Dorothy Day has been labeled a social reformer, an anarchist, a gifted journalist, and – by Abbie Hoffman – the original hippie.
In an obituary, College of the Holy Cross professor David O’Brien called Day “the most significant, interesting and influential person in the history of American Catholicism.”
A colleague and friend of the co-founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper, and the similarly named movement that paper spawned, shared his recollections of Day at Marquette University’s Raynor Library April 24. Patrick Jordan, 68, managing editor of Day’s penny paper before moving on to a long tenure at Commonweal magazine, spoke as part of the Catholic Worker movement’s 80th anniversary.
Jordan’s stories and storehouse of quotations easily commanded audience attention for the approximately 90 minutes he lectured and answered questions. His talk coincided with a Dorothy Day exhibit at the institution to which the champion of the poor bequeathed 50 cartons of her and the movement’s papers. Day, who died at 83 in 1980, had spoken at Marquette.
As a seminarian volunteer at the movement’s St. Joseph House in a New York City slum, Jordan met Day in 1968.
“My sense of her was a person at peace with herself,” he recalled. “She was sharp, engaged, charming. She had a sense of freedom.”
St. Joseph House was, Jordan said, “a vital place” at “a time of great excitement.” There was, for instance, “a tremendous sense of opening within the church” in the aftermath of Vatican II.
There was also a good deal of unrest. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968 and a chaotic Democratic convention transpired in Chicago. Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae encyclical had a polarizing effect on the American church and forced Jordan to rethink becoming a priest.
“In the United States, this was a period of civil rights,” he said, remembering a period that saw justice-seeker Day traveling to “many hot spots” in the South. It was also the era of Vietnam, when young men were forced to make “life-changing decisions” in the face of military conscription.
“The war,” observed Jordan, “had really come home.”
Jordan, who exchanged seminary studies for full-time volunteer work at St. Joseph House in 1969, refused army induction.
Ironically, this resulted in his being sentenced to serve a 30-month probation –at St. Joseph House!
“The people in the house were remarkable,” he recalled, “straight shooters” who, in the parlance of the time, told it like it was. The clientele included “many, many unemployed” individuals, “elderly alcoholics (from) the Bowery” and “returned (military) veterans who had just bottomed out.”
When he’d arrived via taxi for his first day as a volunteer, Jordan said, the cabbie had eyeballed the area and asked Jordan, “’Are you sure this is where you want to go?’”
It was. Jordan, like Day, knew “the idea of the Catholic Worker (was) to share the life of the poor.”
Jordan was a full-time member of the New York Catholic Worker community until 1975. He met Bill Moyers, the brothers Berrigan — Phillip and Daniel, Cesar Chavez, even Mother Teresa. Most importantly, he met a co-worker named Kathleen; they married, had a family and have resided for years on Staten Island. Kathleen’s career as a nurse and his as a journalist, Jordan likes to think, respectively represented the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. He said Day relegated journalism to the spiritual works category.
In the words of Dorothy Day
Journalist Patrick Jordan frequently quoted his friend and mentor Dorothy Day during a recent lecture at Marquette University. A handful of those quotes follow.
Jordan opened his lecture by sharing words of the day's serendipitous Gospel reading from St. John: "I came into the world as light. I did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world."
The two remained close friends. Jordan retired last year as the magazine’s managing editor. He had prepped for that Commonweal position by working a similar job at Day’s paper.
“I had no sense of ever being Dorothy Day’s editor,” he said at the Raynor Library. “I edited for her. She was the editor, (the one) called on the carpet many times by the church authorities,” and although she invited Jordan to truncate her copy, he “honestly loved her writing too much” to make wholesale changes.
“She was a newspaperwoman,” Jordan noted of Day. “She wanted a paper with a point of view. She wanted news, she wanted events.” The Catholic Worker, as “a radical journal,” included articles about tax resistance and prisoners, poverty and peacemaking, the labor movement in general and the United Farm Workers in particular – all the while stressing the Beatitudes.
“She wanted letters,” he added. “She felt letters really breathed life into the paper.”
Fillers, such as Gandhi’s statement “Christianity is profoundly revolutionary,” were printed. Lewis Mumford, Chavez, Dom Helder Camara and the president of Tanzania contributed articles. But “of all the writers,” according to Jordan, “Dorothy was the best. There’s no doubt about it.”
Jordan said he and other staffers “cooked and took care of the (St. Joseph) house and washed people’s feet,” in addition to journalistic efforts. Some 80-90,000 papers per run had to be folded by hand, Jordan remembered. St. Joseph House clients pitched in, which “gave people meaningful work.” Day admired individuals devoted to physical labor, he noted.
After eight decades, the paper Day started with Peter Maurin, the paper that has long advocated for peace and the poor, is needed “more than ever,” in Jordan’s estimation.
Did the paper’s co-founder ever smile, someone in the audience inquired, noting that photos inevitably captured an impassive Day.
“Oh yeah,” Jordan responded. She preferred to pose seriously for pictures, but Day “had a lovely smile. We felt she had a great interior joy. And she had a lovely laugh, a young (person’s) laugh.” Additionally, “she had a great physical beauty.”
Jordan recalled that, typically, his mentor’s “day began with the psalms and a cup of coffee.” She attended Mass daily and encouraged others to do so, exemplifying her belief “in the primacy of the spiritual.”
“Dorothy felt she’d been given a great deal of grace,” Jordan said. “She had a tremendous self-discipline.”
He found her encouraging and non-judgmental. Day was a cat lover, a fan of fiction and drama, a believer in higher education – although she had not earned a college degree.
“She was often very far ahead of where other people were,” said Jordan. She informed her readership about Vietnam long before it became a household word. She often quoted Pope John XXIII and “had a deep respect for Paul VI,” who for Day’s 80th birthday sent “a special papal blessing – and it wasn’t one of those things you could buy in a souvenir shop.” With typical humility, Day regarded that honor as recognition for Maurin’s ideas and the movement.
Asked how Day might regard Pope Francis, Jordan guessed she’d be delighted with the newly elected pontiff’s “emphasis on paying attention to the poor.” Quoting Day’s granddaughter, Jordan said Day “’turned the life of poverty into something dynamic.’”
Efforts directed toward Day’s canonization began more than a decade ago in the New York Archdiocese. Before seeking Vatican sanction of such efforts, Cardinal John O’Connor conferred with people who knew Day well – including Patrick and Kathleen Jordan.