“We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists [of conspiring to do], but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”
Such are the words of the “radical Christian,” Dorothy Day, who is the subject of this week’s “Woman Crush Wednesday” post. Her words seem like they could have been uttered by some earnest radical today, rather than a hundred years ago.
Day was born in New York (Brooklyn Heights) on November 8, 1897. She settled, after many years of travel throughout the United States, in the Village. Day moved to the “Lower East Side” of Manhattan in 1916 at the age of 18, having left the University of Illinois before completing her degree. She quickly found work writing for several Socialist magazines including The Liberator, The Masses, and The Call. In November of 1917 she was arrested (the first of several times she was arrested for protesting) in Washington D.C where she was picketing the White House on behalf of women’s suffrage. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail, but served only 15, 10 of which she was on hunger strike.
Her early years here as a young adult were marked by a bohemian and radical lifestyle. She was a central figure in the literary set that frequented a Village bar called The Golden Swan, nicknamed the “Hell Hole” by its regulars. It was located at the corner of 6th Avenue and 4th Street. The “Hell Hole” was a favorite haunt for gangsters, writers, and other disreputable characters. Eugene O’Neill, a close friend and confidant of Day, and others in their circle would spend the evening hours there drinking and reciting poetry. Often, the members of the Hudson Dusters, a notorious local gang, would hold court there as well. In Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley’s portrait of the period’s Village habituées, he writes that “the gangsters admired Day because she could drink them under the table; but they felt more at home with O’Neill, who listened to their troubles and never criticized.” Reportedly, the “Hell Hole” helped inspire Harry Hope’s saloon in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, while Day was rumored to have been one of the inspirations for the character of Josie in Moon for the Misbegotten.
The Golden Swan inspired several visual artists including John Sloan, who worked just across the street, to draw the goings on in the infamous tavern. “The Hell Hole” featured depictions of both O’Neill and Day.
The artist Charles Demuth was also inspired by the bar in his 1919 painting “At the Golden Swan.”
Recalling her early days in the Village, Day recounted how she and her companions used to pick up “interesting-looking strangers” in Washington Square and take them to dinner. “We made friends with the world.” It was during this period that Day began making daily stops at St. Joseph’s Church for early-morning Mass. She was note than likely to have been at the 5AM service to “chill” after a night out, but as it turns out, the seeds of Day’s eventual conversion to Catholicism were planted at this time.
Giving birth to a daughter in 1926 was a true turning point in Day’s life. She took up the Catholic faith and shortly thereafter converted fully to Catholicism. In 1932, after her return to New York from a trip to Washington D.C. to cover the Hunger March for a Catholic publication, she encountered Peter Maurin, a French immigrant and former Christian Brother, who had a vision for a society constructed upon Gospel values. Struggling to find a way to move forward with her life of activism and her newly found devotion to the Catholic faith, she joined together with Maurin to found the Catholic Worker newspaper. The Catholic Worker was a radical publication that promoted the biblical promise of justice and mercy. It had both an anti-capitalist and an anti-communist point of view.
Grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person, their movement was committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and the Works of Mercy as a way of life. They soon opened what would become the first “house of hospitality” where the homeless, the hungry, and the forsaken would always be welcome. Many more “houses” would follow and the Catholic Worker spawned a movement of houses of hospitality and farming communes that has been replicated throughout the United States and other countries.
Over many decades the movement has protested injustice, war, and violence of all forms. Today there are some 228 Catholic Worker communities in the United States and in counties around the world.
Today, the Catholic Church is considering a petition brought by Cardinal John O’Connor in 2000 to canonize Dorothy Day as a saint. The bishops of the United States unanimously endorsed Day’s sainthood cause during their 2012 fall general assembly. And on April 19, 2016, the Archdiocese of New York announced an important next step in the canonization process for Day: a canonical inquiry into her life and her work as the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and avid peace activist.