An inside look at Dorothy Day’s contested canonization process
A bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is not the sort of place I thought one would ordinarily join a canonization effort. Then again, the saint whose cause I joined was no ordinary woman.
Born in 1897 to a newspaperman father and homemaker mother, Dorothy Day did not grow up particularly religious, but she always felt an attraction to the divine. She wrote that in childhood she had been “haunted by God.” That haunting led her, as her eulogist Geoffrey Gneuhs said at her funeral, “to a life of simplicity and poverty with the poor, to solidarity with the outcasts.”
It is difficult to summarize Dorothy’s story, but the general contours are this: Passionate about social justice, Dorothy wrote for socialist papers and participated in protests as a young woman; her first arrest was at a demonstration for women’s suffrage, which led to her spending 10 days on a hunger strike in prison. During this period of her life, Dorothy ran with a circle of Greenwich Village bohemian intellectuals that included the playwright Eugene O’Neill. She dated communist writer Mike Gold and reporter Lionel Moise; she became pregnant during her relationship with the latter. When Moise refused to continue their relationship, Dorothy underwent what was by all accounts a traumatic abortion in which the doctor left her alone, bleeding on a table.
Dorothy Day did not grow up particularly religious, but she always felt an attraction to the divine. She wrote that in childhood she had been “haunted by God.”
After that, she was briefly and unhappily married before settling down on Staten Island with Forster Batterham, a biologist with whom she had a daughter, Tamar Theresa. Tamar’s birth profoundly affected Dorothy: Her essay “Having a Baby,” an ode to both the beauty of her child and the public medical clinic where she gave birth, was published in socialist newspapers around the world. Shortly afterward, Dorothy found herself drawn to the Catholic Church, which interested her because it was the church of many of New York’s poorest immigrants. She had Tamar baptized in 1927, joined the church herself in 1928 and separated from Batterham, who opposed Dorothy’s newfound religiosity.
Three years later, Dorothy covered a hunger march in Washington, D.C. for the Catholic magazine Commonweal. After the march, on Dec. 8, 1932, she prayed in the crypt of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for God to show her a way to serve workers and the poor. As the legend goes, when she returned to her New York apartment Peter Maurin, the French itinerant preacher and former Christian Brother with whom she would co-found the Catholic Worker movement, was waiting for her.
Six months later, in the midst of the Great Depression, Maurin and Day founded the Catholic Worker newspaper with the goal of publicizing the Catholic Church’s social teachings as an alternative to the communist Daily Worker. The movement would quickly expand, opening houses of hospitality which operated soup kitchens and welcomed the poor and volunteers to live together, and participated in social justice actions. Staunchly pacifist, the Worker drew the ire of many Americans for its refusal to support American participation in World War II. Dorothy would be arrested a handful of times during the war and after, including at a demonstration for farm workers with Cesar Chavez in 1973, when she was 75.
Dorothy was perhaps best known for her books From Union Square to Rome, which recounted her conversion to Catholicism, and her autobiography The Long Loneliness. Her writings and activism drew young volunteers to the New York Catholic Worker and its farm in upstate New York in the 1960s and ’70s.
After a long life of prolific writing, living in community and serving the poor, Dorothy died in 1980. Today, there are around 150 Catholic Worker communities across the country.
The process of saint-making
I knew almost nothing about Dorothy when my friend Gabriella Wilke, then an intern at Commonweal, invited me in a basement bar in 2018 to participate in a growing volunteer effort to transcribe Dorothy’s writings for her canonization cause.
Back in 1998, 18 years after Dorothy’s death, a few of those who knew her well gathered at then-New York archbishop Cardinal John O’Connor’s request to discuss whether they thought the archdiocese should put forward Dorothy’s cause for canonization. Among them were Ade Bethune, a longtime illustrator of the Catholic Worker newspaper, and Catholic Workers who had lived with Dorothy, including Jane Sammon, Pat and Kathleen Jordan, Frank Donovan and Robert Ellsberg.
“The feeling was overwhelmingly ‘yes,’” George Horton, now vice-postulator of Dorothy’s canonization cause, remembers. But right off the bat, “people had a couple of reservations. One was the cost. The other was a concern that the church would make her ‘the saint of abortion.’”
The evidence of Dorothy’s holiness today is the community she gathered and inspired, the one she described as the solution to her long loneliness.
Cost is a major factor in canonization causes: The Vatican requires transcriptions, following very strict formatting requirements, of nearly everything the candidate for canonization has written, along with interviews with those who knew the candidate, all synthesized into 100-page biography of the candidate laying out arguments for and against his or her canonization.
Assembling these materials requires hours of labor and official canonical reviews by experts who are paid for their work. The enormity of these costs account for why the founders of religious orders are named saints at a far greater rate than laypersons: Religious orders are often among the few groups that have the resources—human and financial—to make it happen.
The Archdiocese of New York officially opened Dorothy’s canonization cause in 2000, but it was not until 2012 that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the new archbishop of New York, proposed the cause to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for approval, the second step toward moving the process forward; the motion passed with overwhelming support. In 2015, Pope Francis visited the United States and included Dorothy as one of the “four great Americans” he named in his speech to Congress, bringing a new wave of attention to her.
Soon after, the archdiocese appointed George Horton as vice-postulator, with the costs for his work being underwritten by Catholic Charities. The archdiocese also hired Jeffrey Korgen as a part-time consultant to lead the cause. Their task was to move Dorothy's cause through the somewhat complicated process.
Dorothy Day: “We are all called to be saints. We might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name.”
Five years after a candidate for canonization dies, the diocese where he or she died can open the local phase of the canonization cause, which involves gathering all of the evidence mentioned above. Once the cause is sent to Rome, the materials are reviewed by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints to determine whether the candidate lived a life of “heroic virtue” and if people have been drawn to prayer through his or her example. If so, the congregation passes the cause on to the pope, who, if he accepts the congregation’s conclusion, will declare the candidate “venerable.”
After that, the Vatican needs to verify two miracles (only one if the person was martyred). After the first miracle, the pope beatifies the candidate, giving them the title of “blessed”; after the second, they are approved to be canonized and named a saint. Of course, the pope is free to waive any of these requirements, which has happened in cases where the candidate enjoys wide acclaim, as was the case with St. John Paul II.
A team effort
From 2015 to 2018, Korgen worked largely alone to gather materials on Dorothy: assembling her published writings, interviewing those who knew her and also seeking public records. Among these were her arrest records from the city of New York and her file from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which identified Dorothy as a communist and recommended she be detained in the event of a national emergency.
In 2018, Korgen realized that he had reached the limits of what he could do alone. The Vatican required transcriptions of all 10,000 pages of her diaries, only about 500 of which had already been transcribed for an edited volume by Robert Ellsberg. So he turned to volunteers to transcribe 10-20 page sections of Dorothy’s diaries. They in turn recruited others. After Gabriella got me involved, I recruited my friend Billy Critchley-Menor, S.J., and my sister Claire. Ultimately, it took 104 volunteer transcribers three years to compile Dorothy’s collected writings.
The sections of the diaries I transcribed were alternately mundane and profound, romantic and curmudgeonly, scribbled down in Dorothy's spare moments. On one page in the middle of a notebook, she’d copied the daily schedule of a Bruderhof community; in another long passage, she reflected on sacrifice—“Do I love Him? The only test is, am I willing to sacrifice present happiness, present love, for Him”—before complaining about the younger editors missing their newspaper deadlines.
In a section that made me smile with familiarity at the Worker’s hectic environment, Dorothy began a grandiose reflection on something Thomas Merton had recently written about struggle, before jotting down: “Visitors, telephone and members of the household made me lose forever what Thomas Merton was getting at.”
The sections of the diaries I transcribed were alternately mundane and profound, romantic and curmudgeonly, scribbled down in Dorothy’s spare moments.
After a year of transcribing, Gabriella and I were invited by Jeff Korgen and George Horton to take on a more active role by joining the general advisory board of the Dorothy Day Guild, the group responsible for advancing Dorothy’s canonization cause with the archdiocese’s support. We planned events and spoke at webinars about Dorothy, using our talents to spread the word. Martha Hennessy, Dorothy’s granddaughter and a talented writer, penned articles about her “granny” even while she was in prison for protesting nuclear weapons; Geoff Gneuhs, Dorothy’s eulogist, painted a beautiful portrait of Dorothy to be used at her send-off Mass; Anthony Santella and Carolyn Zablotny composed novenas and newsletters supporting the cause and ran our website, just to name a few.
Having to answer questions about Dorothy led me deep into Dorothy’s old newspaper columns to learn what she really thought of this or that topic. Watching her old TV appearances especially made her come alive for me—seeing her smile, hearing the way she spoke about the Gospel’s demands, humanized her for me in a way her writing couldn’t. And as the Covid-19 lockdown in New York made the divisions between rich and poor in the city even more prevalent—the line at the Catholic Worker’s soup kitchen reached lengths it hadn’t seen in decades—Dorothy’s writing helped me understand that social inequalities weren’t simply inevitable. They were rooted in personal and structural sin, a failure to see and care for Christ in others.
As protests for racial justice heated up in my Bronx neighborhood in summer 2020 and I considered what methods of social action were most effective, I found myself challenged by Dorothy’s insistence on nonviolence. When a police officer could kill a man in broad daylight, in front of a crowd, seemingly with impunity—a pattern that has been repeated countless times—could peaceful marches really make a difference? Having to grapple with Dorothy’s nonviolence ultimately brought me to a hard-won appreciation of it: I learned to see Dorothy’s nonviolence not as a beautiful idea espoused by a naïve person, but as an unpopular, difficult and radically Christian idea that Dorothy was deeply committed to, even when that commitment carried painful consequences or alienated her from her own community.
I have come to see Dorothy as a great unifier, someone who appeals to people across the political spectrum, who is both accessible and challenging.
I feel now that I’ve been on a long journey with Dorothy, albeit a much shorter one than those of her friends and family whom I’ve come to know. In a time of great division, I have come to see her as a great unifier, someone who appeals to people across the political spectrum, who is both accessible and challenging. Drawn in by her hospitality, care for the poor and courage in speaking out against injustice and hypocrisy in the church and society, I am also challenged by her traditional piety, her distrust of big government and, of course, the way her life of voluntary poverty challenges my comfortable way of being.
‘Don’t call me a saint’
Last week, the Dorothy Day Guild and its many volunteers wrapped up the local phase of Dorothy’s canonization cause. Horton, Korgen, the Roman postulator Waldery Hilgeman, and Molly Swayze, who recently joined Korgen as the second employee of the cause, wrapped archival boxes containing more than 50,000 pages of evidence of Dorothy’s holiness in ribbon, which were then sealed with a wax seal—formalities that doubtless would have embarrassed Dorothy.
Perhaps more Dorothy’s style was an event on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the anniversary of her praying at the national basilica for a way to serve the poor. Around 50 people gathered in a tent behind the Brooklyn apartment building where Dorothy was born, which is now a café. James Murphy, a Catholic Worker, read a passage from Dorothy’s autobiography about that day, and her granddaughter Martha read a fiery passage from her selected writings exhorting people not to hold jobs in industries that exploit others, before the crowd prayed for Dorothy’s eventual canonization.
That evening, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal Dolan sealed the last archival box, officially closing the local phase of the cause. He also delivered a homily that did not mention any of her political activism after her conversion—an exaggeration of her pre-conversion life and a veneer on her post-conversion that exacerbated already existing hesitations about canonizing Dorothy. The cardinal’s homily evoked Dorothy’s famous quote, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Robert Ellsberg, the publisher and editor in chief of Orbis Books who was also once the managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper, takes responsibility for popularizing that quote in an anthology nearly 40 years ago. In a 2015 essay in America, Ellsberg wrote that Dorothy “worried that people would put her up on a pedestal, that they would believe her to be without faults, imagining that if she performed seemingly difficult things, it was because they were not really difficult for her—she, after all, being a saint. She felt this was a way for people to dismiss her witness and let themselves off the hook.”
The reality, though, according to Ellsberg, was that Dorothy understood saints as complex humans, who were meant to challenge us. He quoted a less-famous saying of Dorothy’s: “We are all called to be saints. We might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name.”
Still, the concerns expressed in those 1998 meetings in which Ellsberg participated—about the cost of her cause, the possibility of Dorothy becoming identified exclusively with abortion or her story being oversimplified—still stand.
“We’ve tried to keep [the cost] within some sort of reason,” Horton said, noting that the volunteers’ time saved the diocese money. He estimated the budget of the cause to have been $130,000-$150,000 per year for the last seven years. “We’re probably going to be approaching a million dollars,” he said.
That money, critics of the cause say, could have gone toward direct service to the poor.
Cardinal Dolan also made reference in his homily to Dorothy’s “promiscuity” before her conversion, which resurfaced concerns about Dorothy’s legacy being oversimplified as a conversion from a sinful life, nearly always identified with Dorothy’s sexuality and abortion, to one of a good, old Catholic lady on a holy card, removed from the gritty reality of her life and ministry. Further, a double standard seems at work because Dorothy was a lay woman. How often, after all, are St. Ignatius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine or Thomas Merton identified by their youthful promiscuity?
After experiencing the opulent send-off ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I felt like I needed to return to where I first came to know Dorothy, sitting around the table at Maryhouse.
On a cold night after the Dec. 8 Mass, I slipped into the familiar brick Catholic Worker house. The dining room downstairs was alive with noise. I hugged Jane Sammon, the house’s longtime resident, and made her a cup of tea. Then a few of us settled down to pray vespers.
How often, after all, are St. Ignatius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine or Thomas Merton identified by their youthful promiscuity?
There is something that has always moved me about praying vespers at Maryhouse. You get the sense that, though sparsely attended and quiet in the midst of chaos, it is the community’s unnoticed anchor. It is also impossible not to be moved while praying psalms about the God of justice, surrounded by people who have committed themselves to justice—not just by those at the table, but by so many more whose photos hang on the walls like a communion of saints.
After vespers, I stayed late into the night talking with Jane. She told me of her concerns: Like many others, she was worried Dorothy’s message would be sanitized and simplified. With all the information available at people’s fingertips today, she worried, too, that people might read about Dorothy but fail to grasp the intangible—that Dorothy was more than the facts of her life or the stories about her; her soul, Jane said, was a gift that couldn’t be grasped in a quick Google search.
In typical fashion, though, Jane didn’t offer a definite yes or no on whether Dorothy should be canonized. She asked me what I thought.
I told her what I’ve come to believe working on the cause: that canonizing Dorothy would give the church a new model of holiness. Dorothy is a saint that was human, who made mistakes, whose friends will still tell you how difficult she was to live with, but who took the Gospel call seriously and committed herself to it in a way that most of us lack the courage to do.
Surrounded by Dorothy’s friends and comrades and those inspired by her this week, especially that night at Maryhouse, I couldn’t shake the feeling that none of this would be here without Dorothy. Her example of throwing her life into care for the poor had inspired so many others to do the same. The evidence of Dorothy’s holiness, today, is the community she gathered and inspired, the one she described as the solution to her long loneliness.
If the message of her life is to be proclaimed faithfully, it won’t be her cause for canonization that accomplishes or dooms that goal: It will be up to that community of those who have loved and admired her to show what Dorothy was really about.