Putting the ‘Catholic’ in Catholic Worker
A new generation of communities is integrating hospitality and solidarity with the poor through prayer and Church fidelity, consistent with the vision of the movement’s founders.
The Catholic Worker movement — with members scattered throughout the U.S. and around the world — provides a compelling encounter with the Catholic Church for many struggling with homelessness or poverty. But sometimes the movement, like co-founder Servant of God Dorothy Day herself, can be an enigma.
Not all Catholic Worker communities are in fact Catholic, and some openly question Church teaching on issues relating to gender and sexuality or minimize Day’s staunch opposition to abortion.
But several houses founded in the Catholic Worker spirit, some only in the past few years, are living a liturgical and communal life that warmly embraces Church teaching while being faithful to the principles of Day and Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin. Households like the Simone Weil House in Portland, Oregon, the Peter Claver House in South Bend, Indiana, and the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania, are witnesses to the rich life that can arise out of a commitment to liturgical prayer, living in community, and serving the poor.
But these communities don’t see their way of life as exceptional or the product of a special charism, restricted to their own movement in the Church. Catholic Workers “understand the Catholic Worker charism really just to be the Gospel,” commented Emma Coley, who became a resident of the Simone Weil House after studying religion and ethnography at Princeton. “It’s not a special vocation, but rather it’s just the general Christian vocation to hospitality, to prayer, to community.”
Welcoming Guests at Hospitality Houses
The Catholic Worker movement takes two typical forms: Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality” and Catholic Worker farms. The urban side of the Catholic Worker movement, the Catholic Worker house, is the most public-facing element of the movement. Catholic Worker houses in urban centers provide food to local people struggling with poverty and/or provide housing for the homeless, either in the Catholic Worker house itself or in separate but related accommodations.
The most basic function of the house of hospitality is as a home for those who would otherwise find themselves homeless. The Simone Weil House acquired a second house across the street in 2021, expanding the possibilities for welcoming guests. Housing is intended for those who were camping locally or international refugees. The house is also open for “living-room hours” four mornings a week, times when anyone can help themselves to food in the “free fridge,” do laundry, take a shower or socialize. At noon, the group prays the Liturgy of the Hours along with a livestream from Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Oregon, inviting anyone who is visiting to join them.
Attentiveness to the needs of the other is a hallmark of the Catholic Worker movement. The Peter Claver House in South Bend has a general invitation to dinner at 6:30 every evening. The community’s daytime drop-in center, Our Lady of the Road, serves breakfast on Friday and Saturday mornings and attracts many local volunteers, including Andie Bodary, a third-year Master of Divinity student at the University of Notre Dame who spends 8-10 hours a week at the Catholic Worker as part of her ministry placement.
“Since I’ve been spending quite a bit of time there, now I recognize people when I see them on the street,” Bodary shared. “So I’m able to pray for them by name.”
Communities are also not afraid to question the status quo in the form of innovative initiatives.
The Catholic Worker in South Bend has two houses of hospitality, one for men and one for women, but also has an initiative called Motels4Now, which moved 72 people from a local tent encampment into motel rooms in 2020, with the assistance of donors and government funding. The program is a first step for the chronically homeless, with a low barrier to entry that allows for a gradual transition into an improved housing situation.
Our Lady of the Road has an initiative called Common Goods Cooperative Grocery that sells local produce and bulk grocery items to members. It also connects visitors to resources such as emergency rental assistance, food stamps, health care and social security.
The Simone Weil House, in partnership with Notre Dame Federal Credit Union, has an program for 0% interest, community-backed loans on the model of the original credit unions, which were Catholic parish initiatives.
Bert Fitzgerald, founder of the Simone Weil House and previously of the Peter Claver House, cited Maurin’s phrase “building a society in which it is easier to be good” as the basis for initiatives like these. “Our society is one in which it’s not easy to be good. ... How could you participate in some economic structures that make it easier to be good?”
Catholic Worker Farms: Community and Conversation
Catholic Worker Farms are the other form of the movement’s outreach. Larry Chapp is the proprietor of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm in Harveys Lake, Pennsylvania, a working farm that grows vegetables and raises chickens, as well as holding classes for visitors to learn concrete skills like combing wool. This is in keeping with Maurin’s vision of “agronomic universities” in which the life of philosophical discussion and the life of manual labor could be united.
“He was very much a man of the people: He was a peasant; he was a worker,” said Chapp, a frequent Register contributor. "And he believed very much in the beauty of manual labor, but in manual labor that meant something, not the rote manual labor of the factory.”
Originally, the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm had intended to provide food to a local Catholic Worker house, but Chapp and his household quickly learned that perishable items are not in high demand for facilities receiving truckloads of nonperishable foods from local grocery stores.
Instead, shared Chapp, “We have just identified, basically through our church, people that need food on a very personal, one-on-one level. And I actually think Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin would be very happy about that, because it’s very personal; it’s very localist.” Peter Maurin introduced Dorothy Day to the tenets of personalism, a way of viewing social situations and issues that emphasizes the good of each human person and underscores mutual responsibility to one another.
The farm also hosts daytime visitors (usually from the nearby university or local parishes, but also some who are passing through town) to experience the daily life of the Catholic Worker Farm. Chapp related the enthusiasm of their visitors for learning to spin wool into yarn, seeing the animals and the working life of the farm.
But, according to Chapp, “the main thing [visitors] want to do is they want to talk, and they want to pray.”
A day on the farm tends to end with a long, far-reaching conversation: what Peter Maurin called, in a phrase that both Chapp and Fitzgerald cited, “the clarification of thought in roundtable discussion.” In a world of rushed and often surface-level human interactions, Chapp emphasized the profound importance of a place to “engage in very deep and profound and sometimes very lengthy conversations that would go on far into the night.”
Grounded in Prayer
Catholic Workers are clearly concerned with the needs of the community. But serving these needs, many stressed, is the natural outgrowth of a life of prayer.
The workers in the Simone Weil House “start the morning at 6:30, with shared, quiet prayerful reading of Scripture,” Coley described. Then the community attends daily Mass at their local parish and goes about their day, pausing midday for noon prayer, following along with local Mount Angel Abbey’s livestream. A couple of nights a week, they pray Compline in community.
Both Coley and Fitzgerald, as well as Larry Chapp, are Benedictine oblates, as Dorothy Day herself was. Both Day and Maurin stressed the importance of the Benedictine motto ora et labora (“pray and work”). Of the motto, Chapp says that “the prayer part has priority, because unless you do the prayer part, you’re eventually not going to do the labor part. That’s eventually either going to fall away entirely or become secular philanthropy, or secular agitation for various political causes.”
When the Catholic Worker movement was founded, many joined out of enthusiasm for the causes that Dorothy Day represented, not necessarily for a strong Catholic prayer life. Since the movement does not have formal leadership and does not provide guidelines for what constitutes a Catholic Worker house, the life of prayer is not always at the center of these households. But those who do put it at the center are following closely in Day’s footsteps. Champ emphasized that in addition to being a Benedictine oblate, Day enthusiastically embraced the layperson’s call to live out the evangelical counsels in accordance with her own state of life.
Many Catholic Workers, like their founder, see the Gospel as imposing certain obligations on the listener, bringing the listener into a relationship that entails responsibility. “The readings we’re saying Amen to, the Eucharist we’re saying Amen to, we are assenting to something that is not [mere] inspiration but puts us in a framework of a real bond,” said Fitzgerald. “God is our Father; we’re family with each other. That’s something that we emphasize a lot: We’re a covenant family. So we’re taking that seriously.”
The three workers on the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm — Chapp, his wife and his brother-in-law — pray the Liturgy of the Hours in a chapel on the property where they have diocesan permission to have the Eucharist reserved. The workers stressed that the Catholic Worker is a movement, not a charism: Benedictine spirituality, or in some cases Franciscan spirituality, helps order the Catholic Workers’ days.
“We don’t have a cleric in the house and aren’t associated with a particular parish. So we felt a strong pull to have a more defined structure that was coming from outside of us,” said Emma Coley.
At Our Lady of the Road, communal spiritual life also takes the form of gatherings on First Fridays for Mass, meals and singing that also serve as chances for local people to make donations to the movement’s work in the form of clothing or specific food requests. The St. Peter Claver community signs off emails inviting the general public to these events with a quotation from Maurin: “In the Catholic Worker we must try to have the voluntary poverty of St. Francis, the charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the intellectual approach of St. Dominic, the easy conversations about things that matter of St. Philip Neri, the manual labor of St. Benedict.”
A Sign of Contradiction
“The great scandal of the age is that those without the sacraments are so often superior in charity, courage, even laying down their lives for their brothers, to the ‘practicing Catholic’ who partakes of the Eucharist and then stands by while his brother is exploited, starved, beaten, and goes on living his bourgeois life,” Dorothy Day wrote in 1954.
To some Catholics today, the Catholic Worker could seem to be an ideal to which few can aspire, or even a merely Catholic-adjacent movement. But to many involved, it is simply the Gospel.
“We feel very attached to this as an expression of the Gospel and as an expression of the Church,” said Fitzgerald. “Not as an alternate to it, or as Church 2.0 — but actually living what it means to be the Body of Christ.”