Faith, service, dissent Speculation: Last month, Cardinal John O'Connor, Archbishop of New York, suggested the idea of sainthood for Dorothy Day. The co-founder of Catholic Worker movement probably would have dismissed it.

November 16, 1997|By Colman McCarthy

ULUTH, Minn. -- At 1712 Jefferson St. in an east end neighborhood of low- and no-income families, Dorothy Day House been opening its doors for 10 years to people needing housing, food and, on some days, nonjudgmental words of hope. Across the narrow street, which overlooks Lake Superior, is Hannah House, and a block away is Olive Branch House.

These are Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, staffed by a dozen or so pacifists who live in voluntary poverty and embrace the ideals of nonviolence, resistance to abusive state power and prayerfulness. All of it is traceable to Dorothy Day who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement on the Lower East Side of New York on May Day 1933. Nov. 8 marked the centenary of Day's birth.

In the three Duluth Houses, Day's 100th birthday was marked by the customary Catholic Worker tasks - walking extra miles, thickening the noontime soup, coming on strong for plowshares, not making peace with anything but justice and, as Day kept saying in her "On Pilgrimage" column in the eight-page monthly Catholic Worker newspaper, striving to "change the world, making it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended." God, she believed, "meant things to be much easier than we have made them."

On Nov. 9, in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Cardinal John O'Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, floated the idea that Dorothy Day be canonized a saint. Had he been more educated in Day's thinking, the cardinal would have restrained himself. Toward the end of her life, Day often dismissed those who called her a saint. She would say that to put her on a pedestal of holiness suggests that only a few rare people - saints - can do this peace and justice work. Anyone can do it, she insisted. To leave it to the saints is an excuse for inaction.

O'Connor's proposal is tinged with irony. At her funeral in early December 1980, not one member of the Catholic hierarchy attended the requiem Mass. A Protestant bishop came - Paul Moore - but no Catholic. While alive, Day was never invited to speak to the annual meeting of the Catholic bishops. Small wonder. She spent much of her intellectual energy writing against churchmen who endorsed U.S. war-making. That O'Connor, whose duties have included serving as the church's U.S. military vicar, wants to put a halo over Dorothy Day would have horrified or amused her - for two or three seconds, then back to the works of mercy and rescue that were her life.

When I went to Dorothy Day's funeral, much of the talk was whether the Catholic Worker movement would survive. It was an organism, after all, not an organization: no bylaws, no dues, no trustees, no annual convention, no rules by which Benedictines keep themselves in line, and least of all, no central kitty flush with foundation or government lucre. The prevailing view at the funeral was the faith-based one Dorothy Day offered in her final years about the Catholic Worker movement: "If God wants it to survive, it will."

The divine intentions appear to be clear. By last count, 153 houses of hospitality in 32 states and the District of Columbia are operating. In 1988, the number was 125 in 25 states.

Ministries vary: transitional living, food and clothing distribution, daily soup kitchens, mental health clinics, farming, lecture programs, liturgies, drop-in job counseling. "In general," Dorothy Day said, "every house has a resemblance to a large and disorderly but loving family."

Taken together, the 153 Catholic Worker houses represent the soul of the American Left - what's left of it. No other group - not the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - has been as faithful to nonviolence, service and resistance.

That fidelity has been on display since the summer of 1969 at Viva House, 26 S. Mount St. in Southwest Baltimore. Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh, two of the elders of the Catholic Worker tribe, have served tens of thousands of meals to Baltimore's down-and-outs since ladling the first bowl of soup nearly 30 years ago.

Bickham and Walsh, who are married, live on the second floor of Viva House. Their daughter, Kate Walsh, is a teacher at Frederick Avenue Elementary School and is well known for teaching nonviolent conflict resolution in her classes. After being raised in a Catholic Worker family, of course that would be one of her talents.

Bickham, who works part-time as a nurse, recalls Dorothy Day advising young Catholic Workers about the difficulties of trying to raise children amid the poverty of the streets.

"'Keep some space for yourself,' Dorothy always told us, 'otherwise you'll burn out.' "

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