Dorothy Day arrived on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 1914, just 16 years old, awkward and shy but brimming with the curiosity that led her to begin collecting the pieces for a life of faith. It was a critical time in her life and laid the groundwork for what was to come. Decades after leaving college, Day told an interviewer: “It was as if I’d been shown the Promised Land. I wasn’t happy all the time there, but I was free.”
Her freedom was hard won, without familial support and with scarce financial aid. Day was aware that most women her age labored in factories, shops or the home. Her high school Latin teacher Halsey Matteson recognized her talent and tutored her in Greek. It paid off. After a daylong exam where she translated portions of the Greek New Testament, Day won one of 20 scholarships worth $300 from William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Examiner.
“It was as if I’d been shown the Promised Land. I wasn’t happy all the time there, but I was free.”
When Day arrived on campus in the fall of 1914 she was directed to the Young Women’s Christian Association, where she found a room and work in the neighboring Y.M.C.A’s basement cafeteria. She bristled at its proselytizing and monopoly on campus employment. Her relationship with her supervisors at the Y soured. She claimed they disdained her “godless spirit.” They cut her off from most campus jobs.
She suffered through a string of poorly paid domestic positions. In all but one of them, labor became a welcome toil, where scalded hands and soreness prefigured her devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little graces.” She found her first job in the home of John and Leora Fitzgerald, Methodists who were intellectually stimulating and kind. Day talked literature with John, a Spanish professor, and matters of faith while washing dishes with Leora.
Day then kept house for Maurice Daly, a billiard hall owner and bootlegger. She was sexually harassed by Daly until she fled. In the home of Orr Allyn, a university extension instructor, she found a welcoming if poorer family. The Allyns barely paid Day, but she found more meaning in labor than school. So much so that she obtained exemptions from gym class, the forms for which survive in the university’s archive, in order to work in the afternoons.
Day distanced herself from religion in “a conscious and deliberate process” and turned elsewhere for answers.
Was a disinterest in religion the cause of her self-declared “godless spirit?” Unlikely: Day was versed in Episcopal hymns, the New Testament, John Wesley’s sermons and, a result of her mother’s conversion, Christian Science tracts. But she burned with the critical edge of youth and “scorned the students who were pious.” Though Day did list Christian Science as her religious affiliation every semester on university forms, she distanced herself from religion in “a conscious and deliberate process” and turned elsewhere for answers.
She attended salons in the homes of progressive faculty and read feverishly. She devoured the works of her beloved Russians: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. She amassed a library all her own with earnings from domestic jobs. Reading the working-class literature of Jack London and Upton Sinclair spurred a desire for action, but meetings of campus radicals, the Socialist Study Club organized under the auspices of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, proved tepid. Day yearned for real change. She was willing to engage in protracted battles in defense of the working class and a dismantling of society’s oppressive structures—but the revolution would not begin in rural Illinois.
She found the coursework too dull and uninspiring and the campus culture stifling. She did not return in the fall.
Late in her first year of college, Day befriended Rayna Simons, “a character one meets but once in a lifetime,” and her boyfriend Samson “Raph” Raphaelson. Rayna and Raph were leaders in the campus literati but excluded from the Greek and social organizations that dominated the campus social scene because of their Jewish background. Intrigued by Day’s story recounting three days of hunger when she was only able to afford salted peanuts, submitted to Raph’s Illinois Magazine, the couple took Day out for coffee, which evolved into hours of conversation and a passionate friendship.
Soon, Rayna took Dorothy in, ending Day’s efforts at self-support. Rayna’s boarding house became Day’s first house of hospitality, a place where her hunger, poverty and loneliness were overwhelmed by love. Rayna paid Day’s rent, shared clothes and made her boarder consume a can of cream every day to build her thin frame. Day remarked years later, “What was hers was also mine, and we loved each other.”
During her sophomore year in 1915-16, Day joined campus honor societies and literary clubs and even dated a little—Raph introduced her to a Spaniard he knew through the Cosmopolitan Club. Day finally took P.E. and was elected captain of the sophomore field hockey team. Despite the stability provided by Rayna and Raph, school was untenable. She found the coursework too dull and uninspiring and the campus culture stifling. She did not return in the fall and followed her family to New York.
Dorothy Day was a saint of and for the secular age.
Lacking a degree but with experience writing book reviews for the Chicago Examiner and copy for a local paper, she asked a co-worker of her brother at Chicago’s Day Book newspaper for a letter of recommendation. Her thank-you note survives at the University of Illinois. In it, she thanks Carl Sandburg for the “good turn” in writing to The Call and explains her move to another publication, The Masses: “I’m going to write book reviews and stories and poems and articles and have the time of my life.”
Her familial relations were strained at the time, but she was not bothered by it. “In spite of the fact that [my brother] Donald and the rest of the family have kicked me out and would like to put me in a home for wayward girls, I’m awfully happy.” Day would ultimately find the independence, intellectual life and radical hope she first glimpsed in college in New York City, free from the stifling home atmosphere and Protestant manners of small-town Illinois.
Day recounted college briefly in her memoirs, but in her last decade those two years and her connection to the University of Illinois returned to her private thoughts, recorded in her diary. Her ties to the University of Illinois also invited public controversy. The University of Illinois at Chicago Faculty Senate attempted to award Day an honorary doctorate in 1976. But Republican members of the board of trustees refused to sign off, concerned that granting an award to Day would signal the university’s support for international socialism. Day demurred. Four years prior she outlined her rejection of honorary degrees in Commonweal as an act of respect for “Holy Wisdom” and a rejection of the “military-industrial-agricultural-educational-complex-conglomerate” she saw at the heart of higher education.
Day was a saint of and for the secular age. One of the few Americans under review for canonization with any college education—and the only one to attend a public university—her indiscretions and confusions, those awkward discoveries and repeated failures of youth, as well as the struggle to learn and better the spirit, are our own. She remains a witness for our moment, a teenager demanding answers of herself and the world, a nascent activist unimpressed with party politics, a writer finding her authors and, eventually, her faith.