By Dorothy K. LaMantia | Correspondent
Catholics know Dorothy Day as a peace and human rights activist, founder and resident of the Catholic Worker Houses, a living example of the Church’s social teaching, and now Servant of God, the first step to sainthood.
Her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, remembers Day as a caring grandmother who taught her how to pray and pay attention to her conscience, who shared her love of art and literature, and told great stories of her rich life experiences.
On Nov. 7 – the eve of what would have been Dorothy Day’s 120th birthday – an audience of 80 students and guests filled Georgian Court University’s Little Theatre to learn about the activist from Hennessy, author of “Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.”
Hennessy, one of Tamar Day Hennessy’s nine children, spoke as part of the Lakewood university’s Critical Concerns Week 2017, “Embracing Nonviolence in a Turbulent World.”
While Hennessy’s presentation recounted events that molded her grandmother into a peacemaker and one of the most influential women of her time, Hennessy’s book provides a human perspective on the way Day’s activism impacted her relationship with her only child, Tamar, and Tamar’s personal growth.
“She made her mistakes,” Hennessy said. “My job is to tell the story in a nuanced way which shows her complexity.
“I will’ give an overview of who my grandmother is … I didn’t say ‘was’ – she is such a powerful person and left her mark on me,” Hennessy said. “It is very difficult to answer questions about her influence on me; it’s a bit of a burden. We have our own paths. My grandmother said people must find their own way and remain true to themselves.”
The daughter of a journalist in a family that did not practice any faith, Day – at age 18 – decided to become a journalist herself. Her father, deeming it a career inappropriate for a woman, urged his colleagues not to hire her.
“She did not give up,” Hennessy said. “She believed perseverance was the greatest virtue.”
Day landed a job with a socialist newspaper that educated her in human rights issues, including labor rights, racial equality and women’s suffrage. Demonstrating with suffragettes landed her a brutal 30-day sentence in a Washington, D.C., jail.
In her 20s, a romantic relationship resulted in pregnancy, which she terminated when she was abandoned by the child’s father. “She was so physically damaged and traumatized by the abortion,” Hennessy said. “She thought she would never be able to have [another] child.”
Day became pregnant in a relationship often described as the great love of her life, and in 1927, gave birth to Tamar.
“She was over the moon over her child [that] she wanted to do something dramatic. She had her child baptized even though she herself wasn’t Catholic,” Hennessy said. “She felt such a moment of sacred power was something she could not squander.”
Day, too, was later baptized, which created a wedge between her and Tamar’s father as well as her friends.
A New Calling
Day supported herself and her child as a writer. While covering a hunger march in Washington in 1932, she felt a calling to integrate her social consciousness with her new-found faith. Seeking guidance, she visited the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where she prayed to Mary, “What would you have me do?”
The answer came when she met Peter Maurin, a former monastic turned day laborer, who taught her about Catholic social teaching.
“It was explosive,” Hennessy said. “She said, ‘I must write about this.’”
That led to The Catholic Worker, a newspaper founded by Day and Maurin that reported on social justice and Church teaching. It sold for one penny each.
While discussing issues affecting the poor, Day and Maurin decided to set up “not shelters,” Hennessy explained, which were “hospitality homes where people could become family.”
Seventy people moved into the first home, where soup lines fed a thousand daily. Day’s radical politics morphed into a radical call to live the Gospel by living with Tamar in the Hospitality Houses among the destitute, thus building a greater view of family. At the same time, it created tensions, which are central to Hennessy’s book.
With the onset of World War II and the rise of Adolf Hitler, Day’s pacifism made her an object of ridicule, yet she held fast to her beliefs that “all war is fratricide and we must trust Jesus when he says to love our enemies,” Hennessy said.
In later years, Day remained an anti-war activist. Said Hennessy, “She never wanted to entangle herself in political battles. She lived through class and race wars and felt there was a constant level of war-making. She believed in looking for accords, to find common ground person to person.”
That was a theme that resonated with Georgian Court University student Briana Sykes. Commenting after Hennessey’s presentation, she said, “It makes me ask what I can do to improve our world and make it nonviolent.”
Fellow student Erin O’Boyle agreed. “I was impressed how she advocated performing the Works of Mercy. … I can see the acts of Mercy transform this world into a caring place. She is so deserving of canonization for what she has done for women’s rights and in the Catholic Worker Movement.”
Pam Quatse traveled from Manchester to attend the presentation. “In spite of all the amazing things she did, she was human and flawed. But it shows how saints are flesh and blood, not plaster figures.”