Vugt: Dorothy Day – a Saint for our time!

Arnold Van Vugt

DOROTHY Day was truly a saint. She has not yet been canonized because there are mixed feelings about this in the Church. I got the details about her life story from the UK magazine, The Tablet. She, herself, was ambivalent about this. She said once: “I don’t want to be a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”. She would also say: “I wish they might wait until I am dead”.

Dorothy Day lived as a nun in their motherhouse which was a member of the Catholic Worker Movement in the US. Poor children would get fresh coffee, bread, and margarine every day. There was an endless supply of donuts and pumpkin pie, donated by local bakeries and served by volunteers, some singing cheerfully or playfully splashing the hot water in vast sinks as the plates and mugs were washed and reused. There was no time to talk, just endless requests – “more coffee please, miss” – until about 120 had been served.

Dorothy Day was born in 1897 into a non-practicing Episcopalian family; she died on 29 November 1980, aged 83. She had become a journalist, activist, living a bohemian life among socialists and anarchists, actors and artists in New York and Chicago.

From her earliest days, as she recounts in her autobiography The Long Loneliness, she was on a spiritual quest. She had several lovers, including the editor and writer Leonel Moise, the father of the child she aborted; possibly, too, the playwright Eugene O’Neill. She was also briefly married to Berkeley Tobby, founder of the Literary Guild.

She fell in love with the anarchist Foster Batterham, and had an overwhelming experience of God’s love through her love for him and in giving birth to their daughter, Tamar – whom she had baptized as a Catholic before being conditionally baptized herself. Later, she made a total commitment to the Church and its teaching, and gave up Batterham, whom she apparently loved until the end of her days, because he did not believe in marriage.

She protested against the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Vietnam War. She went to jail many times.

Wherever she went and spoke about the Catholic Worker Movement, around the country further communities sprang up – there are now 245 worldwide, including 216 in the United States and three in the United Kingdom. Day never wanted the movement to be large, but as her granddaughter says, it continues to be about “cells of good living, mustard seeds of hope amongst the current destruction”.

Day was one of the four “great Americans” cited by Pope Francis in his September 2015 speech to Congress, along with Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Merton. The local canonical inquiry has formally been launched.

On 6 August 1976, aged 79, Day spoke about her work with the poor and her conversion, and went on to admonish the bishops, calling for an act of penance. It turned out to be her last public appearance. For sure, however her canonization proceeds, it will be difficult to make of her a plaster saint.

Dorothy Day should be declared a Saint, she really is a Saint for our time.

(for your comment email: nolvanvugt@gmail.com)