CATHOLIC WORKER MOVEMENT TIMELINE
1877: Peter Maurin was born in Oultet, France.
1897: Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York.
1926: Dorothy Day’s daughter, Tamar Teresa, was born.
1927: Dorothy Day converted to Catholicism.
1932: Dorothy Day met Peter Maurin in New York City.
1933 (May 1): Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin began publishing The Catholic Worker newspaper in New York City.
1933: Day and Maurin started the first “house of hospitality” in New York City, which later became known St. Joseph House (later joined by Maryhouse).
1939-1945: The Catholic Worker ‘s circulation dropped due to the pacifist stance of Day and the other editors during World War II.
1949: Peter Maurin’s Easy Essays were published.
1949: Peter Maurin died at the Catholic Worker farm near Newburgh, New York.
1952: Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, was published.
1980: Dorothy Day died at Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York City.
1983: A proposal for Day’s canonization was put forth by the Claretian Missionaries.
2000: Pope John Paul II granted Day “Servant of God” status, the first step toward canonization.
2012: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops formally endorsed Day’s cause for sainthood.
2014: Over 225 Catholic Worker communities existed around the world.
The Catholic Worker was co-founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. While Day is the better known of the two, Maurin was the elder. He was born with the name Aristide Pierre Maurin in Oultet, France in 1877, the son of French peasant farmers and one of 24 children. Born into a Catholic family, as a young man he considered religious life, joining the Christian Brothers. A creative yet quiet person inspired by French personalist philosophy, especially the work of Emmanuel Mounier, Maurin sought to live a simple and dignified life of manual labor. In 1909, he migrated to Canada and later to the U.S., working in a variety of jobs as a manual laborer, which eventually brought him to New York City.
Twenty years after Maurin’s birth in France, Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was a journalist, and the family moved to San Francisco and Chicago as he followed the work. Raised nominally Episcopalian, Day later reported having a strong attraction to faith and God as a child despite her parents’ lack of regular religious engagement. As an adult, Day became a journalist herself, writing for socialist and anarchist newspapers in New York City. A strong supporter of workers’ rights and feminist causes, Day rubbed shoulders with radical thinkers, politicians, philosophers, and artists in the bohemian culture of NewYork City in the 1920s, counting playwright Eugene O’Neill as a close friend. During her twenties, she became pregnant and had an abortion. Later, she fell in love with a biologist named Forster Batterham, who became her common-law husband. She spent four happy years with him, during which time she became pregnant. Out of joy and gratitude for her child, she began attending mass at a Catholic church near their home in Staten Island, New York. When she voiced her desire to convert to Catholicism and to have their baby baptized, Forster, an atheist who wanted little to do with religion, urged her not to go through with it. The two ended up separating, an experience that Day later described as one of the most painful decisions of her life: choosing the Church over her love for Forster.
Following her conversion to Catholicism, Day sought a way to bring together her belief in God and her long-standing commitment to social justice. She found a marriage of these two in Catholic social teaching and in the person of Peter Maurin, who she met in New York City in 1932. Together, Maurin and Day decided, in part because of her background in journalism, to start a newspaper focused on issues of workers’ rights from a Catholic perspective. The birth of The Catholic Worker newspaper happened in the midst of the Great Depression in the United States. In addition to publishing pieces relevant to the struggles of workers, Day and Maurin also sought a way to aid poor and unemployed people in material ways, performing what is known in Catholic tradition as the “Works of Mercy:” feeding the sick, giving drink to the thirsty, housing the homeless, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner, clothing the naked, and burying the dead. Their response: the house of hospitality.
Day and Maurin began inviting people in to stay at their apartments in the Lower East Side of New York City, sharing their food and offering a bed (or even a floor) to people in need. Both believed that one of the problems with bureaucratic social service agencies was their impersonalism. In contrast, Maurin was strongly influenced by French personalist philosophers, who saw the key to a “society in which it was easier to be good” as directly tied to people reaching out to each other through personal relationships and helping their brother or sister at a
personal sacrifice. Over time, their efforts grew into a group of volunteers who lived in a Lower East Side building (eventually called “St. Joseph House”) with people seeking shelter from the streets, running a daily soup line that often stretched down the block and publishing pieces in The Catholic Worker newspaper critiquing the social, spiritual, and personal crises underlying problems, such as poverty and racism. Over time, the newspaper (and the Catholic Worker community) became focused on issues of violence and militarism as well, with the group’s pacifist stance and nonviolent civil disobedience becoming more central to its existence during the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam War, and into present time.
As the newspaper’s circulation grew and word of the house of hospitality’s work spread, the Catholic Worker community gave birth to what has become known as the Catholic Worker movement. Houses of hospitality, often with their own accompanying newspapers describing their work, began to spring up around the United States. By 1940, over thirty Catholic Worker communities were formed by local groups around the country interested in the kind of work that Day and Maurin described in their newspaper. The movement’s growth was, and has continued to be, decentralized and unorganized. No one’s permission is needed to start a Catholic Worker community, nor do incarnations of Catholic Worker vision and practice need to follow a particular set of rules or models. Indeed, Day’s anarchist past nurtured her commitment to a movement that was informed by those directly involved, which left room for spontaneity and creativity rather than authority and leadership dictating the boundaries for communities. While the de facto leaders of different communities were sometimes familiar with each other, connections between different Catholic Worker communities rarely extended beyond informal friendships.
As of 2014, over 225 Catholic Worker houses and farms exist in the United States and around the world. Some observers thought the movement would disappear following Day’s death in 1980 given her centrality as a symbolic figure for the movement as a whole. And while the movement has evolved over time, including after Day’s death, it continues to thrive in many ways. Catholic Workers in the U.S., Ireland, Germany, Mexico, and other countries serve food to the hungry and house the homeless, publish newspapers critiquing social policy and reflecting on spiritual issues, and are arrested for protesting war and militarism worldwide.
Because it is a decentralized movement, beliefs vary from Catholic Worker community to community and within communities as well. Still, many groups throughout the movement do share similar principles, the most common of which are stated in “The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker,” published annually in The Catholic Worker newspaper. These aims and means focus on creating a society, as founder Peter Maurin said, “where it is easier for people to be good” centered in the “justice and charity of Jesus Christ.” They advocate for personalism (a focus on taking personal responsibility for changing conditions rather than reliance on the state for “impersonal charity”) as well as decentralization of societal institutions and a “green revolution” that cultivates agricultural and craft skills for self-sufficiency and meaningful labor. While these principles underlie the culture of many Catholic Worker communities, their actions tend to focus on the four practices listed in the Aims and Means: nonviolence, the works of mercy, manual labor, and voluntary poverty.
The Catholic Worker’s commitment to nonviolence has grown over the years. Dorothy Day’s pacifism took root before World War II, but it was strengthened during that period, when many people left the Worker or cancelled their subscriptions to the newspaper because of Day’s outspoken opposition to the war. These beliefs were rooted in an understanding of Jesus’ teachingand behavior in the gospels as being nonviolent (e.g., turn the other cheek) while also disrupting the status quo (e.g., when Jesus overturned the tables of the temple money lenders). During the Vietnam War, Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan (friends of the Catholic Worker) staged draft card burnings inspired by their Catholic faith. The Worker’s support of the Berrigans and similar anti-war activists solidified its reputation as a major force of nonviolent activism, opposition to war, and Catholic peace activism during a period when many young people had become disillusioned by war and violence. Increasingly, Catholic Worker communities around the country began to attract war resisters looking for communities where their views would be supported, especially if they were Catholics, since the Catholic Church’s official teachings were much more open to war and violence in certain circumstances.
The Works of Mercy (held by most in Catholic Worker tradition to be feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and burying the dead) are in some ways more central to the Catholic Worker’s beliefs, since the first house of hospitality was started in order to allow for their practice. In Christian tradition, especially Catholic tradition, the works of mercy are seen as central to the Christian life. In the twenty-fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is reported as telling his followers that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, they had to do these things for their brothers and sisters in need just as they would have done them for Jesus himself. Catholic Worker communities not only perform works of mercy, but also in encourage others to engage in similar practices. Also, these central Catholic Worker beliefs about what it means to be Christian are proclaimed in various works of art, which are often displayed in the houses as reminders of the importance of the works of mercy to Catholic Worker life.
Many Catholic Workers also believe in the importance of manual labor and voluntary poverty, though these beliefs are less central in that not all community members share these commitments. Still, most Catholic Worker communities place a premium on simplicity, living in small rooms with simple beds, eating donated food out of donated dishes, wearing donated clothes, and doing much of the work of the houses (washing dishes, mopping floors, repairing walls) themselves, regardless of whether full-time volunteers have college degrees or come from wealthy backgrounds. Most houses of hospitality are set up as places where people can work with their hands and where often well-educated, middle-class volunteers live in the same conditions as people from the street who have been invited to live in the house as guests. Belief in the importance of manual labor is rooted in the conviction that many of contemporary society’s ills are due to an alienation from the products of one’s labor as well as the belief that manual labor is good for both the body and the mind. Voluntary poverty is seen as important because it separates one from the rampant consumerism in modern capitalist societies as well as helping one to live in solidarity with the poor.
Catholic Worker rituals are centered in the works of mercy and nonviolent protest against militarism, homelessness, and other issues facing many contemporary societies. Many communities also participate in traditional Catholic rituals, such as the mass and praying the liturgy of the hours (typically, vespers). Rituals also include intellectual endeavors such as reporting and writing as part of communities’ publication of newspapers and newsletters. Many of these rituals involve, whether intentionally or not, the act of distancing the Catholic Worker from other groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church and social service agencies (Yukich 2010).
Though each community is different, most Catholic Worker communities engage regularly in the works of mercy. Many have soup kitchens, food pantries, and/or clothing closets. Several books and articles have been written chronicling the work of the original Catholic Worker community in New York City. Many of these include details on the daily rituals of the community, which provide a sense of what Catholic Worker ritual entails. At St. Joseph House in New York City, there is a soupline Monday through Friday. Each morning, there is a volunteer assigned to make the huge pot of soup. Other volunteers show up later to butter bread and to brew pitchers of hot tea. Before the soupline begins, the volunteers all join hands and pray for God’s blessing on the community and all who will eat there that day. Then people began to file in the front door, sitting down at tables where they are served a bowl of soup by one of the volunteers. Volunteers also bring around tea and bread, serving the guests as one might be served at a restaurant. Often volunteers take a moment to sit and talk with one of the guests, especially if they see someone they know.
After the soupline ends, many of the volunteers head to their homes and jobs. Live-in volunteers then make lunch for all of the people who live in the house. The afternoon is typically a quieter time. Some volunteers accompany residents to doctor’s appointments, while someone else makes dinner for the community, which always begins at 5 PM. Someone from Maryhouse, the other New York City house of hospitality located two blocks away, comes with a grocery cart to pick up their portion of the dinner. After everyone is finished eating, the dishes must be done, tables cleaned, and floors mopped. On Tuesday nights, these rituals are followed by a Catholic mass: a priest comes to the house each week just for the occasion. On Friday nights, they are followed by open-to-the-public “Friday night meetings” on topics varying from the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila to the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
In addition to the everyday rituals of the community, in which the works of mercy are central, many Catholic Workers are also regularly involved in acts of civil disobedience protesting war and other forms of violence. One of the most common locations for these protests is the armed forces recruiting center in Times Square. In a typical protest, activists from the Catholic Worker and similarly-minded groups take signs to the recruiting center, stand outside with the signs, and block the entrance to prohibit anyone from entering. After a certain period of time, police officers come and arrest those blocking the entrance. Usually a few activists stay behind to collect the posters and take them back to the house. After spending a short time in jail, the protestors are typically released, though they later have to appear in court. Most use the court appearances as an opportunity to share their views about the immorality and illegality of war and violence.
While these are some of the rituals common in the New York City community, since each Catholic Worker community is different, each community’s rituals differ as well. Some do not hold regular masses at their houses of hospitality. Some are not regularly involved in civil disobedience. However, most have some form of a meal shared with the homeless and other impoverished populations: if there is any ritual common to most communities, it would be this type of activity. The rituals of shared meals, shared time in jail, shared celebration of mass, and others not only enable Catholic Workers to live out their beliefs but also serve to bind them together, creating close-knit communities.
As of 2014, there are over 225 Catholic Worker houses and farms around the world. Most of these are located in the United States, particularly in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, where a higher percentage of the general population is Catholic than in the South. Approximately twenty five communities are located in other countries, most in Western Europe though a few are in places like Central America, New Zealand, and Africa. Communities vary in size, and because of the decentralized and informal character of the movement, there is no membership list. As an example, in the New York City community, around fifteen people are full-time volunteers living in or near the houses of hospitality. Another thirty people live in the houses as guests, some long-term and some short-term, staying there until they get back on their feet. The larger local community of “friends of the house” (around fifty people at any one time) includes regular volunteers as well as people who attend Friday Night Meetings, house masses, or other community activities. In terms of wider interest and support, the community’s newspaper, The Catholic Worker, has over 20,000 subscribers around the country. The community is financed entirely through private donations from individual supporters, who might loosely be considered part of the movement due to their support of its ongoing work.
In smaller Catholic Worker communities, often a couple will start a house of hospitality, running it in their home with one or two other full-time volunteers and inviting three or four guests to stay with them. In terms of size, most communities lie somewhere in the range between the New York City community and the small, family-run community, with communities in urban areas often larger in size than those in more rural areas, where most of the Catholic Worker farms are located. Catholic Worker farms often provide rest for volunteers from urban areas as well as a place to engage in manual labor, to connect with the land, and to grow food that can be served in urban soup kitchens.
The Catholic Worker is better characterized as a movement than an organization. Catholic Workers seek to differentiate themselves from mainstream society; they also seek to challenge it through providing what they see as a better way to live. The movement is decentralized and relatively unorganized and has no official leader. While Dorothy Day was long considered the unofficial leader of the movement, since her death no single figure has arisen to fill that role. However, certain communities are often seen as particularly important or as role models for other communities. As the original community, the New York City community is often looked to as the standard-bearer by communities elsewhere. Still, some other communities consider it to be too influenced by Day’s legacy and too slow to adapt to current times, demonstrating the diversity of views regarding the Catholic Worker vision within the movement. Authority rests primarily within the local community, and each of these communities organizes that authority differently. In the New York City community, theoretically a designated person “on the house” is in charge for a fixed amount of time, after which someone else is in charge. But in practice, much authority rests on the full-time volunteers who take the majority of those house shifts, particularly volunteers who have lived in the community for a long period of time. In other communities, particularly nonprofit organizations, there is a board of directors or full-time staff members who are in charge of the community.
The Catholic Church is authoritative in the Catholic Worker movement only insofar as most of the communities see themselves as Catholic and wish to engage with the church rather than to ignore it. However, many communities openly disagree with certain Church teachings and practices, claiming that the teaching of the “primacy of conscience” gives them the right (even the duty) to dissent from teachings they believe are against the will of God. Some communities do not identify as Catholic at all, such as Haley House in Boston. Though certain communities adhere more closely to Church teachings and practices than others, the variation in the degree of adherence at times creates conflict within the movement, with some wishing to impose greater uniformity and conformity on communities in the movement.
Most Catholic Worker communities refuse 501(c)3 status and government funding because they do not want to cooperate with what they see as a corrupt, violent system. Instead, their work is supported entirely by private donations. These include cash donations from supporters as well as donations of food and clothing from local businesses and community members. As a result, communities are in theory beholden to the donors who support them. While the degree to which this is actually the case certainly varies by community, in many communities the donors in fact have little impact on decision-making. Because Catholic Workers are attracted to the community based on a commitment to shared principles, they are unlikely to shift those principles simply to makedonors happy. There is a history of this refusal to compromise within the movement. As mentioned earlier, during World War II, Dorothy Day wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper about her unwillingness to compromise her pacifist stance on the war. Her views were very unpopular, and the paper lost thousands of subscribers (and donors) as a result. Still, Day was convinced that she was right and that God would provide for the community in other ways, and the community survived that period and other rough periods in its history.
Catholic Workers see donations as gifts from God and affirmations of their work rather than as justification for donors to influence the movement. Indeed, most people who donate to the Worker do so precisely because they want to support an anti-authoritarian group that is not beholden to any particular set of interests. In line with their personalist philosophy, community members seek to maintain good relationships with their donors, caring about them as people and showing gratitude to them for their gifts. These relationships form the basis for continuing donations, not just adherence to the same ideas and principles.
The Catholic Worker movement has faced several challenges over time, some common to the movement as a whole and some specific to particular communities. On a broad scale, Dorothy Day’s death in 1980 left the movement a bit rudderless. Her charismatic personality and leadership had been central not only for the New York City communities but also for the Catholic Worker vision in general. Still, the movement’s decentralized and unorganized character allowed it to adjust, survive, and thrive even after the death of its co-founder and central figure. No individual has arisen to take Day’s place as an overarching inspiration for the movement as a whole, though it is not clear that this is necessarily a challenge for the movement and its future other than making it less prominent in the mainstream media.
This may become more of a problem as the Catholic Church moves forward in efforts to make Dorothy Day a saint. Because of her strong association with the Catholic Worker movement, she remains the public face of the movement and all it stands for. But as the Church moves Day toward sainthood, it has systematically downplayed certain aspect’s of Day’s life and thought while emphasizing others that were far less central to her daily work but are more in line with the Church hierarchy’s teachings. For instance, while Church discussions of Day’s life often gloss over her anarchism and pacifism, they often emphasize her regret for her abortion and her orthodox beliefs about sexuality.
Catholic Workers disagree about many things. Some believe all Catholic Worker communities should be Catholic (and, further, some think they should agree with all of the Church’s teachings), while others do not believe in these restrictions. Some maintain strict rules about the use of technology, following Day’s and Maurin’s positions on the ways in which technology was harmful in general and in particular to the poor, while others have slick websites and/or Facebook pages. Some communities refuse to apply for nonprofit (501(c)3) status, arguing that communities should practice noncooperation with the state and should avoid bureaucratization, while others see nonprofit status as a way to perform the works of mercy more effectively. These disagreements are important, but because the movement is decentralized, they rarely threaten the movement’s existence because groups are independent and often have little concrete interaction with each other, freeing each to operate as it wishes.
The movement’s largest challenges emerge not from conflicts between communities but from demographic changes within them. Many local communities were started by a single family or even one couple. While they typically grow to include larger numbers of people, those people are often more transient, with the founders remaining the glue holding the community together. As those founders age, sometimes it is difficult to know who, if anyone, will be able to run the community in the future.
The question of who will keep local communities running is important in larger and more established houses as well. As long-time community members and leaders age, they sometimes worry that not enough new people are becoming involved in the Catholic Worker to keep the houses, and the movement itself, going. In the New York City community, for instance, there are still people in the house who knew Dorothy Day when she was alive, but most of them are in their sixties or seventies or have passed away in recent years. It is possible that the Catholic Worker remained strong after Day’s death because some of her contemporaries were alive to keep her vision going. The real test may be whether these communities will survive once that era is decisively over.
The lack of young people in particular is a pressing concern in some Catholic Worker communities. In many communities, people in their twenties and thirties volunteer once or twice a week or even for several months at a time. However, some communities have difficulty finding young people committed to joining the movement for the long haul. This makes it difficult to predict what the trajectory of communities will be and whether they will have stable leadership in the future. The Catholic Worker’s strong critiques of consumerism and technology are especially challenging for young people in an age in which both are integral parts of daily life. Demographic shifts in the Catholic Church may also present a challenge to continued longevity: increasingly, committed young American Catholics come from more “traditional” Catholic families, with children of more “liberal” Catholics (and most young Catholics in general) increasingly just leaving the Church altogether (Smith et al. 2014). The pool of likely Catholic Workers may be shrinking, at least in the U.S.
In spite of these challenges, new Catholic Worker communities continue to emerge. Recently, the first Catholic Worker community in Africa started in Uganda. Perhaps more established communities will eventually close, while communities in other places, including outside of the U.S., will grow. While they may find it sad to imagine the decline of their own communities, many Catholic Workers would also acknowledge that the ebb and flow of communities is in line with the Catholic Worker vision. Dorothy Day liked to say that the Catholic Worker was like a school where students came to learn and then went away to incorporate the works of mercy into other endeavors (Riegle 2014). She believed that the movement would continue to exist as long as there was a need for it. Today, poverty, militarism, consumerism, and excesses of technology remain central issues in American society. The question is whether they are still seen as problems and whether a specifically Catholic approach to these issues still has resonance on a broad scale. As long as the answer to both of these questions is yes, the Catholic Worker movement is likely to stay vibrant, offering its simple yet prophetic response to the world’s suffering: “the only solution is love” (Day 1952:285).
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9 November 2014