Dorothy Day's Life Examined By Granddaughter's Perspective

Kate Hennessy, the youngest granddaughter of journalist-activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, spoke at USD on March 14 in support of a book about Day's life.Kate Hennessy, the youngest granddaughter of journalist-activist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, spoke at USD on March 14 in support of a book about Day's life.

Kate Hennessy often told her mother, Tamar, that it would be a good idea to write down the stories she told about Dorothy Day, her late mother and Hennessy's grandmother, so that they could be shared and preserved.

"She and I kept chewing at this enigma that was Dorothy Day. Mom would tell me her stories and I'd say to her, 'you've got to write your story,'" Hennessy said during a March 14 talk hosted by USD’s France G. Harpst Center for Catholic Thought and Culture in Mother Rosalie Hill Hall's Warren Auditorium. "Every few years I'd say it, until one time I said, 'if you're not going to do, then I’m going to write it.’ But she said ‘no’ and I respected that. I'm only guessing, but I believe she felt it was too difficult, too complex, too contradictory, just as my grandmother is. She was full of contradictions, full of paradox, full of complications, full of difficulty and full of pain."

"My mother had seen a lot of people write about Dorothy Day and she felt every account was lacking in something,” Hennessy said. 

But when Kate’s mother died at age 82 in 2008, the youngest of Day's nine grandchildren did began to write the story a year later. The result of her long years of research and labor was published in January in a book called Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.

"I had to write this story. If I didn't, an important part of Dorothy Day's life would be lost," Hennessy offered. "The story of her as a mother and as a grandmother, placing her within a very human framework of family. The Catholic Worker is family, too, but this is taking her at her entirety, not just as a public person, but as a private person and as a person whose family life was essential to her, and to us. It’s an amazing gift (to write it), but it’s also an incredible responsibility.”

Day, who passed away in 1980 at age 83, was a journalist, social activist and, in 1927, converted to Catholicism. The latter act led to her co-founding in 1933 the Catholic Worker, a newspaper that promoted Catholic teaching and a Catholic Worker movement focused on social justice.

"Her life spans this entire wonderful and terrible century in United States history," said Hennessy of Day, who was born in 1897. "Every single thing, every major event, somehow my grandmother was involved, whether it was during the civil rights movement, protesting the Vietnam War and, starting with the Spanish Civil War, she was always at the forefront to talk about these things."

Day was considered controversial and in some ways, an unconventional Catholic. She had one abortion, but later gave birth to Tamar, her only child, and did so as an unwed mother. Tamar was baptized and raised Catholic. Day's desire to be Catholic was through her dedication to serving the poorest of the poor. She learned about Catholic social teaching from Peter Maurin, a French Catholic who convinced Day to help him start the Catholic Worker newspaper in New York.

Through her many years of service, Day was a pacifist who vehemently opposed wars that took place during her lifetime. The Catholic Worker Movement left a permanent impression on her value among Catholics. Her popularity among Catholics gained a new generation of interest during Pope Francis' September 2015 visit to the United States.

In his historic address to a joint session of Congress, Pope Francis referenced Dorothy Day as one of four "great Americans" — along with President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton.

"In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the ‘Servant of God,’ Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints," Pope Francis said.

While Day had many exemplary attributes, which included raising money to help people with basic necessities to tuition for education purposes and more — even during the Great Depression — she never sought praise. The Catholic Worker Movement.

“Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” was a famous quote attributed to Hennessy’s grandmother and, Kate stated, that “a lot of people were taking that to ask why are we even talking about her as a (candidate for canonization) saint when she herself didn’t want it?”

Hennessy assessed, through her writing and research, that what Day likely meant was “don’t call me a celebrity, don’t treat me like a celebrity because what that does is take the responsibility away from you. We each have a deep responsibility to find out what we’re meant to do, how to do it and the way to help others. To be put on a pedestal is a copout. Don’t look at me, look at yourself, look at the world and find what you’re meant to do.”

There are many narratives surrounding Day’s life — as Tamar had expressed in her many conversations with her daughter — but Hennessy felt writing this book could “bring her back to a human level in which we can all become more inspired by her and we can realize that we can do this, too.”

Plus, she stated, “one thing that happens with the people who observe my grandmother’s life is that they pick out specific moments and say this is who she is; this is what she believed. But they forget that she lived to be 83. She had this huge, long, expansive life in which she changed, developed and grew in wisdom. That’s essential in examining anyone’s life.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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