NEW YORK — When Martha Hennessy walks into The Catholic Worker newspaper office in the East Village, the resemblance to her late grandmother, Dorothy Day, is obvious.
“Well, we are family,” Hennessy, 57, said when the physical likeness was pointed out to her.
Her manner is dry, serious, but she also manages a short knowing smile.
The cosmetic similarities to the American Catholic icon and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement are more than skin deep, however.
Like her grandmother, whose sainthood cause has been endorsed by the U.S. Catholic bishops, Hennessy is a passionate anti-war crusader, deeply invested in Catholic social teaching on poverty, engaged in her faith and firm in her resolve, even when her views differ from the hierarchy of her church.
Hennessy sat down for an interview with Catholic News Service Nov. 29, the 32nd anniversary of her grandmother’s death, a date she calls Dorothy Day’s feast day. The interview took place in the office where Day worked, located in Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker hospitality home. It’s also the house where her grandmother died in 1980.
“Today is Granny’s death day, and I think more about Tamar,” she said, referring to her mother and Day’s only child. “Because, she lost her mother, and she was here with her. I know what that’s like. I lost my mother in 2008.”
Hennessy took a deep breath, looked around the room and said she feels the presence of both women. She said she often reflects on their lives, achievements and sacrifices.
Day’s life journey is well documented, from her bohemian days in New York working as a journalist for a socialist newspaper and her religious awakening and co-founding of the Catholic Worker Movement, to her lay vow of poverty and anti-war crusades.
Dorothy Day’s granddaughter talks about her legacy in this CNS video.
“Dorothy was really guided by the hand of God, so I don’t think she ever really considered that forsaking a more comfortable life was a matter of sacrifice,” Hennessy said. “Tamar, on the other hand, had this lifestyle thrust on to her from the time she was a young child, and so, in that sense, her sacrifice was different.”
Tamar Teresa Day Hennessy was very young when her parents separated. She was 7 when Day and Peter Maurin launched The Catholic Worker newspaper and opened a house of hospitality for homeless people during the Great Depression. She spent much of her childhood living in Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, often left in the care of others while her mother was traveling for the cause.
In a 2003 interview, Tamar Hennessy told National Catholic Reporter that Day was a loving and devoted mother, but she could be tough. “She wanted everybody to be like saints,” Hennessy said. “I mean, who can measure up to that?”
Tamar Hennessy would get married as a teenager and raise nine children in Vermont.
Martha Hennessy said her grandmother visited her family often, and as a teenager she spent time working at both Maryhouse and St. Joseph’s House, another Catholic Worker hospitality house in New York.
“I loved spending time down here with Granny and it was a lot of work, but I’m the type of person who loves to work. I’m such a Martha, as Granny loved to point out,” Hennessy said, referring to biblical references to Martha getting caught up in the work that had to be done, instead of being more contemplative.
Like her mother, Hennessy “fell away” from Catholicism as an adult. She married, became an occupational therapist, and raised three children, but was always politically active and a fervent pacifist. Following her mother’s death, Hennessy spent some time in Hawaii and had a religious awaking of her own.
“My landlady simply started taking me to church with her,” she said. “I thought that was lovely to share that with her. Things just started happening from there.”
Hennessy then re-engaged with the Catholic Worker Movement and now divides her time between the home she shares with her husband in Springfield, Vt., and Maryhouse. She also travels around the world in her role as a peace activist, going to places such as Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Following her interview with CNS, Hennessy helped prepare dinner for the residents of Maryhouse and then welcomed guests who arrived for a special Mass in honor of her grandmother.
One young couple traveled from Australia, where they are involved with a Catholic Worker house. Others were people who worked with Day, including Patrick and Kathleen Jordan of Staten Island, N.Y.
Since the crowd of about 75 wouldn’t fit in the small chapel in Maryhouse, the dining room was transformed into a temporary worship space for the Mass.
The walls are adorned with images of Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Day. A black cat darted in and out of the room as the service continued, accentuating the casualness of the setting.
After Mass, Hennessy embraced many of the guests who came to honor her grandmother. She said she feels Day’s presence even stronger, and now appreciates her deep spiritual connection. Her own religious awaking, she said, has given her an inner peace.
“The listening to the voice of God above our own clamoring has been a gift of grace,” Hennessy said. “That somehow my heart and my mind were able to open up, and to act upon this love of God.”