Dorothy Day: the Making of a Reluctant Saint


“Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” — Dorothy Day

Few religionists outside the Roman communion can appreciate the place and influence of the canonized. Rooted in the more mystical teachings of the church, even the curious seeker has been known to conjure sainthood as the arbitrary spiritual hall of fame for the porcelain perfected – a celestial resting place for those who in life transcended all brokenness.

Perhaps no candidate for official sainthood has debunked this miscaricaturization as completely as the converted Catholic rabble rouser from the last century, Dorothy Day.

Born in 1897 to nominally Christian parents, Day migrated to the Episcopal tradition in her teens, soon thereafter beginning a lifelong commitment to Christian socialism.

Day attended university for two years, but in 1916 returned to New York where she joined the bohemian underground, became a journalist for socialist publications and was jailed on several occasions for protesting on behalf of women’s rights, organized labor and the poor.

Day’s involvement in social foment only intensified her religious convictions, resulting in her baptism into the Church in 1927. While she would soon differ with the Vatican on a host of social issues, Day largely adhered to the theology of her adopted fold.

Day’s journalistic activism reached its peak in 1933 when she, along with French raconteur, Peter Maurin, founded The Catholic Worker, a progressive, socialist paper applying Catholic theology to class and corporate opportunism. (Day later broke ranks with Rome on Just War theory, holding to a pacifist position despite the outbreak of WWII.)

Later that year the paper spawned The Catholic Worker movement, a confederation of communes and “houses of hospitality” gathered around Day’s socialist, egalitarian vision of religious community. (The movement is still in existence, claiming 200 sites in the US and 28 abroad.)

Much of the remainder of Day’s life was spent writing, protesting, organizing and defending her unflagging positions on war, capitalistic excess and corporatism.

If Day’s ideology and work still contradict conventional expectations of a venerated saint, so too, her personal life: She had several, often troubled romantic relationships; she made at least two suicide attempts, and; chose to abort her first child. (A decision she later regretted.)

Dorothy Day suffered a fatal heart attack on Nov. 29, 1980. She was living in one of the New York settlement houses she’d helped organize.

It’s fitting that in this new American era of a thinly veiled war on the poor, the Church is moving ahead with its exploration of sainthood for Dorothy Day. Her unique struggles and story are a timely reminder the cause against poverty is not lost, just delayed.

Based on her writings and those of her family members and coworkers, she’d likely respond with mixed feelings about the mere prospect of veneration. But to paraphrase Deacon Tom Cornell, co-founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, sainthood is not a trophy for longevity; it’s about being tested and found a worthy example.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2017

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