A new college center is introducing Dorothy Day to Gen Z — including non-Catholics
The Dorothy Day Guild is getting a new home: the Dorothy Day Center, which will open at Manhattan College in New York this fall.
The guild strives to promote Day’s life and work and to shepherd her cause for sainthood. The guild is working with the college to display artifacts from Day’s life, which have been donated to the college by her granddaughter, Martha Hennessy. The college has hosted an annual Dorothy Day lecture since 2015 and hopes to officially open the center early in the fall 2023 semester.
The creation of the center has highlighted Day’s impact on students at Manhattan, a Lasallian institution. Kevin Ahern, co-chair of the Dorothy Day Guild Advisory Committee, a religious studies professor at the college and the director of the center, says the students are a strong force behind it.
“The creation of the center could be described as being both student driven and faculty driven. Students perk up and show interest in wanting to learn more [whenever I teach about Dorothy Day],” Dr. Ahern said. “I have had a number of students who have described being personally transformed by learning about Dorothy.”
One student who feels this way is Rebecca Kranich, a senior at the college. Ms. Kranich has been involved as an intern with the center’s work since it was an idea brought forth by Ahern. Since then, Ms. Kranich has worked to digitize Day’s written work, making it more accessible.
Ms. Kranich was raised Catholic and still identifies with the faith, but does not feel a connection to the institutional church. She says studying Day offers her the chance to better understand others, especially people who don’t share Day’s faith but want to emulate her work.
“What is really, really great is that there are a lot of [people who care about her work] that aren’t Catholic, which is super inspirational,” Ms. Kranich said. “They’re lay people, they’re journalists, they’re pacifists, they’re anti-war people. There’s a very big body that may not realize that they’re helping her get canonized or helping her have a place [to be heard].... And it’s really great to be a part of it.”
Ms. Kranich’s exploration of her faith as it relates to Day led her to conversations with other students at the college interested in justice and faith, like her classmate David Share. A senior who identifies with his Jewish upbringing, Mr. Share says Day is someone he hopes to emulate through a career in labor organizing.
I think that she’s a great example of someone who used her beliefs and used her ability to make a change in the world.
“I think that she’s a great example of someone who used her beliefs and used her ability to make a change in the world,” Mr. Share said. “And I think that a lot of Gen Z [is] looking for ways to do that…the things that she did can be used as examples for young people today to continue her work.”
Because Day’s religious identity evolved throughout her life, she may be more relatable to young Catholics searching for an outlet outside of the institution, like Ms. Kranich. Mr. Share pointed out that, by following her openness and service to all people regardless of faith, the Dorothy Day Center will naturally be an inclusive resource for all students at the college.
“Non-Catholic students can get a lot from other aspects of her life, like her social work,” Mr. Share said. “In Dorothy Day, there’s something for everyone.”
An Authentic Life
The Springtide Research Institute that found Gen Z students at Manhattan College are not alone in their desire to explore their spirituality. Like Kranich, many Gen Zers, Catholic or not, are seeking to foster a faith life. However, they have “significant trust issues when it comes to formal religious institutions,” Springtide found. Ms. Kranich says she has felt this way as well.
Dr. Ahern points out that many students are attracted to Day because she is someone whose perspective seems trustworthy because of the authenticity of her life and beliefs.
“Dorothy Day modeled [her faith identity] very clearly, and she took that very seriously,” he said. “Dorothy would say the traditional practices of Catholicism, especially its sacramental life, are a fundamental part of Catholic identity, but they are not the totality of Catholic identity; and Christian discipleship—the social justice, the community engagement, the witness and life is as fundamental as the other elements.”
Day’s example appealed to Anna Woods, who longed for a saint to look up to when she was growing up in Catholic schools.
Day’s example appealed to Anna Woods, who longed for a saint to look up to when she was growing up in Catholic schools. “I found it difficult to relate to many of the saints and other theologians as a modern day woman,” Ms. Woods said. But after learning about Day in high school and moderating Manhattan College’s Eighth Annual Dorothy Day Lecture in 2022, Ms. Woods says she finally found a relatable role model and hopes Day will be canonized.
Joanna Canigiani, a 2023 graduate of the college, is a former Catholic who interned with the Dorothy Day center alongside Kranich. Ms. Canigiani plans to use what she knows about Day in her current role as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Ms. Canigiani plans to use what she knows about Day in her current role as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
Canigiani is attracted to Day’s advocacy for non-violence. She hopes to promote the idea that violence should be avoided in the armed forces when possible. Additionally, Ms. Canigiani says Day’s role in helping others reinforces her drive to protect those who serve with her.
“I personally don’t like war,” Ms. Canigiani said. “Even though I’m in the military, I don’t want there to be violence. And if I have any chance to minimize that or prevent it, I’m gonna take the opportunity because I don’t want to hurt people.”
The students with whom I spoke hope that the presence of the Dorothy Day Center on campus will inspire students and demonstrate that authentically living out one’s core values can be extremely powerful.
“I think [the center] just helps to remind the wider college community that the concern for the poor and social justice—which is included in the hallmarks of Lasallian higher education—has to be enacted,” Dr. Ahern said. “It can’t just be something we read about and something we study, but it has to be something that’s lived and practiced."