A Look at the Life of One of Pope's "4 Great Americans": Catholic Worker Founder Dorothy Day

September 24, 2015


Robert Ellsberg

editor and publisher of Orbis Books, the American imprint of the Maryknoll order. He edited and published selected writings by Dorothy Day, as well as her diaries and letters.

Martha Hennessy

volunteer at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York. She is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day. She’s been fasting, praying and holding a vigil at the United Nations since Tuesday evening.

Janice Sevre-Duszynska

ordained priest with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. She has been excommunicated, along with all of the world’s roughly 150 other female priests, because she is a woman. She is one of the four women priests who were arrested for staging a die-in on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to call for the pope to recognize the rights of women to be ordained.

During his speech before Congress today, Pope Francis highlighted the work of four "great" Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. "In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement," the pope said. "Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the gospel, her faith and the example of the saints." He went on to say, "A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to "dream" of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton." We look at the life of Day, who was endorsed for canonization by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2012. Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin. Thus began a life of voluntary poverty and radical politics. The Catholic Worker first began by setting up urban houses of hospitality and farm communes to feed and shelter the poor. The movement also advocated pacifism and opposition to the draft. We speak to her granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, and Robert Ellsberg, who has edited and published the writings of Dorothy Day.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, as we talk about the pope in this historic trip to the United States, his first trip ever, Argentinian-born Pope Francis, are Janice Sevre-Duszynska, who is one of four women priests who were arrested in a civil disobedience yesterday in Washington calling for the ordination of priests—she’s an ordained priest with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. We are also joined by Robert Ellsberg. Robert Ellsberg edited and published the selected writings by Dorothy Day, as well as her diaries and letters, editor of and publisher of Orbis Books, the American imprint of the Maryknoll order. And Martha Hennessy is with us. Martha Hennessy is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, and she volunteers at Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York. She’s been fasting and praying and holding a vigil at the United Nations since Tuesday evening.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! There was a very controversial canonization yesterday. And I wanted Robert Ellsberg—if you could—we addressed this yesterday on Democracy Now!, the whole process by which Junípero Serra has become a saint, and that happened yesterday, the first time ever this kind of ceremony happened on U.S. soil. But I wanted to turn to Dorothy Day, who is in the beginning of the process of sainthood. If you could talk about her significance?

ROBERT ELLSBERG: I think that the way to begin talking about Dorothy Day is to recognize that she herself spoke about the need for a different kind of saint in our time. She came from a—raised in New York and was very active in radical, social and political movements in the early part of the century, underwent a conversion in the 1920s to Catholicism, and then searched for some way to combine her commitment to social justice and the poor with her Catholic faith, at a time when most Catholics, at least by her radical friends, were regarded as kind of a bulwark of the status quo. She said that she—you know, where were the saints to change the social order, not just to bind up the victims of slavery, but to do away with slavery?

So, out of that, she founded a movement called the Catholic Worker, where Martha is affiliated and works now, which combined the works of mercy, living in community among the poor, in New York and other cities, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc., but combining that with a radical social criticism of our economic and social system, and also combining that with a strong commitment to the peace message of Jesus, for which she was repeatedly arrested during her life, and made her in some ways a very marginal figure in the Catholic Church in the ’50s and ’60s, but I think now has emerged more as a kind of radical conscience.

And I would see her as somebody who kind of paves the way for the vision that Pope Francis is delivering. And I think that her—the significance of her cause for canonization now is not just to honor her memory as an important American Catholic, but because she kind of helps to calibrate the mission of the church in our time, in the same way that Pope Francis is doing, to focus on the needs of the world and of the hungry and the wounded and the victims of war.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s so interesting she’s going through this process, having had an abortion herself and was a convert. I want to go to an excerpt from a documentary titled Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint, directed by Claudia Larson.

UNIDENTIFIED: Dorothy’s work arose from the fact that she sacrificed the love of her life. If she embraced the Catholic faith, he’d have nothing more to do with her.

UNIDENTIFIED: Dorothy Day had a radical analysis of the economics of society and what ought to be done about it.

UNIDENTIFIED: She was used to working to change the world, to make a difference.

UNIDENTIFIED: There was no separation between life of prayer and the ordinary activities of everyday life. And so there was a spiritual, contemplative dimension to all those things, as much as there was to picketing at the White House or sitting in jail.

UNIDENTIFIED: Nonviolence makes the world safe for conflict. You can have conflict, but you don’t go to the point of killing. And that was what Dorothy taught.

UNIDENTIFIED: She had an enormous ability to enter other people’s lives, to experience what they experienced, and to come out of it with a great longing that life shouldn’t be so hard for so many people.

DOROTHY DAY: If your brother is hungry, you feed him. You don’t meet him at the door and say, "Go, be thou filled." You sit him down and feed him.

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice was Dorothy Day, and that’s from the documentary, Dorothy Day: Don’t Call Me a Saint, directed by Claudia Larson. Yet she is now, Robert Ellsberg, on the road to sainthood. And she was a layperson. Talk about the significance of this. And then, if you can talk about her way and the way of Pope Francis?

ROBERT ELLSBERG: Well, throughout the history of the church, the church has held out certain individuals who, in some heroic way, embodied the challenge of the gospel in their time. There are thousands of saints who have been canonized, added to the official list of saints, but the vast majority of them were amongst priests, bishops, members of religious orders. And that pretty much reflected and supported a kind of an idea that holiness is something set apart from the world, it’s for special people who live in a kind of a religious world—very few laypeople, except for some martyrs, like Thomas More, ordained—excuse me, canonized.

So, the significance of Dorothy Day, who was a laywoman—she was an unmarried mother and grandmother. She was the director of a lay community that asked for no authorization or permission from the hierarchy in order to carry out her mission, and who represented a kind of brand of social Catholicism that was far in advance of the kind of typical teaching in the church of her day, but which now is much closer to the mainstream of Catholic social teaching. I think it’s quite significant that someone like this, and the fact that she is a woman—there are also the vast majority of saints have been men. I think, as a woman, as a layperson, as somebody who experienced so many different dimensions of ordinary life and showed a way of living a heroic form of following Christ within the context of the challenges of her time—war, poverty, unemployment, social justice, racism, all of these things—and pointing in the direction of a different kind of style of community as reflecting the challenge of the gospel—I think that in all those ways she represents a paradigmatic and very significant kind of saint for our time.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Martha Hennessy, you’re fasting today, and you’ve been holding a vigil outside the United Nations. Could you talk about why it is that you’re fasting and what you hope the pope will say during his address at the U.N.?

MARTHA HENNESSY: Well, I think fasting and vigiling and praying is a long—we have a long tradition, as Catholics, in using those methods as a way of bringing down the Holy Spirit and to help have things move in the direction that they need to move in. And we’re hoping that Pope Francis is able to speak what he needs to say to the world leaders regarding the sustainable development issue that they are addressing at the U.N. We’re hoping that he very clearly spells out that the business of war is not the business of the people, and that we need to change our ways. We need to change our addictive, compulsive behaviors around issues of the use of fossil fuels, around the issues of violence that are so prevalent, the militarism, violence and racism that is in our society today. So I hope—we are there just to give him courage to say what needs to be said in this situation with the U.N.

AMY GOODMAN: Martha, you work at Maryhouse, at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker hospitality house—


AMY GOODMAN: —in New York. For those who don’t know what these hospitality houses are that were set up long ago by Dorothy, can you explain?

MARTHA HENNESSY: It’s simply sharing yourself. It’s expanding the definition of family. You open a house of hospitality, you meet the immediate needs of those who are in dire straits. And she understood the Sermon on the Mount as something to be acted upon. It’s like a practical manifesto and document that shows you, simply answering the needs of people who are in such terrible conditions, especially in our cities—so, we simply do—I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I am also a grandmother. And what I do at Maryhouse is not a whole lot different than what I do in my own home. So I have an extended definition of family.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, your first mass was at a Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington, D.C.?

JANICE SEVRE-DUSZYNSKA: Yes, and, in fact, I was staying there last night. Yes, it was at Dorothy Day. I was invited by Kathy Boylan, who I witnessed with in front of the—at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, all 300 of them, for six or seven years before I accepted ordination as a deacon on the boat in Pittsburgh, and then August 9th, 2008, the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter in Lexington, Kentucky.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Robert Ellsberg, as we witnessed this first-ever ceremony for sainthood on U.S. soil, but it was the controversial Junípero Serra, who indigenous people, many, have expressed their horror that he was being raised, elevated in this way, given what the—what happened in California with the indigenous people and the whole conversion process, can you end by talking about Óscar Romero and his path to beatification?

ROBERT ELLSBERG: Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated at the altar in 1980 by a right-wing death squad. And for many years, although he was acclaimed immediately as a martyr and a saint by the poor and the church in Latin America, there was hesitation and ambivalence about pursuing his path to canonization in the church, because there were conservatives who felt that that would embolden leftist and radical elements and be divisive. There was also this question of why—why did he die? Conservatives would say, "Well, he died because he mixed himself up in politics, speaking out against the military and the government, on the side of the poor. And if he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have gotten killed."

AMY GOODMAN: And this, of course, was in El Salvador.

ROBERT ELLSBERG: In El Salvador in 1980 in the midst of—well, of an unraveling situation that turned into full-scale civil war. Many of Romero’s priests had been killed, four American church women the same year. And 1989, the whole Jesuit community of the University of El Salvador was also assassinated. So there were many other martyrs during that period.

What was significant was for the Vatican and Pope Francis finally to recognize that Romero was a martyr—that is, that he had died by—in hatred, what they call hatred of the faith, not because he got mixed up in politics, but that his witness was itself an expression of the gospel, and the people who killed him, they may have called themselves Catholics, they may have believed that they were defending Christendom, but they were enemies of the gospel, and that’s why he died.

So, there are always political aspects to canonization. You’ve referred to that in the controversies around Junípero Serra, very unpopular with Native Americans, very popular with U.S. Hispanics, including the Mexican-born archbishop of Los Angeles, who has been promoting that cause. So, there are kind of competing interpretations. The same thing, of course, would happen with Dorothy Day. She could be simply held up as a holy woman who served the poor, without regard for the kind of radical, prophetic social critique that she brought. I think it’s more likely, in this kind of era of Pope Francis, that that full picture will be honored and recognized, because it speaks so much to the needs of our time.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Of course, this conversation will continue through the week. Robert Ellsberg edited and published selected writings by Dorothy Day, as well as her diaries and letters. He’s the editor and publisher of Orbis Books, the American imprint of the Maryknoll order. And thank you so much to Martha Hennessy, volunteers at Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York, has been fasting as the pope comes to New York. She is the granddaughter of Dorothy Day. Robert Ellsberg, by the way, the son of Dan Ellsberg. And Janice Sevre-Duszynska, an ordained priest with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, one of four women priests, and seven people overall, who were arrested yesterday, as the pope was in Washington, calling for the ordination of women.

This is Democracy Now! As the pope talked about immigration, poverty, war and climate change, we’re going to talk about climate change in this next segment—an exposé by the Pulitzer Prize-winning InsideClimate News about what Exxon knew about climate change and when they knew it. Stay with us.

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