Catholic Worker (1933 — )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Catholic Worker

The origins are positively biblical: a mustard seed fell on rocky soil at Union Square, near 14th Street and Broadway, in New York City. By now, it has grown into a deeply-rooted, sheltering tree—today an arboretum.

In Spokane, Colorado Springs, Davenport, Rock Hill, and Worcester, as well as in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, and New York, and in the Netherlands and Australia, street people find food, clothing, and shelter in soup kitchens maintained by young Catholic Workers. Since 1933, when its members first distributed 2,500 copies of the Catholic Worker newspaper in Lower Manhattan, the Catholic Worker movement has provided hospitality for hundreds of thousands of men and women whom nobody else cared about.

Initiated by Peter Maurin (1879-1949), an itinerate teacher and worker, and Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a journalist, shortly after their first meeting in December 1932, the movement has drawn three generations of talented workers and organizers, writers and artists, into its network. In the process, it has remained a significant influence on American Catholicism, as well as on the social, intellectual, and literary history of the U.S.

By her life and writings, Dorothy Day is surely the most visible and influential figure in the movement. But she regarded Peter Maurin as her teacher; because of them, thousands of “ordinary people” have helped to initiate houses, farms, newspapers, and campaigns for nonviolent social change for over six decades. Some spent a brief period with the Worker—among them Michael Harrington, John Cogley, Ade Bethune, J.F. Powers, William Everson, John Cort, Jim Forest, Charlie King; others have spent much of their lives—Ammon Hennacy, Karl Meyer, Frank Donovan, Rita Corbin, Brendan and Willa Walsh, Tom and Monica Cornell. Workers include scores of priests, nuns, and laity, many of them well-known in various professions and walks of life. Because of their admiration for Dorothy Day, their contributions to the movement, or their writings about her, many others have regarded themselves as “fellow travelers” of the movement. These include Gordon Zahn, Robert Coles, William Miller, not to mention W. H. Auden, Thomas Merton, and Fritz Eichenberg.

Visiting the hundred or more Houses across the U.S., one inevitably meets young men and women, many of them students, for whom the Catholic Worker has been a kind of “agronomic university,” as Peter Maurin hoped it would be. There, they learn much about “the whole rotten system,” as Dorothy Day used to say, and meet the victims of violence and injustice for the first time. There young people learn how to become “part of the solution” rather than remain “part of the problem.” Many go on to extend “the beloved community” through their own efforts, as they live lives of voluntary poverty among the poor or follow a more conventional pattern of marriage, family, and profession. Whatever they choose to do, their lives carry the mark of days, months, or years actively involved with the Catholic Worker, and through them the movement continues to flourish into the third generation.

'Christ of the Breadlines' by Fritz EichenbergDaily, across the U.S., young Catholic Workers feed the hungry, house the homeless, set up food pantries and medical treatment centers, comfort the sick, bury the dead, periodically going to trial or into jail for resisting capital punishment, the arms race, and other injustices.

Each day the thriving movement seems, to an outsider, a kind of miracle; some people give their lives for these values; others have their houses closed down for failing to meet a local building code. On worse days, they stand among the ashes, after a thoughtless guest falls asleep, maybe drunk, with a cigarette in his or her mouth. In June 1991, Matt Devenney of the Community Stewpot, in Jackson, Mississippi, was actually gunned down by a regular patron with a history of mental illness; Devenney, a 33-year-old husband and father, had directed the Stewpot for several years. Other young workers simply burn out, after years of sharing the daily rough and tumble of the inner city’s endless stream of “undeserving poor,” as Bernard Shaw called them, that line up for soup and hospitality and whatever else is freely offered.

Around these Catholic Worker Houses, other life-giving communities form, some agitating for farm workers’ or women’s rights, environmental protection or credit unions, land trusts, peace fellowships, draft and war tax resistance. How lucky any community is that harbors a Catholic Worker House, for the unaccounted, often unacknowledged blessings it brings in helping to preserve community in urban settings otherwise rife with violence, hunger, poverty, and neglect.

Each community varies, each a kind of oasis in which these values are made visible and concrete. And after over seven decades, a library of fiction, poetry, plays, artwork, films, and nonfiction tells the story, so that no child growing up and surely no person associated with Christianity should remain ignorant of its powerful example.

Dorothy Day, a born storyteller, understood the power of narrative as the instrument of “spreading the word;” she told the Catholic Worker story over and over again, especially in The Long Loneliness (1952), the story of her conversion, and Loaves and Fishes (1963), and continually in her monthly column, “On Pilgrimage.” So did Ammon Hennacy in The Book of Ammon (1954, 1970) and Robert Ellsberg, in his introduction to The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day.

At the end of The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day wrote, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.” Fifty years after she wrote that memorable sentence, it’s still going on, in evenings of clarification of thought at Houses across the U.S., at Ammon Hennacy House in Los Angeles and at the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in the pages of the Catholic Worker and The Catholic Radical.

There are many models for the Catholic Worker and many routes to it. Some Houses serve twelve people one meal a week; some serve six hundred people three meals a day. Some Houses take in anyone without a place to sleep. Some distribute free food from a continually replenished pantry, while others house people visiting relatives at state or federal prisons.

Some Workers devote their lives to the movement; others stay for a while, then move on to other commitments. Scott and Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, for example, who met shortly after they graduated from Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, respectively, set up houses for men and women in a rough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. After their marriage, they moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, where they established the House of SS. Francis and Therese, and where they live with their four children and various guests, publish a handsome, informative quarterly, The Catholic Radical, and go to trial and to jail for civil disobedience at Raytheon and similar plants that make weapons of mass destruction; at Electric Boat, Groton, Connecticut, which manufactures and launches nuclear submarines; or at Westover, Massachusetts Airforce Base, from which bombers flew to Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq. The Schaeffer-Duffys also teach religious education to children in a local parish, run a summer peace camp for children, and sell bran muffins and wheat bread to raise money for their projects.

Front page of the Catholic Worker from April 1936At Viva House Catholic Worker, Willa Bickhham and Brendan Walsh live in Baltimore’s inner city, where they feed thirty people three times a week and provide hospitality and health care for needy people. On the walls of the soup kitchen and dining room, Willa’s silk screens tell part of the story of their commitment to nonviolent social change. The Walshs moved to the city and married several years before they supported the Catonsville Nine (Philip Berrigan, Tom Lewis, Tom and Marjorie Melville, and others) who burned draft files in an effort to end the Vietnam War.

Similarly, Brian Terrell and Betsy Keenan married, after working together at St. Joseph House in Lower Manhattan and the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York. Following seven years at Peter Maurin House, Davenport, Iowa, they homesteaded four acres of land, sell rag rugs and small crafts in Maloy, Iowa, 100 miles southwest of Des Moines.

In Hawaii, on that state’s “big island,” Jim Albertini and his wife oversee a Catholic Worker farm and retreat center. He too spent time in jail, for “swimming in” to protest nuclear weapons in and around Pearl Harbor. And in Rock Hill, South Carolina, a community of parents and grade school children, with encouragement from David Valtierra, Congregation of the Oratory, initiated a Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen.

Just off Second Avenue, and around the comer from the best Ukrainian restaurant in lower Manhattan, Jane Sammon and Frank Donovan oversee the many activities of the Catholic Worker’s “national office.” They edit the monthly Catholic Worker, still a penny a copy, as it was in the 1930s, with informative articles on the nonviolent movements for social change, with letters from Houses and communities around the world, and announcements of Friday evening “Clarifications of Thought”—poetry readings or urgent messages from young activists and scholars. At the New York Houses, as well as at the Marquette University archives in Milwaukee, journalists and historians, young students and seasoned scholars drop by for news and information, for anthologies of writings or portraits (like this one) of Catholic Workers, young and old, active or deceased.

Thus do Houses of Hospitality, “agronomic universities,” and other Catholic Worker communities continue to flourish, much as Peter Maurin envisioned them decades ago. First he, then Ammon Hennacy, pushed Dorothy Day along a pilgrimage that she followed and chartered for so many others, including the talented, resourceful, and courageous young men and women who carry it on.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur, India: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Catholic Workers
  • A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker. Patrick G. Coy, ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
  • By Little and By Little: Selected Writings of Dorothy Day. Robert Ellsberg, ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
  • Cook, Jack. Rags of Time: A Season in Prison. Boston: Beacon Press, 1972.
  • Ellis, Mark H. A Year at the Catholic Worker. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
  • Harrington, Michael.  The Other America.  Originally published in 1962.  New York: Touchstone, 1997.
  • Scahill, Jeremy.  Blackwater: The rise of the world's most powerful mercenary army.  New York: Nation Books, 2007.
Selected material about Catholic Workers
  • Coles, Robert, and Jon Erikson. A Spectacle Unto the World: The Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Viking Press, 1973.
  • Miller, William D. A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Liveright, 1973.
  • Piehl, Mel. Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origin of Catholic Radicalism in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

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