Catholic Worker Celebrates 80 Years of Gentle Personalism

Animated by the same Christian vision as Pope Francis, co-founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and their followers have striven to live in solidarity with the socially marginalized.

Dorothy Day in 1934
Dorothy Day in 1934 (photo: Wikipedia)

NEW YORK — Eighty years old and still going strong, the Catholic Worker movement and its followers continue to face the challenge of building a new society on what its co-founder Peter Maurin called “the gentle personalism of traditional Catholicism.”

French immigrant Maurin and Servant of God Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement in the midst of the Great Depression.

They launched The Catholic Worker newspaper on May 1, 1933. The movement then expanded to houses of hospitality and farming communes following a model of Catholic economics called “distributism.”

Today, the Catholic Worker movement has 224 autonomous communities established in the United States and overseas that promote urban and rural communal ways of life emphasizing corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

“What Pope Francis is asking of us — to go out to the poor and be with those on the margins — is exactly what Dorothy and Peter talked about when they founded the Catholic Worker movement,” said Louise Zwick, co-founder of the Casa Juan Diego, a bilingual Catholic Worker community in Houston.

The workers live in common together in Houses of Hospitality or on farming communes and practice Christian pacifism, non-violent protest, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for those in need, whom they call “guests.” The movement embraces the Church's social teaching of subsidiarity and opposes big business and big government on the basis they both strip the person of human dignity.

“When every life is precious, it makes for a very different system,” said Martha Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter and an occupational therapist. She cooks and cleans at Maryhouse in New York and serves the hungry on the soup lines. “If the mold is Jesus, as Catholics we know what we should be doing: following the Sermon on the Mount.”

Both Maurin and Day experienced religious conversions that prepared them for founding the Catholic Worker. Much like his British contemporary G.K. Chesterton, Maurin looked to build a new Catholic social and economic order rooted in Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical highlighting the rights of workers, and traditional Catholic values practiced among the peasants in pre-industrial France.


Dorothy Day

Day was an ex-communist New Yorker with sordid love affairs, a child she aborted, divorce and an out-of-wedlock birth in her past before her famous conversion to the Catholic faith.

“Dorothy Day was — is — a marvelous role model on how we should live out the seemingly simple but ultimately challenging command of Jesus: to ‘love one another as I have loved you,’” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who has been shepherding Day's canonization process, told the Register.

Zwick, who co-authored The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins with her husband Mark, said Maurin was the driving intellectual force behind the Catholic Worker and hoped he would be canonized as well. Maurin articulated in his “Easy Essays” that the Catholic Worker believed in reconstructing society with “the gentle personalism of traditional Catholicism.”

Eric Anglada lives on a Catholic Worker communal farm in La Motte, Iowa. He told the Register that each Catholic Worker community lives out its own different expression of the “Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker.” He said the Catholic Worker farms themselves follow Maurin’s vision of “cult, culture and cultivation.”

“Peter Maurin believed the core of the movement would be on the land,” Anglada said. The first Catholic Worker farm, Maryfarm in Easton, Pa., he said, was the first expression of Maurin’s idea of “building a new society in the shell of the old.”

Anglada said the “New Hope CW Farm & Agronomic University” has four families, including Anglada and his wife Brenna. The families depend on subsistence farming that raises fruits and vegetables, with two milking cows, two sheep, bees and a flock of 40 chickens. He said half the day is spent in manual labor and the other half in discussion, reading and lectures.

“We pray together daily,” Anglada said. He said they usually read and mediate together on the Gospel of the day and the saint of the day before having intercessory prayers. They also kick off the growing season with the St. Isidore festival on May 15.


Anticipating Pope Francis

According to Zwick, the Catholic Worker movement anticipated Pope Francis’ call to Catholics that they must take initiative in the life of the Church and not treat the Church as “a babysitter” waiting for the bishops and priests to make the first move.

“As baptized Catholics, we should see the need and respond, and that was the vision of Dorothy and Peter, who quoted from St. Francis de Sales that everyone is called to holiness and to live out the Gospel.”

Elizabeth Nolan, a public-school first-grade teacher in Larchmont, a suburb of New York City, said her experience with the Catholic Worker in the 1980s left a very positive, “indelible mark” on her Catholic faith. She said the writings of Maurin, more than Dorothy Day's, made a profound impression on her.

“He was able (in almost simplistic sounding essays) to make very clear what our faith demanded of us,” Nolan said.

Nolan sent a “letter of aspiration” to the Catholic Worker in Rochester, N.Y., and worked her first year at the maternity home Melita House and the second year at the St. Joseph House of Hospitality. 

“I loved that decentralization — there were no forms or application to a central authority to fill out,” she said. But Nolan said that decentralization could also prove frustrating: The only guarantees of a community's lived Catholic identity are the Catholic volunteers who belong to it. And some people in the Catholic Worker movement, she said, made their involvement an opportunity to promote their own non-Catholic agendas, such as women’s ordination and contraception.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Where is the flow chart where you can accept Rerum Novarum but not Humanae Vitae?’” Nolan said. “Dorothy Day put the faith front and center. She didn’t call it the Secular Humanist Worker; she called it the Catholic Worker.”


Canonization Cause

The Archdiocese of New York continues to move Day's canonization process forward by building the Dorothy Day Guild, but it still has to gather Day’s writings and submit a positio to the Vatican justifying her cause.

“We feel there is momentum, but we need to get it better organized to make it happen,” said George Horton, the archdiocese’s promoter of Day’s cause. “We’ve been concentrating on demonstrating that there are people interested in her canonization.” 

While Day’s cause for canonization continues, her granddaughter Hennessy cautioned that Catholics must realize that Day (and Maurin) challenged them to understand that they can't pick and choose Catholic works: The defense of the right to life of the unborn child, Christian pacifism and ministry to the poor and the hungry are all inextricably linked.

Said Hennessy, “It's about returning to the teachings of Jesus. It's all laid out very well for us. It's just a question of whether we're willing to do it.”

In fact, late in her own life, Day herself publicly and vehemently rejected a claim that she supported abortion rights and that being “pro-choice” was a morally defensible position.

At a meeting about women’s rights in May 1971, Day was introduced by the young woman in charge as someone who “understood a woman’s right to choose and that abortion was very much at the heart of empowering women.”

The outraged Day immediately set the record straight.

Recalled the Catholic friend who took Day to the event, “Dorothy, who was sitting in the front row, rose out of her chair to her full, angular, forbidding height, shook her finger at the speaker and angrily scolded her on the falseness of such a belief, on the dignity of women and the child’s right to life.”


Inspiring Example

Cardinal Dolan said Day’s “intense love for Jesus” has inspired the Catholic Worker for 80 years and expressed hope that sainthood would show Catholics how she was “a glowing example of the New Evangelization.”

Said the cardinal, “I know that the Catholic Worker movement will continue to fulfill the command that we love one another by upholding the basic human dignity of every person.”

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.

Register staff contributed to this report.