Up Front and Personal

Dorothy Day Was a Saintly Grandma

By Jerry Costello

Dorothy Day a saint? Many people, aware of her background, still find it hard to believe – despite a voice vote endorsement of her cause by the entire body of American bishops. How about Dorothy Day as a grandmother? That’s harder still for many others to accept with the image of Day as social activist extraordinaire firmly planted in their minds.

But take it from one who knows, a granddaughter herself. Dorothy Day was not only a grandmother – the grandmother of nine, by the way – but her granddaughter, Martha Hennessy, has warm memories of the socially active Day as a “regular” grandma, one in the mold that we all knew. Hennessy carries on the activist tradition by making her Catholic faith a way of life, by following a vigorous social agenda herself and by promoting Day’s cause for sainthood wherever she can.

Hennessy, 59, took the cause to Hawaii last year, where Darlene Dela Cruz wrote about her visit in the Hawaii Catholic Herald. Hennessy has vivid recollections of her grandmother, who died in 1980, as “very warm but very reserved, very serious and very focused.” Day spent much of her time traveling, but made sure she regularly visited Hennessy’s mother, Tamar, at the family farm in Vermont.

The life of Dorothy Day in her later years stands in marked contrast to her lifestyle as a young woman “drifting” in New York. During those years she was involved in love affairs, had an abortion and entered a common-law marriage. That would result in the birth of her only child, whom she baptized a Catholic, and subsequently entered the church herself. Dorothy Day went on to co-found the Catholic Worker movement (with Peter Maurin) in 1933, and would spend the rest of her life with a strong antiwar platform, also campaigning fiercely for civil rights and for migrant workers.

Meanwhile, she was busy being a grandmother. Hennessy’s memories of her in that role go all the way back to when she was three and sitting in her grandma’s lap. The granddaughter recalled one special visit in particular, when she was sick in bed at the age of 13. Day consoled her by reading to her from a book by Louisa May Alcott and giving her a bit of fudge.

“It’s really important,” Hennessy said, “to know her in that context.”

She was 25 when Day died in 1980, old enough to recognize the importance of her life and the influence it had on others.

“She just had a way of understanding God and just seeing the world that was very powerful, very unique,” says Hennessy, who follows the Catholic Worker tradition herself. “We all come together as a family to try to share in community. This is what she’s given us – this incredible model integrating faith in daily life with the works of mercy.”

Hennessy concedes that Day’s antiwar message and her personal faith journey might have been controversial at times, but hopes that her call to care for those in need will resonate with everyone.

“The more we live it, the more our rough edges are worn off in serving others,” she says. “I believe she is a saint.”

Jerry Costello, founding editor of Catholic New York, wrote this column for The Christophers’ Light One Candle series.