San Francisco in ruins. Within days John moved his family to Chicago. They lived in an apartment over a saloon, and for the first time the family experienced economic difficulties.

Religion was not a part of the Day household. John had been raised a Congregationalist and Grace an Episcopalian, but neither attended church in adulthood. Nevertheless, Dorothy always had an interest in "holy" things. An avid reader since the age of four, she came across a Bible in the house, spent several hours reading it, and experienced a "sense of holiness." She attended Methodist services with Chicago neighbors and visited with a Catholic girl in the neighborhood who told her about the Catholic religion. Dorothy attended an Episcopalian church with her brothers and sisters after a pastor visited John, who was slightly drunk at the time, and convinced him to let his children attend church.

By the time Dorothy reached her teen years, John had a good job as a sports editor for a Chicago newspaper, and the family was comfortable and happy in a large house near Lincoln Park. Dorothy's life consisted of going to school, helping with housework, and reading authors recommended by her father, such as Charles Dickens (1812–1870) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894). Dorothy also read books by Jack London (1876–1916), who described slum life and class struggles; Upton Sinclair (1878–1968), who was interested in socialism and wrote The Jungle (1906) about working conditions in the Chicago stockyards; and Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), a socialist and supporter of the common people. She followed with interest the labor movement struggles in Chicago and admired the activities of powerful labor leader Eugene Debs (1855–1926).

Late teens and college freedom

Day's interest in religion continued as she grew older. She was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in her teens and enjoyed reading about saints and religious teachings. She was deeply impressed by the formal prayer and psalms of the church. Day graduated from Waller High School in June 1914 and entered the University of Illinois at Urbana in the fall. She continued to be a very introspective young person who centered her life around reading and writing instead of college parties and empty chatter.

On her own for the first time and away from the watchful eye of her father, Day relished in attending or not attending classes as she saw fit. She always occupied a seat by the window during lectures. Day managed Bs and Cs but flunked biology, a subject that did not interest her. In her second semester at Illinois she met and became fast friends with Rayna Simons. Together they read and reread Russian writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Rayna was destined to become a communist; Day, a Catholic.

Young journalist

In the spring of 1916 John Day accepted a sportswriter position on the New York Morning Telegraph and moved the family back to New York City. Day, at the same time, left the University of Illinois and took a reporter's job in New York for the Socialist journal Call. At the Call she reported on a variety of issues including housing conditions, evictions, labor troubles and strikes, and food riots. She also covered several groups opposed to the U.S. entry into World War I (1914–18).

In 1917 she left the Call and went to work for Masses, a radical Socialist journal. Day's writing dealt more with the individual experiences of poor and struggling people than with political issues. Government authorities soon suppressed Masses, and Day was unemployed. Around this time she joined a group of demonstrators at the White House who were protesting the treatment of a number of suffragettes (women who worked to attain voting rights for women). After the demonstration, Day ended up with a thirty-day jail sentence; in jail she experienced hunger and mistreatment.

Bohemian wanderings

After getting out of jail, Day began a Bohemian, or unconventional, wandering lifestyle that lasted almost a decade. She moved to Greenwich Village in New York City and became friends with many literary and artistic individuals who also lived in the vibrant Village. Day developed a particularly close friendship with playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953). Continuing her journey through life, Day met and married literary promoter Barkeley Tobey, then followed him to Europe. Within a year she left Tobey and came back to the United States, first to Chicago, then to New Orleans, Louisiana.

In 1924 she published a semiautobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin, and was offered five thousand dollars for the movie rights. With the money Day bought a cottage on Staten Island in New York and began reestablishing her friendships within New York's literary circles. She counted author John Dos Passos (1896–1970) and Mike Gold as friends. Her circle of friends included socialists, communists, and anarchists (those who oppose government structure and believe people can govern themselves). At this point in her life she began a common-law marriage with Foster Batterham, an anarchist from an established Southern family.

A new Catholic

In June 1925 Day learned she was pregnant. She described her reaction as "blissful joy," and she later recalled that after hearing the news, she began to pray again rather spontaneously and make visits to a nearby Catholic chapel. In March 1926 Day and Batterham's baby, Tamar Teresa, was born. Day had her baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Day began to explore joining the Catholic Church and was eventually baptized as a Roman Catholic on December 28, 1927.

Shortly after her baptism, Day left Batterham and traveled widely, taking various journalistic assignments. She even tried her hand at writing Hollywood scripts, but frustrated with the meaninglessness of the job, she quit and went to live in Mexico City, Mexico. There she wrote articles about the poverty and despair she found at every turn. She submitted these articles to Commonweal, a mainstream and respected Catholic journal, and they were accepted for publication. Articles by Day would appear in Commonweal for many years thereafter.

Day was constantly searching for a way to help the poor. She feared that the Catholic Church was not meaningfully addressing the problems of the poorest people in society. Day was actively trying to make sense of her own life and religious beliefs, but at the same time she was trying to figure out how she could improve the lives of others in a practical way.

By 1932 almost 25 percent of the U.S. workforce was unemployed. The Great Depression, the most severe economic crisis in America's history, was worsening. Commonweal sent Day to Washington, D.C., to cover hunger marchers in December 1932. To her dismay, Christians were not leading the marchers; instead it was communists who had organized the event. Although she was devoutly religious, which goes against the communist way of thinking, and was never a member of the Communist Party, Day sympathized with the communist doctrine calling for a government and an economic system that promote human dignity and social justice. In a book she published years later in 1952, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day, Day remembered that while she was in Washington, D.C., she went to the national shrine at Catholic University, and "there 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."

Peter Maurin and the birth of the Catholic Worker

When Day returned to New York, Peter Maurin met her at her apartment. He had been sent by George Shuster, editor of Commonweal, because Shuster thought Day and Maurin had similar concerns. Born in 1877 in France, Maurin was educated by a Catholic order called the Christian Brothers. He became involved in Sillon, a radical democratic Christian farming movement that swept France in the early twentieth century. When the movement failed to take hold, he left France, moved to Canada, then arrived in New York in the late 1920s. Maurin talked intently about voluntary poverty, service to others, and Christian reform. He believed that if each Christian individually performed acts of kindness, Christians could collectively change the social order. Day realized that Maurin's ideas were a bridge to her own commitment to the poor. With his vision and her practicality, Maurin and Day established the Catholic Worker movement in 1933.

Together Day and Maurin created the newspaper Catholic Worker to present the official teachings of the Catholic Church on social justice and to address hunger, labor concerns, and race relations. In the newspaper Day and Maurin suggested ways for Christians to address the social realities of the day.

One of the suggestions, Houses of Hospitality, quickly caught on. Houses of Hospitality were started all over the country. By 1938 twenty-three houses fed and sheltered needy people—sometimes a few and sometimes hundreds each day. These Catholic Worker houses became the focus for a new Catholic social justice philosophy. The original Hospitality House, located in New York, moved to a larger house at 115 Mott Street and remained home to the movement for the next fifteen years. The Catholic Worker had a circulation of over one hundred thousand. From the start Day oversaw all aspects of the paper. For decades she wrote a monthly column for the Worker and traveled up to four months each year to speak out against the inhumane working conditions many laborers had to endure.

The Catholic Worker Movement

The Catholic Worker movement was founded in 1933 by two people. One was Dorothy Day, a journalist, a recent Catholic convert, and a friend of socialists, communists, and anarchists. The other, Peter Maurin, was an eccentric Frenchman and a Catholic intellectual without a penny to his name. Together they founded a movement whose philosophical cornerstones were Christian communal living (doing individual work to help others within a community specifically dedicated to following the teachings of Jesus); voluntary poverty (choosing to reject material possessions); and nonviolence and pacifism. They established a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, to explain and promote the philosophy and programs of the movement. From 1933 until her death in 1980, Day was the editor of the newspaper. Within only a few years Houses of Hospitality were set up in cities across the nation to provide food, clothing, shelter, and welcome to those in need. Rural self-sufficient Catholic Worker communities were also established. The Catholic Worker movement was never an official part of the Catholic Church but applied Catholic teaching by reaching out to the poor and the oppressed. The movement introduced a new form of Catholicism to America. Until the 1930s the U.S. Catholic population was made up entirely of immigrants intent on making a successful transition into American life and showing loyalty to their chosen country. The Catholic Worker movement, on the other hand, attracted more-liberal Catholics. They were involved in the labor union movement and social issues of the poor, both activities considered by the general public to be related to socialism and communism and disloyal to the United States. At first the movement was well received, but its unwavering pacifism—opposition to all military activities—lost it many followers during World War II (1939–45). Nevertheless, its message endured. At the start of the twenty-first century, 134 Catholic Worker communities still existed, and the Catholic Worker newspaper still cost one penny a copy. Besides clothing and feeding the poor, Catholic Workers support labor unions and civil rights and continue as pacifists during times of war.

In the late 1930s tensions in Europe were building and would soon lead to the outbreak of World War II (1939–45). Both Day and Maurin found Christian teachings to be totally incompatible with war, and they said so through the Worker. Their pacifist (achieving goals through peaceful means) position angered many Catholics who chose to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States through service in the armed forces. By the mid-1940s Catholic Worker circulation had dropped to fifty-five thousand.

A role model in the fight for social justice

From the end of World War II until her death, Day advocated social, racial, and economic justice. She continued in her firm devotion to the Catholic Church. Day was considered a Catholic visionary, a role model in the fight for social justice, and an innovative advocate for the poor. From her baptism in 1927 to the end of her life, she attended mass and prayed daily.

Day remained active and outspoken until her death in 1980 at Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker hospitality house for destitute women in New York City. After a lifetime of voluntary poverty, Day left no money for a funeral. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York paid the expenses. A gifted and tireless writer, Day wrote thousands of essays, articles, and reviews, as well as several books in her eighty-three years of life. She put Christian principles into practice in the modern world. She chose a life of poverty, living at the Houses of Hospitality, eating the food, and wearing clothing from the secondhand clothing bins at the houses. Day was consistently several decades ahead of the Catholic Church on social issues and was a primary influence in the growth of the American Catholic community. In an article titled "The Pilgrimage of Dorothy Day" for the December 19, 1980, issue of Common-weal, Catholic historian David J. O'Brien calls her "the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism." In the September 11, 1982, issue of Nation, writer Linda Bamber describes Day as "the closest thing there is to a twentieth-century American saint." At the beginning of the twenty-first century a movement for her to be declared a saint was still in progress.

For More Information


day, dorothy. the long loneliness: the autobiography of dorothy day. new york, ny: harper, 1952.

miller, william d. dorothy day: a biography. new york, ny: harper & row, 1982.

roberts, nancy l. dorothy day and the catholic worker. albany, ny: state university of new york press, 1984.

thorn, william, phillip runkel, and susan mountin, eds. dorothy day and the catholic worker movement: centenary essays. milwaukee, wi: marquette university, 2001.


bamber, linda. "a saint's life." nation, september 11, 1982.

o'brien, david j. "the pilgrimage of dorothy day." commonweal, december 19, 1980.

Web Sites

the catholic worker movement. (accessed on september 7, 2002).

Dorothy Day

views updated May 11 2018

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement which joined radical social reform with the Roman Catholic faith in a movement for social justice and peace.

Dorothy Day was born on November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of John J. and Grace (Satterlee) Day. Her father was a newspaper sports writer whose search for a steady job caused the family to travel widely during her pre-adolescent years. She spent part of her youth (1904-1906) in California where her father worked until the San Francisco earthquake compelled him to find another job. In 1906 the family moved to Chicago where the elder Day was employed by a local newspaper. She felt extremely isolated from family and friends during those pre-adolescent years, which she remembered in one of her many books as The Long Loneliness (1952).

Even as a youngster Day developed a taste for literature and writing and did much of both. She also had several religious experiences which would affect her later in life. In 1914 she finally escaped from her restrictive family milieu by matriculating as a student at the University of Illinois in Urbana. There she promptly fell in with a small crowd of radical students, many of whom were Jewish-Americans discriminated against by the general university community. Her closest friend at the university, a wealthy young Jewish woman from Chicago who shared Day's literary and political tastes, radicalized Dorothy politically (the friend later become a prominent Communist). Even before she left the university after only two years, during which academic studies grew sterile and failed to stimulate her, Day had become a part of the pre-World War I American youth rebellion against the conventions of their parents. She and her radical friends wanted to create a new and freer society—in the language of the day, "to transvalue all values."

Bored by academic life, excited by new social, cultural, and political ideas, it was natural for Day to seek to develop herself in what was then (1916) the center of an American bohemian culture. She moved to New York where she immediately joined in the lively life of the Greenwich Village and Lower East Side rebels and radicals. Day almost immediately found a job as a feature writer on the New York Call, the nation's largest and most influential socialist daily. Soon she was involved fulltime in the city's radical political and cultural scene, meeting and becoming close to many of the era's most famous personalities. In the winter of 1917-1918 she became a close friend of the playwright Eugene O'Neill, whom she saw through many bouts with alcohol. Day also developed friendships with Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, who made her an assistant editor of their new magazine, Masses—one of the most famous radical cultural publications in American history.

But American participation in World War I led to government suppression of left-wing organizations and publications and left Day and her radical friends adrift. Troubled by her aimless life among Greenwich Village bohemians, in 1918 she took a position as a probationary nurse at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Nursing, however, failed to satisfy Day's search for meaning in life, although it did involve her in her first serious and tumultuous love affair. In 1919 she left the hospital to work for a time as a writer on the successor journal to Masses, The Liberator. This, too, brought her little satisfaction, and in 1920, for reasons still unclear, she married Barkeley Tober, an oft-wed literary promoter. Only a year later Day dissolved this, her only formal marriage.

For the next several years she seemed to drift aimlessly, working as a reporter for the New Orleans Item in 1922-1923 and also as an occasional writer for the Catholic journal Commonweal. While in New Orleans she wrote and published a commercially successful, partly autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin (1924). With the money from her novel, Day moved back to the New York area, buying a beach cottage on Staten Island. She resumed contact with the city's intellectuals and wrote occasional pieces for The New Masses. In 1925 she began living with a biologist and anarchist (one Foster Batterham), with whom she had a daughter, Tamar Teresa, born on March 3, 1927. After the daughter's birth Batterham left and Day began to immerse herself in religious literature and theology. Unknown to many of her old and close friends, Day on December 28, 1927, had herself and her daughter baptized in a small Staten Island Roman Catholic Church. For the remainder of her life she would remain a dedicated daughter of the Church. She had made a strange personal journey from a diluted childhood Protestantism through years as a rebellious bohemian, ultimately to find solace in the Catholic faith, a journey which she described poignantly in one of her autobiographical fragments, From Union Square to Rome (1938).

At first, however, even her new religious faith brought Day no clear purpose in life. In 1929 she toyed with script-writing in Hollywood but without satisfaction. A year later she moved with her small daughter to Mexico City, where they lived on the edge of poverty. That same summer she returned to the United States where the onset of the Great Depression swept her back into the movement for social reform. In December 1932 she went to Washington to report on a Communist-led hunger march. On her return to New York City she met Peter Maurin, a former French peasant and social agitator, who convinced her that radical social reform and the Roman Catholic faith could be united. Day now found a purpose in life that would remain with her for the remainder of her days. Together with Maurin she founded a movement which would carry Jesus's original message to the most dispossessed of workers. They would prove that Catholicism served the poor as well as the rich, the weak better than the mighty. Through their newspaper, Catholic Worker, and hospitality houses which they established as havens for homeless workers, Day and Maurin promoted their singular version of Catholicism as a social reform movement.

For the next 50 years Day and the Catholic Worker Movement were at the forefront of all Catholic reform efforts. Young American Roman Catholics, eager to improve secular society while remaining faithful to their church, flocked to hear Day's message. The Berrigan brothers (Daniel and Philip), Michael Harrington, and many others fell under her spell, which turned them into radical social reformers. Other Catholics influenced by Day served as activists in the industrial union movement led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s, and increasingly in the peace movement which assumed growing importance in the nuclear age. Echoes of Day's approach to religion and reform could also be found in the "liberation theology" movement which emerged in Latin America in the 1960s.

By the time she died on November 29, 1980, Day had had an enormous impact on both American Catholicism and reform. It was an impact which lived on as revealed in the pastoral letters issued by the American Roman Catholic bishops in 1983 and 1984 on the issues of nuclear weapons and the economy.

Further Reading

William D. Miller, Dorothy Day, a Biography (1982) is a full and excellent account of the subject's life and career. Two equally excellent books describe and analyze the history of the Catholic Worker Movement: William D. Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (1972) and Mel Piehl, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America (1982). Several of Day's own books, aside from the ones cited in the article, might also be profitably consulted, especially House of Hospitality (1939) and On Pilgrimage: The Sixties (1973). □

Day, Dorothy

views updated May 14 2018

DAY, Dorothy

Born 8 November 1897, Bath Beach, New York; died 29 November 1980, New York, New York

Daughter of John and Grace Satterlee Day; married (commonlaw) Forster Battingham; children: Tamar

As an eight-year-old, Dorothy Day first experienced that "sweetness of faith" in a Methodist Sunday school which later caused her to become a devout Roman Catholic. After the San Francisco earthquake, which destroyed the newspaper plant for which Day's father worked, the family moved to Chicago, where Day spent her girlhood years. In 1914 she went to the University of Illinois at Urbana.

During her high school years, Day became affected by the plight of the underprivileged and read the stories of Eugene Debs, of the Haymarket anarchists, of Kropotkin, and of the Russian revolutionists. Feeling she had received a call, Day directed her life toward practical means of improving conditions among the poor. During her two years at college she began writing for a local newspaper, joined the Socialist club, and in general pursued her own way.

At age eighteen, Day began a serious journalistic career as a reporter for the Socialist New York Call. She joined with others in 1917 in Madison Square Garden to celebrate the Russian Revolution, traveled to Washington with Columbia University students to protest Woodrow Wilson's draft of young men into the armed services, and then went to work for Max Eastman's revolutionary publication, The Masses. After the suppression of The Masses by the government, Day went to Washington with a group of militant suffragists, who were arrested and sentenced to 30 days in prison. This was the first of a number of imprisonments which Day underwent throughout the years for her activism in the causes of peace and justice.

During 1918 Day came to know the Provincetown Players and talked long hours with Eugene O'Neill about religion and death as they walked the streets or "sat out the nights in taverns, in waterfront back rooms."

With $5,000 for the movie-rights to her novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924), Day bought a small bungalow on Raritan Bay, Staten Island. There she had a daughter by her common-law husband, Forster Battingham, an anarchist, who parted with her when she later had the child baptized in the Catholic Church. In From Union Square to Rome (1938) she tells the story of her conversion, and in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness (1952), of her struggle against Catholic priests whose vision did not extend beyond their parish.

Like many other writers in the 1920s, Day spent some fruitless months on a screenwriting assignment in Hollywood, thereafter going with her daughter, Tamar, to Mexico City, where she supported herself by writing articles about the life of the people for Commonweal. Back in New York, she met Peter Maurin, whose ideas dominated the rest of her life. He encouraged her to start a paper for the workingman, extolling "personalist action" and using love as a means of changing institutions to enable each individual to lead a full life. In Union Square on 1 May 1933, a day of massive celebration of Russian and worldwide communism, Day heroically hawked the first issue of the Catholic Worker, a four-page tabloid-sized paper, which urged social Christian action in place of the Marxist communism of the Daily Worker. For almost half a century, she continued to publish every month this liberal voice of the Catholic Church.

Among the many charitable farms and houses of refuge for the poor and homeless which she helped found are the Maryfarm Retreat House, Newburgh, New York; St. Joseph's House of Hospitality, New York City; Peter Maurin Farm, Pleasant Plains, Staten Island; Maryfarm, Easton, Pennsylvania; Chrystie Street House, New York City; and the Tivoli Farm Retreat on the Hudson. The Catholic Worker offices on Mott Street have also served as soup kitchen for the hungry. This tough-minded but gentle-hearted woman, who seemed a saint to wanderers lacking food and shelter, has been the inspiration for numerous Worker Groups, where friendship as well as food is shared.

Other Works:

House of Hospitality (1939). On Pilgrimage (1948). I Remember Peter Maurin (1958). Thérése (1960). Loaves and Fishes (1963). On Pilgrimage: The Sixties (1972).


Avitabile, A., "A Bibliography on Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day, and the Catholic Worker" (available from A.A., Fordham University). Coles, R., A Spectacle Unto the World: The Catholic Worker Movement (1973). Ellsberg, R., ed., By Little and by Little: Selected Writings of Dorothy Day (1983). Hennacy, A., Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist (1945). Hennacy, A., The Book of Ammon (1970). Klejment, A. and A., Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker: A Bibliography and Index (1986). Maurin, P., Catholic Radicalism: Phrased Essays for the Green Revolution (1949). Miller, W. D., A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (1973). Miller, W. D., Dorothy Day: A Biography (1982). O'Brien, D. J., American Catholics and Social Reform: the New Deal Years (1968). Roberts, N., Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (1984). Sheehan, A., Peter Maurin: Gay Believer (1959).

Reference Works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other reference:

Catholic Worker (1933 to present). NY (4 Oct. 1952, 11 Oct. 1952). NYRB (28 Jan. 1971).


Day, Dorothy

views updated Jun 11 2018


Social activist, author and lecturer; b. Bath Beach, Brooklyn, Nov. 8, 1897; d. Nov. 27, 1980. The third in a family of five children, her father, John Day, was a newspaper reporter from Cleveland, Tenn., who attempted to impose on Dorothy a rigid Victorianism in manners and values, much of which she resisted. He did, however, introduce her to good reading, an occupation that remained a passion with her throughout her life. Her mother, Grace, with whom she was always close, was from New England.

In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Day divides her life into two parts. "The first 25 years," she writes, "were floundering, years of joy and sorrowwith a sense of that insecurity one hears so much about these days." Dorothy's girlhood in Chicago was spent in the performance of household chores and in reading. At the age of 15 she won a scholarship to the University of Illinois, where she remained for two years. Because of poverty and her youth, it was a difficult time for her, but also one of satisfaction because, as she later said, she found that she could live by her own resources.

In 1916 she moved with her family to New York City and there, following her own bent, she worked as a journalist for the Socialist Call and otherwise pursued a precarious and bohemian-like existence, living on the Lower East Side and in Greenwich Village. In 1919 she became enamored of a swashbuckling journalist, Lionel Moise. When pregnancy occurred, she, at his insistence, had an abortion. The consequences of this for her was a four-year period of delirium-type wandering, pursuing Moise in the hope that she might again become pregnant by him.

Sometime about 1925, her wandering ended when she was able to buy a small beach cottage at the west end of Staten Island. Living there with an amateur marine biologist, Forster Batterham, she bore a daughter, Tamar Therese, in March, 1926. Such was her joy, and such had been the healing effect of her quiet life on the beach, that she turned to God in gratitude. In December 1928, she was baptized in the Catholic Church at Tottenville, Staten Island.

Five years after her entrance into the Catholic Church, she met the saintly French peasant, Peter maurin, whom Dorothy described as her master. It was through Maurin's teaching that she came to see how her faith related to the social order. It was in personal action and not state action that those vexing and ever-growing problems of historywar, poverty, and the depersonalization of lifecould be reduced. This was, for her, the real revolution and she immediately gave it substance by opening a house of hospitality for the poor and publishing The Catholic Worker. For the next half century, her voice, in the paper and on her speaking tours, was heard supporting the personalist revolution. The name of Dorothy Day became synonymous with that of a social order that was voluntaristic, communal, and open to creative work. She abhorred modern warfare and all of the instruments with which it was waged. Her pacifism was absolute.

But Dorothy Day was more than a voice for a cause. During the 40s, in a series of religious retreats held by Father John Hugo and others of the diocese of Pittsburgh, she was given what she called "the bread of the strong." Because of her early history with Marxists and anarchists, and because of her pacifist beliefs, especially during World War II, she was viewed with suspicion in the early years of her Catholic life by many who thought she had never completely broken with her radical past. But in her later life few who knew her could doubt that she had become a woman of prayer. As she herself said, she wished to be thought of only as a "daughter of the Church." She died at Maryhouse, a Catholic settlement house for homeless women in New York City's Lower East Side.

Dorothy Day was a significant figure both for her revolutionary vision and for the passion and singular steadfastness with which she pursued it. At a time, beginning with the first World War, when the friction of the historical process began to mount rapidly, and human destiny was increasingly placed at the disposal of the Caesars of the world, she wrote, spoke, and lived for a social order in which the freedom and creativity of Christ would be restored to all persons. She was a figure who moved out of the social encyclicals of the popes and who then underwrote them in the thought and action of her life.

Bibliography: d. day, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco 1952; rev. ed. 1982); Loaves and Fishes (San Francisco 1963). j. forest, Love is the Measure. A Biography of Dorothy Day (New York 1986). w. d. miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (New York 1972); Dorothy Day (San Francisco 1980); All is Grace. The Spirituality of Dorothy Day (New York 1987).

[w. d. miller]

Day, Dorothy

views updated Jun 08 2018


DAY, DOROTHY (18971980), personalist revolutionary, journalist, and lecturer. Between 1933, when she brought out the first penny-a-copy issue of the Catholic Worker, and 1980, when she died, Dorothy Day became, in the opinion of many, America's foremost Roman Catholic voice calling for peace and a profound change in the major institutional forms of the contemporary world. She opposed what she regarded as the enslaving colossus of the modern state and the technological giantism to which it was a partner. Fundamental to her ideas of social reordering was her insistence on the personal transformation of value based on the primary reality of spirit rather than the spirit of acquisitiveness. For her, this meant taking her directions from church tradition, the papal encyclicals, and her literal reading of the Gospels. She used these sources to justify her absolute pacifism and her communitarian ideas on social reconstruction.

For Day, the ultimate and transfiguring value was love, a subject that was the theme of her best writing. The exercise of a sacrificial love was at the heart of her personalist revolt against the enlarging domain over life of institutional forms. The world would be renewed by persons who loved and not by state management. In her own case she chose to wage her revolution by establishing "houses of hospitality" in the destitute areas of lower Manhattan in New York City, by promoting communitarian farms, and by an immense writing and speaking regimen that left few Catholic parishes or schools untouched by her ideas by the time of her death.

She was born the third in a family of five children in Brooklyn on November 8, 1897, the daughter of Grace Satterlee and John Day. An opening in journalism for John Day took the family to San Francisco in 1903, but the earthquake there, three years later, forced a removal to Chicago. In 1915 the family moved to New York where Dorothy, having finished two years at the University of Illinois, began her own life in journalism as a reporter for the Socialist Call.

For the next five years she dabbled in radical causes, moving from one cheap flat to another, mostly in the lower New York area. In 1919 she left a hospital nurse's training program to live with a flamboyant journalist, Lionel Moise. The affair ended with her having an abortion, a circumstance that filled her with such grief that she was brought to the brink of suicide. Later, living in a fisherman's shack on Staten Island as the common-law wife of Forster Batterham, she bore a daughter, Tamar Therese. Out of gratitude for her daughter and a mystical rapture she felt in living on such close terms with nature, she turned to God and was subsequently baptized a Catholic. In 1932 she met the French itinerant philosopher, Peter Maurin, and after some months of tutelage she acquired from him the idea of "the correlation of the spiritual with the material." This was the beginning point of her vision of social recreation.

Her personality was remarkably forceful and engaging, but she could be given to moments of authoritarian harshness. After a series of retreats during World War II, the unremitting struggle of her life was to grow in sanctity. In her later years the impression she gave was of one who had achieved a rare level of holiness. She died on November 29, 1980, and was buried at Jamestown, Long Island, not far from the site of her conversion.


Dorothy Day wrote five books, all of which, from various perspectives, are autobiographical. The best and most comprehensive is The Long Loneliness (New York, 1952). A full-length biography is my Dorothy Day (New York, 1982), based on personal acquaintance with Day and for which I had access to all of her personal manuscript materials. An excellent edition of Day's writings is Robert Ellsberg's By Little and Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day (New York, 1983).

William D. Miller (1987)

Day, Dorothy

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Day, Dorothy (1897–1980). US Christian activist on behalf of the poor and underprivileged. In 1933, she founded (with Peter Maurin) the journal and movement, the Catholic Worker. She organized hospitality houses to care for the homeless and hungry, identifying herself with them. Among many books, see House of Hospitality (1939), Loaves and Fishes (1963), and her autobiography, The Long Loneliness (1981).

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