Dorothy Day: Future Saint, Imperfect Parent

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and its newspaper, The Catholic Worker, is depicted in a stained-glass window at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and its newspaper, The Catholic Worker, is depicted in a stained-glass window at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the Staten Island borough of New York. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

By conservative estimate I have read 20 books about Dorothy Day, one of my heroes. Almost 30 years ago, while working as a Jesuit novice at the Nativity Mission Center, a school for poor boys on the Lower East Side of New York, I picked up The Long Loneliness, her justly famous autobiography. The book was forced on me (albeit in a nice way) by another novice after he discovered that I had no idea who Dorothy Day was.

A few chapters in, I realized that much of the story took place just a few blocks from where I was living, at the nearby Catholic Worker house. I mentioned that to a Jesuit in my community who laughed. “Didn’t you know that? You’re living in her world!”

Since then I have plowed through numerous biographies and, recently, through her judiciously edited letters and diaries, edited by her friend Robert Ellsberg, himself the author of several books on the saints. Those two hefty volumes brought me closer to her than ever. Her daily jottings exposed the enormous day-to-day challenges of running the Catholic Worker movement. And for the first time I got a glimpse of Dorothy Day the parent and grandparent.

Dorothy’s letters and journals reveal her involvement in, and concern for, the life of her daughter Tamar, and Tamar’s children. That filled in some important blank spots for me, since most biographies of the great woman focus on the Worker, not the daughter. Another revelation was Dorothy’s selfless care for her former lover, Forster (Tamar’s father), and his wife, Nanette, as she lay dying from cancer. To me, her nursing her former lover’s wife was nothing short of heroic.

In some early chapters “imperfect” may be the most charitable word you could use. “Indifferent” might be more accurate.

But now a new book, Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty, by Kate Hennessey, her granddaughter, has upended my conception of the woman that Pope Francis singled out as a “great American” during his visit to the United States in 2014. The beautifully written book, which offers new insights into her life with Forster and her work with the Worker, is also a searingly honest look at Dorothy Day the mother. And it shows her as very much an imperfect parent, particularly when Tamar was a child.

In some early chapters “imperfect” may be the most charitable word you could use. “Indifferent” might be more accurate. With the Catholic Worker consuming Dorothy’s time, she sometimes forgot about her child. “She would let me stay up late while she was talking,” Tamar told Hennessey, “and I’d be forgotten while playing in the bath.” Another word to describe her mothering skills, with a small child and even with her adult daughter, would be—and it is ironic to use this word in connection with Dorothy Day—“poor.” At one point, when Tamar was struggling to eke out a living with her husband on a dirt-poor farm in West Virginia, Dorothy wrote a letter castigating her daughter for her situation, which deeply wounded Tamar for years.

Rafts of books have been written about the imperfections of the saints. As we know, they are not divine. And they continued sinning all the way until their deaths. But it is especially bracing to read about the failings of a contemporary saint through the eyes of a family member. Of course, Dorothy and Tamar loved each other. That’s obvious. But sometimes they seemed not to know how.

Far from discouraging me, the book inspired me. Edified me. Dorothy was imperfect at times. So am I. She’s on her way to sainthood. I’m not, but I can try, even if I sin. Thank you, Dorothy. Thank you, Kate.

Most of all, thank you, Tamar.

Beth Cioffoletti
3 months 2 weeks ago

I'm not surprised at all. I've always viewed Dorothy with a mixture of both awe and disbelief. There was a fine line between Dorothy's being called and her being driven. She was good at what she did - writing. She was following. She had a special gift of knowing, of being sure, except when she didn't. I understand.

I especially understand when her daughter, Tamar, refused to let Dorothy's spiritual guide, Fr. Hugo, come to her funeral.

Fr. Hugo was a mixed bag. He preached the Gospel and was silenced at least once from the powers that be for being too "political", but he was also "austere". He liked for families to have a lot of children. Though Dorothy wanted him to preach at her funeral, her daughter, Tamar, asked him not to come (and he didn't).

Tamar dealt with the reality of a lot of children with an alcoholic husband. Sometimes the strictness and high mindedness of Catholicism doesn't work. It didn't for Tamar.

We are all mixed bags. In many ways I think that Tamar carried the load for Dorothy. I admire Tamar's honesty as much as Dorothy's clear following of her unique calling.

It just goes to show how sainthood is no a one-person endeavor. It involves others. We become holy WITH others, BY others and FOR others.

Lisa Sutton
3 months 2 weeks ago

The book sounds amazing! Thank you for the recommendation!

James MacGregor
3 months 2 weeks ago

I enjoyed reading this article. My memories of Dorothy Day while growing up in NYC in the 40s and 50s was that the Church considered her to be a "Commie" or Socialist and discouraged us from reading the Socialist Worker and from being in any way involved with her group.

Thank you Fr. Martin for the article.

James MacGregor
3 months 2 weeks ago

I enjoyed reading this article. My memories of Dorothy Day while growing up in NYC in the 40s and 50s was that the Church considered her to be a "Commie" or Socialist and discouraged us from reading the Socialist Worker and from being in any way involved with her group.

Thank you Fr. Martin for the article.

James MacGregor
3 months 2 weeks ago

I enjoyed reading this article. My memories of Dorothy Day while growing up in NYC in the 40s and 50s was that the Church considered her to be a "Commie" or Socialist and discouraged us from reading the Socialist Worker and from being in any way involved with her group.

Thank you Fr. Martin for the article.

James MacGregor
3 months 2 weeks ago

I enjoyed reading this article. My memories of Dorothy Day while growing up in NYC in the 40s and 50s was that the Church considered her to be a "Commie" or Socialist and discouraged us from reading the Socialist Worker and from being in any way involved with her group.

Thank you Fr. Martin for the article.

James MacGregor
3 months 2 weeks ago

I enjoyed reading this article. My memories of Dorothy Day while growing up in NYC in the 40s and 50s was that the Church considered her to be a "Commie" or Socialist and discouraged us from reading the Socialist Worker and from being in any way involved with her group.

Thank you Fr. Martin for the article.

James MacGregor
3 months 2 weeks ago

I enjoyed reading this article. My memories of Dorothy Day while growing up in NYC in the 40s and 50s was that the Church considered her to be a "Commie" or Socialist and discouraged us from reading the Socialist Worker and from being in any way involved with her group.

Thank you Fr. Martin for the article.

James MacGregor
3 months 2 weeks ago

I enjoyed reading this article. My memories of Dorothy Day while growing up in NYC in the 40s and 50s was that the Church considered her to be a "Commie" or Socialist and discouraged us from reading the Socialist Worker and from being in any way involved with her group.

Thank you Fr. Martin for the article.

Tom Maher
3 months 2 weeks ago

Dorothy Day was primarily a lifelong political activist privately and publically who lifelong strongly associated with, supported and promoted socialist and collectivist political causes.

Day's motivation for her works need to be skeptically examined. Day was not promoting the Gospel or Catholicism in her works. Day was promoting socialism, collectivism and fringe political causes to Catholics. Her involvement with Catholics was later in her life via the Catholic Worker Movement which was the ideas of her "co-founder" of the movement for personal and political reasons. Day became the face of the Catholic Worker Movement when her "co-founder'' and very close friend died in the early stages of the development of the Catholic Worker Movement during the mid 1930s. As the surviving founder of a "Catholic" movement she was very careful not to offend the "Catholic" hierarchy. But Day was not the original architect of the Catholic Worker Movement but a supporter of the political ideas of her "co-founder'/close friend who synthesized political and religious ideas. The Catholic Worker Movement was primarily political which attracted and motivated Day. Day did not create or seek any religious aspect of the Catholic Worker Movement. To her Catholics were masses to be politically organized. Many Catholics were economically deprived during the 1930s and were an excellent group to target for political organizing and indoctrination into socialist and collectivist politics and thinking which was generally fringe ideas to most Americans. The work of the Catholic Worker Movement is more a political organizing opportunity during the depression than a religious conversion or action to spread of the faith or the Gospel.

Day's popularity today is due to the continued perverse influence of "liberation theology" from such places as Latin America which was generally not impacted by the massive collapse of the Soviet Union and its collectivist Marxist socialism political system in 1989 throughout eastern Europe and much of Asia with the exception for Marxist Socialist Cuba. Unlike the rest of the world, Marxist socialism activism still thrives in Latin America including within the Church and in the Jesuit order. The Pope on his visit to Bolivia last year received and accepted the hammer and sickle crucifix designed and created by a Jesuit political activist who actively somehow combined the Gospel with Marxism.. The hammer and sickle of course is the symbol of Marxist socialism on the red flag of the former Soviet Union. Why a Latin American Jesuit would want to put a hammer and sickle symbol on a crucifix I can not begin to explain but apparently it is ok with our Latin American Jesuit pope who warmly received the gift from the then Marxist President of Bolivia.

A more critical book focusing on Dorothy Day's life is "The Catholic Worker Movement, 1933 - 1980, A Critical Analysis " by Carol Byrne in 2010.

Carol Byrne
3 months 2 weeks ago

Fr Martin's article is simply a whitewash of Day's grave derliction of her primary duty as a mother to personally care for her child. She spoke much about the necessity to have "personal responsibility" for those in need, but, hypocritically, chose not to apply that to her own daughter in the latter's most vulnerable years. For a mother to cast her young child on the care of the community while devoting herself wholeheartedly to universal benevolence is as much opposed to nature as it is to religion. To diminish the mother’s role, as Pope Leo XIII stated, would “act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.” (Rerum novarum, § 14)

Day could have made a reasonable living by using her literary talents in a writing career which would not have required leaving her daughter to be brought up by others.

Surely that is not just one of those "failings" that even the saints were prone to. Day failed in the most basic requirement of Christian charity, the personal care of her own child, and so fell far below the standard required both by the Natural Law and the Fourth Commandment of God which includes this commitment.

How can a Catholic priest condone this behaviour which offends God and gives bad example to other mothers?

Min Bee
3 months ago

James Martin, SJ, describes Dorothy Day's treatment of her daughter Tamar as "indifferent" and "poor," and then shrugs off these defects as mere "imperfections." They have been described before.

From the time Tamar was 18 months old, Day raised her as a single parent. She describes “Tamar at three [years of age] meeting her father again and saying to me resentfully, 'That is my father, not your father' ” (Dorothy Day, "The Long Loneliness," 1952; 1997 reprint, p. 236). Dorothy put Tamar into day care (Ibid., p. 153) and left her with relatives (Ibid., pp. 159-160), but she took Tamar on her pre-Catholic Worker (CW) travels to California, Mexico, and Florida (William D. Miller, "Dorothy Day: A Biography," 1982, pp. 200-221).

When the CW became Dorothy’s “family,” she left Tamar with co-workers, preferably at the CW farms (Ibid, pp. 280, 297-299), and she traveled so extensively that Tamar’s nickname for her was “Be-going” (Rosalie G. Riegle [Troester], "Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her," 2003, p. 109).

Here from "The Long Loneliness" (p. 237) is Day's description of Tamar being left in the bathtub: "At night when visitors came, workers, scholars, priests, laymen, I left her in her bath, and all but forgot her in the heat of discussion. In the delight of staying up late, Tamar stayed in the tub until the water was cold, making boats of the soap and her toys." A common-sense reaction might express concern that Tamar would catch cold, or be simply, "BRRR!"

More of Day's neglectful approach to mothering Tamar is in Margot Patterson, "An extraordinary, difficult childhood," http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives/030703/030703k.htm, at the blog "Dorothy Day Another Way," as well in Carol Byrne's "The Catholic Worker Movement," cited above.

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