The Absolutely Amazing Catholic Conversion Story Of Dorothy Day
Every time I drive north toward my home in San Francisco, I gain a unique vantage of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. Completed in 1971, the modern architecture of this church—reminiscent of a large tent—shapes and distinctly characterizes the cityscape. And when I gaze at this mother church, I can’t help but recall the words of a woman many consider to be one of the greatest American Catholics—Dorothy Day.
She said, “St. Mary’s Cathedral is a window to the infinite, lifting the human spirit to the infinite and eternal beauty which is God.”
Day proclaimed these words despite vigilant public criticism. In need of a new home after a fire destroyed the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s cathedral in 1962, many believed the Church should allocate its financial resources elsewhere.
Fellow activist Cesar Chavez remarked, “We don’t ask for more cathedrals, we don’t ask for bigger churches or fine gifts. We ask for the church’s presence among us. We ask for the church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother.”
In response, Day said, “The church has an obligation to feed the poor, and we cannot spend all our money on buildings. However, there are many kinds of hunger. There is a hunger for bread, and we must give people food. But there is also a hunger for beauty – and there are very few beautiful places that the poor can get into. Here is a place of transcendent beauty, and it is as accessible to the homeless in the Tenderloin as it is to the mayor of San Francisco. The Cathedral in San Francisco is one of the few places where the poor can go and sit down and be with God in beauty…”
To know about the life of Dorothy Day is to know the story of a woman aware of those hungers. As the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, she served and lived with the poor for over 40 years. But that ministry was born from her conversion to the Catholic faith. Indeed, it as the fruit of search for God. She had lived for the first part of her life hungry for meaning, for love, for acceptance, for peace and ultimately for God.
“To live,” said Dorothy, “was to be on pilgrimage.” That notion of journey, of searching, wandering and seeking truth was understood. And it was not an easy one. Life, Dorothy recognized, was "the long loneliness," but it was a loneliness that could be endured. The solution was love.
In “Blueprint for Social Justice,” Bill Quigley illuminates the love that Dorothy Day offers as this solution. He writes,
“This is not Hallmark card tender love. This is real life and real love. Anyone who knows real life and real love knows love is both beautiful and the most difficult challenge imaginable. The prophet Micah knows this and tells us to love tenderly anyway.
Dorothy Day had a favorite quote about the reality of love, from Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, which sums up the challenge of loving tenderly:
"...Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it -- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you."
To this point, Quigley echoes the words of Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of Liberation Theology. He points out that "it is not enough to say that love of God is inseparable from love of one's neighbor. It must be added love for God is unavoidably expressed through love of one's neighbor." Our neighbor is not only viewed individually, but "in the fabric of social relationships...in his economic, social, cultural, and racial coordinates...[and] the transformation of a society structured to benefit a few.”
To know Dorothy Day is to know that definition of neighbor. It is to know how we are called to love and serve that neighbor and how she modeled that for Catholics. But it is also important to know that Dorothy Day found God and God’s love both literally and figuratively through her neighbor.
James Martin, SJ author of My Life with the Saints concededs that Day was raised by “moderately devout Episcopalian parents” but Brennan Hill, the author of Eight Spiritual Heroes claims otherwise. He writes:
In Day’s childhood home, religion was seldom mentioned, but a general faith in God was evident. Her father carried a Bible with him and often quoted from it, yet he had no use for organized religion. Her mother also read the Scriptures, but he little to say about religious matters. Somehow, Day knew of God from the very beginning. She wrote: “How much did I hear of religion as a child? Very little, and yet my heart leaped when I heard the name of God. I do believe every soul has a tendency toward God.” In retrospect, Day believed that a succession of events gave her “glimpses of Him” and gradually led her to a faith, which she says “was always in my heart.”
One of those glimpses was given through a neighbor—a woman who had very little, she lived in great poverty. And yet, her faith was so strong and stirring to the young Dorothy that it stayed with her. Unbeknownst to this woman, she played a significant role in the unbelievable Catholic conversion story Of Dorothy Day. Day says she drew spiritual nourishment from that encounter for the rest of her life. In From Union Square to Rome, she writes:
"Mrs. Barrett gave me my first impulse toward Catholicism. It was around ten o'clock in the morning that I went up to Kathryn's to call for her to come out and play. There was no one on the porch or in the kitchen. The breakfast dishes had all been washed. They were long railroad apartments, those flats, and thinking the children must be in the front room, I burst in and ran through the bedrooms.
"In the front room, Mrs. Barrett was on her knees, saying her prayers. She turned to tell me that Kathryn and the children had all gone to the store and went on with her praying. And I felt a warm burst of love toward Mrs. Barrett that I have never forgotten, a feeling of gratitude and happiness that still warms my heart when I remember her. She had God, and there was
"All through my life what she was doing remained with me. And though I became oppressed with the problem of poverty and injustice, though I groaned at the hideous sordidness of man's lot, though there were years when I clung to the philosophy of economic determination as an explanation of man's fate, still there were moments when in the midst of misery and class strife, life was shot through with glory. Mrs. Barrett in her sordid little tenement flat finished her breakfast dishes at ten o'clock in the morning and got down on her knees and prayed to God"
From her childhood to her teenage years and in early adolescence Day had impulses toward God. She read Confessions of St. Augustine and read The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, a book, which offered glimpses into her own spirituality. But during her years at University of Illinois at Urbana, Day took to Communist ideology and held that religion was a prop for the weak.
She later dropped out of school, took to journalism, demonstrated with the suffragettes, was arrested and more. Once out of prison, she lived a Bohemian lifestyle—writing, liberally smoking and drinking and challenging societal norms. Before her conversion, one of Dorothy Day’s favorite bar mates was the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill. Hill writes “Gene, as she called him was not a religious man, but did in his own way carry on a serious spiritual search. Day recalls how he would sit drunken on cold winter nights and recite Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, a poem quite popular among Catholics at the time.” It fascinated her. She was drawn by the notion of being pursued by God. When she thought about her own life, she came to that—perhaps— God was pursuing Dorothy long before she ever knew it.
God did it in the ways that God knew would speak to her: through poetry, through beauty, and through friendship. This is where she found love—real love and community. And as love does, it gives birth to something new, something more: her daughter Tamar and the Catholic Worker Movement.
The profile of Dorothy Day in “My Life with the Saints” states, “In 1926, Dorothy became pregnant, an event that gave rise to a kind of natural religious conversion.”
This pregnancy awakened something new in Dorothy: an appreciation of creation and a desire to be in relationship with God. These feelings arose in the midst of a life that had been replete with sadness, sinfulness, and misdirection. Torrid love affairs, hard drinking and a decision to end a prior pregnancy though an abortion characterized her days. Slowly but surely she “came to see herself as one person in a long line of forgiven sinners. Her pregnancy helped her feel washed clean by God and able to start life anew. And in the soil of her gratitude grew the seed of faith.”
“I was surprised that I found myself beginning to pray daily,” she wrote. During her pregnancy Dorothy began reading the Imitation of Christ once again! Martin writes “As one biographer notes, from her youth Dorothy sought out books that might provide a pattern for life: Psalms, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, James. Now she was ready to resume the path of her youth in earnest.”
She wrote, “no human creative could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came to need to worship, to adore. Hill adds “not only was she drawn to worship her Creator, but to worship within a church, a community of faithful people.” Day decided to have her daughter Tamar, baptized so she would not “flounder as I have often floundered.” She wanted her daughter to benefit from the faith, fellowship, teachings and the help the church could offer. And after a painful decision to leave the father of Tamar, she committed her life to something else. On December 28, 1927 Dorothy Day was baptized in the Catholic Church. For Day, it was a new life in Christ.
While Tamar Teresa prompted Day’s conversion, another person sustained it. That person who was both an instrument of God’s grace in friendship and in spiritual heroism was Peter Maurin, the cofounder with Day of The Catholic Worker. Hill writes that Day said “her life really began when she met Maurin in 1932. He was a cross between St. Francis of Assisi and silent movie star Charlie Chaplin.” And Maurin had been looking for someone like Day—someone who could implement his vision to promote the social teachings of the church. One who could help him reform society and the church. That was none other than Dorothy Day.
Together they founded the Catholic Worker Movement, started the newspaper The Catholic Worker and opened houses of hospitality for the poor across the country. The shared ministry born of friendship with Peter Maurin was truly “love in action.” It was made possible in community, in “labor and fortitude”.
I’ve often wondered what I would say to Dorothy Day if I had the chance to sit down and have a cup of coffee with her. I’d love to talk to her about writing, about finding God in nature and how she has felt pursued by God. I would want her to know that the theme of a collection of her retreat notes, entitled “All is Grace” has served as a theme for my life. I’d like to thank her for advocating so totally and tirelessly for the poor. But honestly, what I would love to do most is simply take a walk with her. I’d ask her to stroll with me from my home to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption here in San Francisco. In doing so we could raise our eyes toward the cross, while gazing at beauty. I can’t think of a better way to pray.
Dorothy Day, Servant of God: Pray for Us!