Dorothy Day was an American journalist and Roman Catholic reformer. She was also the co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper and an important lay leader in its associated activist movement. The Catholic Worker Movement that she co-founded was a pacifist faith-based movement for social change that still exists today. The movement she helped define started during the Great Depression through the Vietnam War. In addition to leading this powerful movement, Day wrote newspaper columns, novels and plays, fed thousands of people and was arrested several times to protest various causes. Many called Day’s beliefs unorthodox, particularly for her time. Her faith is just as unique and complex as her life.
Day lived among the poor. She came from a middle-class Protestant family. She was the third of five children of a resourceful mother and a remote father. From an early age, Day kept a diary where you could see her gift of poetic writing and a deep spiritual nature. Not only did she know the pain of poverty, she also knew the value of charity firsthand. She experienced the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake which took the newspaper plant where her father worked. Her father opened their home to worse-off neighbors. At an early age, she saw the value of loving thy neighbor.
Day’s social conscience really pulled her away from religion and toward politics. She later moved to New York to begin a journalism career where she started a reporting job and living on the Lower East Side. She really thrived in this community. It was then that she picked up her lifelong habit of chain smoking. Everyone that knew her recognized her for her fiery temper. While writing she felt a strong sense of brokenness of this world. It wasn’t until later life that she became drawn to the Catholic Church.
One of the reasons she was so attracted to the Catholic Church was because it was the church in which the masses of poor immigrants belonged. She was beginning to move toward a simple life with her common-law husband, British biologist Forster Batterham, who was a confirmed atheist. Day’s happiness was leading her to pray constantly, say the rosary and attend church actively. Following the birth of her daughter, Tamar Teresa she became fully immersed in the Catholic Church. After baptizing her daughter, she began studying the catechism with a local nun. Fights with her husband began escalating until she decided to walk away for good. She was baptized the following day.
Day was a great pioneer of advocacy journalism. She wrote man muckraking investigative pieces to “On Pilgrimage” a long-running column that included personal reflections, Bible teachings and current events. She traveled across the country on a Bible toting her Bible, challenging the status quo in everything she did.
There were times that she broke the law by staging sit-ins. She also boycotted exploitative businesses. She didn’t just challenge the status quo with her personal life, she also challenged it in her religious life. She was devoted to the Catholic sacraments and liturgy, and went to mass daily. She also challenged the Church as an institution, pointing out that it didn’t live up to its own teachings. There was a time where she was asked to remove the word Catholic from her paper’s title in which she replied politely that Rome didn’t have a copyright on the word.
Day has been a candidate for sainthood. During her life, she was compared to a saint for her unwavering religious faith and devotion to the poor. She found ways to touch the lives of people in greatest need, reflecting Jesus through her actions. We serve God by serving others and she had servant’s heart that did just that. She became a model for charity. Her deep faith in God and revolutionary vision of Christianity is something we can still learn from today. In the midst of the world’s poverty, she was an advocate for change, reflecting the light of God in all the work that she did.
Day is one of the countless examples of women who shaped history through their faith. Her legacy is remembered through her rock-solid faith, even in some of the toughest of circumstances. Unfortunately, too often, women’s stories are not acknowledged but this doesn’t mean they weren’t incredibly impactful, especially in the eyes of God. By definition, a strong woman is fearless when it comes to facing hard situations. They are confident in who they are and what they believe. In Day’s example of fearlessness, she helped and encouraged those she was around. That’s exactly who Day was, influential and grounded in their faith.
History richly affirms her value as well. We learn can learn important lessons through her life and ministry. She was a God-fearing woman that new the power of faith and helping her fellow neighbor, particularly those in greatest need. She trusted in God, proclaimed the Gospel and history was changed because of it.