The story of Dorothy Day, her 'disorderly years' and her possible sainthood

'Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty'
'Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty' by Kate Hennessy
Courtesy of publisher

Dorothy Day was a lot of things: a reformer, a reporter, a social justice advocate. And though she didn't convert to Catholicism until she was an adult, the Catholic church has accepted her case for possible canonization.

But for author Kate Hennessy, that potential saint is her grandmother. In a new book, "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty," Hennessy tells Day's story, drawing from family histories, letters, diaries and more.

Hennessy joined MPR News hosts Tom Weber and Doualy Xaykaothao to discuss the book, and the legacy of Dorothy Day.

Day was born in New York in 1890, one of five children in a newspaper family.

She "wanted to become a journalist, but at the time, this was 1916, and women weren't really allowed to be journalists," Hennessy said. "She had to go against her father's wishes."

She left college in Illinois after two years and returned to New York, where she became involved with radical groups: "She worked for a socialist paper, she interviewed [Leon] Trotsky, she participated in a lot of the demonstrations that were going on at the time."

Day later referred to these years of her life as her "disorderly years." She fell in love. She got pregnant. She had an abortion. And she wrote about it all, in a semi-autobiographical novel, "The Eleventh Virgin."

Then came the conversion. After traveling the country and returning once again to the East Coast, she moved to Staten Island.

"It's not a beautiful place, but she fell in love with it," Hennessy said. "She fell in love with the beach, she fell in love with my grandfather, and she had a child out of wedlock — my mother."

It was after the birth of her only daughter, Tamar, that she converted to Catholicism.

"She had always been thinking about God and discussing God. She was known by her friends as someone who cornered them at parties to talk about God," Hennessy said. "So this was no surprise to those who knew her, but she ended up having my mother baptized in the Catholic church and then she too followed that."

"She spent the next five years raising my mother, earning her living as a writer, but not knowing how to combine these two different worlds: One, the world of her newfound religion, and the other world that of her old bohemian, radical friends who were out in the streets, who were demonstrating, who were fighting for change."

In 1932, Day travelled to Washington, D.C., to cover a major hunger strike. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the strike had been organized by Day's Communist friends from her past.

"She had gone down as a reporter to report on it for Catholic publications, and she was standing on the sidewalk asking: Where are the Catholics? What are we doing to help change the world?"

Later that year, she met the man who helped her refine her focus on social justice: Peter Maurin.

"My grandmother, when she converted to Catholicism, didn't know anything of the social teachings of the church. She did not know there was a social action program, and Peter Maurin was able to instruct her on that," Hennessy said.

Driven to do something by the vast amount of poverty in New York City during the Depression, with camps full of people out of work, begging for food, Day started the Catholic Worker newspaper.

She "started selling it for a penny a copy on Union Square during May Day," Hennessy said. "From that, it soon developed. People started showing up on her doorstep: 'We're hungry, we're out of work, we need shelter.' And before she knew it, the houses of hospitality began."

These houses established Day's reputation in the social justice movement. Today, there are dozens of homeless shelters across the United States named after Day and her first "house of hospitality."

Hennessy knows her grandmother's life story doesn't fit into the stereotypical idea of a saint — a perfect person. But that's the point, she said.

"I think there has been a misconception about who saints are," Hennessy said. "I think we went through a period in which they were seen as very pious, very devout and otherworldly. But when you start examining their lives, you realize they were cantankerous, they were difficult, they made a lot of mistakes."

"It's not so much that they are people who we can never be — that's the really big misconception — but that they are people who can show us how we can be more saint-like ourselves. And certainly my grandmother believed that, that we are all called to be saints."

For the full interview with Kate Hennessy on "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty," use the audio player above.

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