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Dorothy Day Remembered as Ordinary Person who Accomplished the Extraordinary


On what would have been her 111st birthday, Dorothy Day was feted at Fordham, as historians, writers, family members and followers of Day’s Catholic Worker movement gathered for a symposium dedicated to her life and work.

“The Catholic Worker at 75: A Celebration and a Retrospective” was held on Nov. 8 in Tognino Hall at Duane Library on the Rose Hill campus. Organized by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, it was timed around the 75th anniversary of the newspaper The Catholic Worker, which Day co-founded.

Amanda Daloisio, Tanya Theriault, Kate Hennessy and Patrick Jordan. Photo by Ken Levinson

On the afternoon’s first panel, Amanda Daloisio and Tanya Theriault spoke of their experiences working at Maryhouse and St. Joseph’s House, respectively. The facilities are two of nearly 200 worldwide that provide housing for the downtrodden.

Kate Hennessy, a writer and musician who works with the disabled, spoke about how having Day as a grandmother presented her with huge shoes to fill. Patrick Jordan, the managing editor of Commonwealmagazine and a former occupant of St. Joseph’s House, said that to know Day was to ask yourself, “What hit me?”

On the second panel, Phillip M. Runkel,an archivist for the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University, talked about how the Milwaukee college came to possess Day’s papers.

Paul Elie, who profiled Day in The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), praised Day as an extraordinary writer. In fact, her autobiography, The Long Loneliness (Harper One, 1996), was powerful enough to drive him to volunteer with a Hospitality House.

“There’s a whole movement dedicated to carrying out a model of her life that is embodied in large part, or expounded by, her writings,” he said. “How many writers can we say that about?”

Mel Piehl, Ph.D., dean and professor of humanities and history at Christ College, Valparaiso University, gave a Lutheran’s perspective on Day and her legacy.

He got laughs from the audience by noting that there was some initial suspicion of Day in Protestant circles because they suspected she was a pawn of the Pope. In some ways, he said, she had a lot in common with Martin Luther.

“She was someone who loved the church so passionately that she wanted it to be more fully what it was, to ground itself more profoundly in Christ than its human and institutional and social manifestations might reveal,” he said.

Robert Ellsberg, the editor in chief of The Catholic Worker and the editor of The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Marquette University Press, 2008), closed out the panel by saying that Day, who convinced him to convert to Catholicism, should be considered for sainthood. Her devotion to faith, which comes through in her diaries, shows that hers was not a life consumed with moments of deep ecstasy, but an ordinary life given up to God.

“When we think of holy lives, we kind of boil it down to these dramatic moments in life,” he said. “There are a lot of dramatic elements in Dorothy Day’s life. But you realize that for any life, the substance is made up of ordinary kinds of things.”


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