By age 25, Dorothy Day had already survived a lifetime’s worth of hardship: the devastating San Francisco Earthquake, beatings and arrests for social activism, and the resulting PTSD that accompanies such brutality. Driven by survival, her inspired life called her to combine her faith, anarchist ideology and journalistic prowess to found the Catholic Worker newspaper and launch a movement that fought for social justice.
Hundreds of Catholic Worker communities exist today, still committed to nonviolence, equality, and economic justice.
Those were tenets Day lived by and expressed in her activism and writing, which was inspired by a journalist father who moved the family to Oakland, California, before the San Francisco Earthquake, and later to Chicago. She followed in his footsteps and began writing for social and progressive publications, interviewing notable figures like Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
Politically active throughout her life, she often took on the conflict that great change requires. Day was arrested for picketing at the White House in 1917 on behalf of women’s suffrage and also beaten at a “riot” in Baltimore while distributing anti-war leaflets. In 1920, she was arrested on a trumped-up charge of prostitution when the Chicago police raided the Industrial Workers of the World boarding house.
Day’s entrance to Catholicism after the birth of her daughter, grounded her actions in faith during her work in activism and as a single mother.
In 1932, she united her activism, journalism, and faith to found The Catholic Worker newspaper with French immigrant Peter Maurin.
“Writing is an act of community. It is a letter, it is comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part, as well as asking it on yours. It is a part of our human association with each other. It is an expression of our love and concern for each other,” Day wrote.
Her writings called attention to the plight of workers, child labor, racial discrimination, and upcoming strikes for those who wanted to support the labor movement.
The publication gave birth to The Catholic Worker Movement that still tackles issues of social justice and led to the establishment of “hospitality houses” to provide shelter and food to the homeless and those in need.
But she wasn’t only feeding their bellies. The movement embodied her political and social views, tackling ideas like: ending racial segregation, stopping nuclear warfare, the draft, war, abortion, and social security.
NUHW President Sal Rosselli joined Day’s organization in New York’s Bowery when he was 19 years old. He worked alongside Day, caring for people living in the experience of addiction and homelessness, protesting the war in Vietnam, and selling the Catholic Worker on the streets and outside Catholic churches to raise money for their work. “Dorothy Day was an inspiration. She was selfless, and she showed so many of us how to put our values into action for social justice. She was one of my primary mentors and had a profound impact on my life choices.”
Day had a dichotomy of agendas, decrying the sexual promiscuity of the 1960s and being arrested for standing with Cesar Chavez’s farm laborers during their boycotts in the 1970s. When she died in 1980 at Maryhouse (one of the Catholic settlement houses she established in New York), she was regarded as a prominent thinker on the left and doer on the right.
In 2015, her work on behalf of marginalized people was hailed by Pope Francis who called her one of “four great Americans” along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton in his address to Congress.