St. Dorothy of Brooklyn – Potential Saint Has Connections to the Diocese

by Deacon Don Zirkel

DorothyDay_B&WDorothy Day, whose cause for canonization is underway, has at least six important ties to the Brooklyn Diocese: her birth and earliest years; service as a nurse; significant retreat; volunteer co-workers; Catholic Worker house in Park Slope; and many references in the pages of the diocesan newspaper.

The most influential woman and lay person in the history of the Catholic Church in the U.S., Dorothy May Day was born in the borough Nov. 8, 1897 and spent her first seven years here. The family residence on Pineapple St. was a half mile from St. Charles Borromeo Church, Brooklyn Heights, which had just begun importing and installing its 15 beautiful stained-glass windows. They are still a treasure of the neighborhood.

Brooklyn was less urban in those days. Horses and wagons used its cobblestoned streets – not automobiles, trucks and buses. Before the common use of electricity, the milkman was the morning alarm clock.

Dorothy remembered “the happy hours on the beach with my brothers, fishing in the creeks for eel, running away with a younger cousin, to an abandoned shack in a waste of swamp around Fort Hamilton.”

She learned to read by the age of four, eventually centering on the classics that her father, John Day, a writer and journalist, allowed in their home. The novels touched her on a very deep level and opened her eyes to the world of poverty.

Her last year in Brooklyn was her first year in school. She remembers that every morning the teacher in Bath Beach “read something from the Bible and we bowed our head on the desk and recited the Our Father.” But in the family “the name of God was never mentioned. Mother and father never went to church,” she said, and “none of the children had been baptized.”

The Days moved to California where they were soon touched by grace after the devastating 1906 earthquake. Dorothy never forgot “the human warmth and kindliness of everyone. All the neighbors joined my mother in serving the homeless. They were busy from morning to night cooking meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”

As a result of the devastating quake, her father became one of the many unemployed. They moved to Chicago, for yet another lesson that shaped her life. “It was the first time we had been really poor.”

Not queen or nun, martyr or virgin, Dorothy is a saint as uncomplicated as many of the people who influenced her: the Reeds, a Methodist family who taught her hymns, and a Catholic teen, Mary Harrington, who told her the story of a saint, “a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure.”

Dorothy received a positive impression of Catholic life in a neighbor’s house. She happened upon a friend’s mother praying on her knees. Mrs. Barrett looked up without embarrassment, told her where to find her daughter and returned to prayer.

Day was moved by the holiness of the ordinary. How much we unknowingly influence each other (for good or evil) by little actions. For many, it is not extraordinary holiness but normal goodness that helps us grow closer to God.

As early as age 15, Dorothy was on a quest. She felt that God wanted His children to be happy, without the misery and destitution she saw firsthand and read about in the influential novels of the day. She prayed before she knew what it meant. But she did not find satisfactory answers in religion.

In her biography, The Long Loneliness, she wrote of her frustration: “I did not see anyone taking off his coat and giving it to the poor.” She wanted everyone, not just the Salvation Army, to be kind, “every home to be open to the lame, the halt and the blind, the way it was after the San Francisco earthquake.”

The teenager studied for two years on a scholarship at the University of Illinois, where she tried to cut religion out of her life. She joined the Socialist Party but found the meetings boring.

Nurse Dorothy

In response to an urgent appeal during a flu epidemic in 1918, Dorothy took nurses’ training (all that was necessary was two years of high school) and worked for more than a year at Kings County Medical Center, Clarkson and New York Aves., in Flatbush, for $10 a month.

At the invitation of an older classmate, she frequently attended Mass in the hospital chapel. “The work was hard, but Miss Adams brought to it a joy and enthusiasm that were contagious,” she recalled. “I came to admire her and associate her goodness and ability with her Catholicism. I felt the healthiness of her soul.” Day came to feel she “could be at home in the Catholic Church without belonging to it.”

Besides 12-hour shifts, there was a lot going on in the life of the 21-year-old. For awhile she lived with a fellow employee, became pregnant and had an abortion. After leaving him, she invested two years in a common-law marriage with an atheist, “the love of my life.” Meanwhile, she was still flirting with the Church. Strong disagreement over whether to baptize their daughter was the breaking point.

Dorothy’s growth and eventual contrition recommend her as a patron saint for people with similar tribulations: abortion, divorce, single parenthood, chain-smoking, poverty, frustration. She loved reading the lives of the saints. Now it is our turn to learn about her.

The challenge is not to see how much we can get away with, how little we have to do to get into Heaven. She thought it sad that only the minimum was expected of lay people in the churches. Dorothy was not against holiness but against (her) canonization. “The greatest tragedy is that not enough of us desire to be saints.”

Dorothy’s first of many jail experiences occurred when she accompanied a group of women to the White House to protest the treatment of other suffragists in jail. While incarcerated, she joined a hunger strike and suffered great emotional desolation, a sense of the enormous evil that human beings can inflict on one another. For several years, Day lead a bohemian lifestyle that she later described as dissolute, wasted, full of sensation and sensuality.

After some small jobs as a journalist, she and Peter Maurin, a social thinker, founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933. For three years, its monthly newspaper, houses of hospitality, free soup kitchens and evenings of serious public discussion expanded in a hurry and won plaudits and financial support from Church leaders, lay readers and volunteers. It no longer seemed like only Communists were offering hope and help to the destitute. It was Peter who introduced her to the social encyclicals, which she received more enthusiastically than some bishops.

The Worker’s popular acceptance shrunk when it refused to take sides in the bloody Spanish Civil War. Dorothy took a firm pacifist stand, arguing that such violence was completely contrary to Jesus’ teaching. Patriotic anti-Communist Catholics were conflicted.

World War II followed. Besides more death and destruction, it produced other results. The Great Depression ended. There were jobs for everyone. Factories reopened – but to produce weapons.

At the Worker’s houses of hospitality, breadlines dwindled. Fewer had time to volunteer. Conscientious objectors on the staff were drafted for service elsewhere. Editor Day was under severe strain, including her 16-year-old daughter’s desire to get married and the FBI’s investigation of the “Dorothy Day Art Studio,” which included a soup kitchen and “the dissemination of radical ideas.” J. Edgar Hoover recommended she “be considered for custodial detention” like Japanese-Americans.” The FBI dossier on her was reported to be 575 pages.

Significant Retreat

In 1943, she took a leave of absence. What was God calling her to do? For six months, the 46-year-old lived in a convent in St. Kilian’s parish, Farmingdale, L.I., then part of the Brooklyn Diocese. Her personal idea of a retreat: turn off the radio, put away the daily paper, reflect, pray, read, work and walk.

Her schedule permitted happy hours with her daughter Tamar Teresa, a student at Farmingdale College, and Dorothy’s aging mother.

No one in the parish – nuns, priests or laity – could have known that they were praying and walking the local streets with a future saint. Her retreat decision 70 years ago was to return to her newspaper. It continues to help the Church focus on the lost, the least and the lonely.

Tens of thousands of volunteers, lay, vowed and ordained, many from the then four counties of the Brooklyn Diocese, have served in the Catholic Worker Movement in its eight decades.

One Brooklyn volunteer, Mercy Sister Camille D’Arienzo, tells of Day walking into a soup kitchen one day, tasting the soup and complaining that it “isn’t fit for our guests.”

Park Pl. Catholic Worker


The Catholic Worker movement is too busy serving to keep accurate records. Its houses are independent of each other, almost 200 at last estimate, in eight countries.

At least one was in Park Slope in the 1980s. It was run by Jacques Travers, artist, activist and professor of French at Brooklyn College. He and his homeless “friends” slept on identical cots, which filled every bedroom.

For Dorothy, a ladle (which the dictionary appropriately defines as “a serving device”) was like a holy water sprinkler. Soup and coffee, both mostly water, are the sacramentals offered 24/7 by Our Lady of the Ladle. They are the waters of rebirth, consecrated by her life prayer, similar to the ritual for blessing holy water:

“Father, look with kindness on your children, redeemed by your Son and born to a new life by water and the Holy Spirit. Grant that those who are blessed with this water (and coffee and soup) may be renewed in body and spirit and may make a pure offering of their service to you.”

The Worker critiqued “both the rugged individualism of the capitalist era and the collectivism of the Communist revolution.” Day’s Socialist friends said she was too religious to be a Communist. They suspected she was a decoy for the Church. Some may have thought she was a Communist because her favorite authors included Russians. She loved novels but not historical works. She spent less time reading history than making it.

Dorothy’s life anticipated the vision of Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council, which good Pope John XXIII described as aggiornamento – bringing the Church up to date by opening the windows and letting in some fresh air. “We must seek concordances, not differences,” he insisted. Those popes’ shared goal is not excommunications and condemnations but emphasis on Jesus’ commandment to love one another.

Vatican II’s strongest words were against war. As her best biographer Jim Forest says, “It was a ringing vindication for Dorothy and the Catholic Worker movement.”

The Tablet

For a third of a century, from the day she founded The Catholic Worker in 1933 until his retirement as editor of the Brooklyn diocesan paper, The Tablet, in 1967, Dorothy Day and Pat Scanlan skillfully used two of the most popular and powerful pens in the Catholic Press. Although both were quite orthodox, they were frequently at odds. He viewed the Church as a vertical institution. For her it was meant to be a horizontal community.

We need people in the center to hold us together, and some on the fringes to goad us to recalibrate. The latter earn more criticism, often unfair.

Dorothy was an early GPS voice saying “Oops. We made a mistake. Recalculate.” Pat Scanlan insisted, “If we don’t slow down, we’ll be in big trouble.”

They are two of the most influential (lay) people in the history of the Catholic Church in the U.S. A detailed study and comparison of the positions for which they were articulate spokespersons would be very valuable in understanding the past, present and future of “the Church in progress.”

She died Nov. 29, 1980. No bishops attended her funeral, but The Tablet and the bishops caught up. Its pages featured a glowing tribute after her wake, where Father Dan Berrigan, S.J., said, “She always lived as if the reign of God was already here. And indeed, wherever she was, the reign of God was there.”

In 2008, Day was the subject of the first of the revived Tablet Forum series, hosted by Editor Ed Wilkinson and Father Frank Mann. In 2012, the U.S. hierarchy unanimously endorsed Rome’s progress toward her canonization. Of course, the official Church doesn’t make saints; it acknowledges what the laity have already recognized.

The harmony not established in this life will be brought about in the next. In heaven, there is not the least pain or sadness. The blessed delight in the company of Jesus, angels and saints, in reunion with old friends and in a fuller knowledge of the goodness of former adversaries.

Dorothy Day and Pat Scanlan are sharing a sign of peace. They invite other serious followers of Jesus to do the same.[hr] Deacon Don Zirkel was editor of The Tablet from 1968 to 1985. He is a retired deacon of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.