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Granddaughter: Dorothy Day would be marching today

01 9.28.17_KateHennessy5 PAGEKate Hennessy, who has written a biography of her grandmother Dorothy Day, is pictured at her home at Canticle Farm in Oakland. (Photo by Christina Gray/Catholic San Francisco)

September 28, 2017
Christina Gray

Rendered from diaries, memories, conversations and a cache of family letters, writer Kate Hennessy’s new biography of her grandmother Dorothy Day reveals a complex, often contradictory woman of action who didn’t hesitate to “throw herself into the fray.”

06 9.28.17_day.book Part“She believed that not only could she change the world, it was her obligation to do so,” her youngest granddaughter writes in “Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty” (Scribner, 2017), a book published 37 years after her grandmother’s death in 1980.

In an interview with Catholic San Francisco at Canticle Farm, an urban enclave in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, Hennessy said that the year that has seen social discord and massive protests around the country over a Muslim travel ban, withdrawal from a climate accord, religious and historical symbols, women’s rights and the inauguration of a controversial new president, would have certainly mobilized her grandmother, one way or another.

“She believed in hope,” said Hennessy. “She would never say you must do this or that, but rather, examine your conscience and follow it.” She believed you have to “do what you can do,” and everyone is called to that differently, “but you can’t just do nothing.”

Day’s age and a heart condition in the later years of her life limited the momentum that had defined her, and “that was difficult for her,” Hennessy said.

“She would also pray because she said a lot of times that what you do can seem to make no difference,” Hennessy said.

Day was a journalist, activist and Catholic convert who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement, a now-global network of faith-based hospitality houses established in the depths of the Great Depression to serve the poor in a direct expression of Jesus’ teachings. She transformed a tiny penny newspaper, The Catholic Worker, into an organization that today runs soup kitchens and aid centers in cities around the world. In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Day’s disciples operate Catholic Worker houses in San Bruno, Redwood City and Half Moon Bay.

Unlike the many books written by historians, theologians and biographers, Hennessy’s book is a frank yet nuanced portrayal of her “granny,” the woman Pope Francis singled out along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton in a 2015 speech to Congress as one of four examples of “great Americans.”

“Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed were inspired by the Gospel, her faith and the example of the saints,” the pope said.

Day’s cause for sainthood was accepted in 2000 and the Dorothy Day Guild was founded in 2005 to support the cause.

“Laywomen like Dorothy Day represent a type of vocation not often seen in the canon of saints,” according to an article on the canonization process at http://dorothydayguild.org/. Eileen Egan, a lifelong friend and colleague of Day’s, saw her as someone who “shows that ordinary people can live by the Sermon on the Mount. She tried to relate the Sermon on the Mount to everything she did. This makes her a tremendous inspiration for lay people. Most saints appear to be hedged in by vows or life style, but Dorothy wasn’t hedged in by anything.”

Day also “transcended the divisive boundaries of right and left, pointing to the common ground of discipleship,” the website states. “In ‘Saints as They Really Are,’ the Orthodox theologian Michael Plekon observes ‘it is precisely the clash of characteristics, the flash of radicalism and traditional piety, that reveals Day’s singular character. Her complex personality and rich life, focused however on love for God and for neighbor, make her very much a saint for our times.’”

Before her conversion at age 30, Day lived what she herself called a “disorderly life.” She had an abortion and conceived and bore a child out of wedlock. By all accounts her conversion and life path resulted from the arrival of that child, Tamar, in 1926, and her deep but impossible love for Tamar’s phlegmatic, atheist father who didn’t believe in marriage.

Hennessy is the youngest of Tamar’s nine children. She was 20 when her grandmother died. Tamar died in 2008.

“My book is labeled an ‘intimate portrait of my grandmother,’ but that is actually not correct,” she said. “It’s actually an intimate portrait of my mother and my grandmother because my mother is at the foundation of who my grandmother is.”

In many ways Tamar was the first Catholic Worker, said Hennessy. So different than her mother, Tamar struggled to find her own path under the weight of Day’s legacy, as has Hennessy herself.

In the book’s preface, Hennessy writes: “I felt the weight and the miracle of their lives, and I wondered if I were strong enough to tell this story. But haven’t I been working on it all my life, living in their wake and stumbling along trying to make my own way?”

The Dorothy Day revealed in the book’s 354 pages is many-sided: chatty and charismatic, driven and demanding, lovelorn and vulnerable, powerful and pious.

“I wanted to show her as the complex person that she was,” said Hennessy, who said she worries about her grandmother turning into a “cardboard cutout saint,” not the paradoxical human being she was.

In 1917, Day was beaten and jailed for picketing with other suffragettes to win a woman’s right to vote. But according to Hennessy, Day never took advantage of the right she fought for, believing that change was more effectively brought about in other ways.

She appreciated beauty, especially in nature, and surrounded herself with beautiful things, the book reveals. But she had no attachment to them and would pass them along or lose sight of them.

Because she had a loose sense of what you needed materially, she “didn’t quite understand that my mother was very different in that way,” Hennessy writes. “My mother had her treasures she wanted to keep hold of.”

Day wrestled with the patriarchal, hierarchal structure of the church. But “her genius was that she never lost sight of the heart of the church,” Hennessy said. Throughout her life, people asked Day to take up certain causes against the church but the church was the one thing she would not rise up against, Hennessy said.

Hennessy said putting Day on a pedestal is a “great disservice to her and to yourself.”

“You can’t examine my grandmother’s life without being challenged and changed yourself, you just can’t, because of what she asks us,” Hennessy said. “Open your eyes, be aware of what’s happening in the world, examine your conscience and find out what you are meant to do.”

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