A Most Particular Vocation

Most families who live at Catholic Worker houses of hospitality or farms recall that Dorothy Day showed some ambivalence toward families in the Catholic Worker movement. Day expected Workers with children to move from urban houses of hospitality to Worker farms, and insisted that donations made to benefit the poor not be diverted to support families of volunteers. At the same time, Day also supported those who were able to combine the vocations of parenting and hospitality to the poor. Raising six children while maintaining two houses of hospitality in Detroit, Lou and Justin Murphy were, Day wrote, evidence that a family can undertake works of mercy and raise their own children in a slum. Day likewise never fail[ed] to be touched during her frequent visits to a rural community for disabled children begun by early Workers Dorothy and Bill Gauchat. Even so, Day continually insisted that combining family and Worker life was a most particular vocation, and certainly none should undertake it without a vocation.

While families like the Murphys and Gauchats demonstrate that it is possible to follow the call of the Gospel in the Worker and still be good parents, Day’s tough questions helped other families discern a vocation not to live at a Worker house, but to infuse Catholic Worker values into society as a whole. And thus have evolved two types of Catholic Worker families: families in the Worker and families from the Worker. Both offer important examples of Christian life.


Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickhambegan their family in the Worker in 1968. They named their community Viva House, in honor of the child soon to be born to them. Dorothy Day warned them not to neglect their family responsibilities; they were able to sustain their dual vocation by tinkering with the community’s mission. When Willa found the atmosphere too masculine for raising a daughter, they moved the soup kitchen to a separate storefront; later, they purchased a second row house to make room for both a soup kitchen and a private family apartment. They also took turns working outside the house in order to pay for health insurance and family vacations. Eventually, what Willa called a flowing attitude toward our Catholic Worker work made it possible for them to invite their daughter and son-in-law to start their own family at Viva House.

The Viva House model can be found in Worker houses of hospitality in such mid-sized cities as Hartford, Conn., and Worcester, Mass. In these places, families anchor communities that are also home to a handful of short-term or long-term volunteers. In other cities, families offer extensive hospitality in their own homes as well as volunteering at a central soup kitchen. Elsewhere, short-term volunteers at a house of hospitality rely heavily on the long-term commitment of extended community families with more conventional lifestyles. Whatever the specific model, families in the Worker often note the connection between care for children and care for the poor. To me, explained Larry Purcell of the Redwood City Catholic Worker, the trick is to love your kids so much that you want what you have for them with the homeless. It’s not like you want to treat your kids like you treat the homeless, but that you want the homeless to have what your kids have. Too often these families are unaware of the ways in which Day herself had supported such creative compromises. They may even apologize for the ways their communities fall short (or so they imagine) of the demanding witness of the New York Catholic Worker.

But other families have had personal experiences that confirm Day’s concerns. Chuck Quilty saw his own marriage as in part a casualty of his Worker commitments. He told the oral historian Rosalie Riegle that Dorothy chewed us up one side and down the other for being involved in resistance and hospitality and being married....She was wrong, you know, but at the same time she was calling a spade a spade. While all Christians are called to practice the works of mercyfeeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting those in prisonnot everyone had a vocation to live full-time at a house of hospitality.

Tom and Monica Cornell, for example, met and married at the New York Catholic Worker in the early 1960’s, but soon left. We had nothing but a storefront and a bunch of unheated apartments that didn’t have showers, that didn’t have toilets, recalled Tom. The toilets were shared by everybody on the floor out in the hall. And I thought that the mother of my children deserved more than that. Without calling their new apartment a Catholic Worker, they continued to extend hospitality, first to Workers in need of respite, then (after another move) to war refugees and the restless teenagers of Newburgh, N.Y. For a few years, the Cornells’ daughter Deirdre and her spouse Kenney Gould revived this tradition, opening their own home in Newburgh to new immigrants and local victims of domestic violence.

Even earlier, couples like Julian and Mary Jane Pleasants translated Peter Maurin’s vision of the agronomic university into a semi-agrarian lifestyle, in which several families lived on the outskirts of South Bend, Ind., holding conventional jobs (Julian taught at Notre Dame) while farming part-time. It was an intentional community but not a commune, Julian told Rosalie Riegle. We never owned a single thing in common, but we sure shared our work and our time.

Such informal approaches to Catholic Worker identity have since become an established tradition. As Dorothy Day herself stated, The Catholic Worker wasn’t started to be a soup kitchen. It was started to be a reform movement and to create these cells of good living within the society, so they would be a model for somebody.

In Worcester, Mass., I met families that exemplify these two approaches to family life and the Worker. At the Saints Francis and Thérèse Catholic Worker, Scott and Claire Schaeffer-Duffy had made their house of hospitality into a nurturing family home. With the birth of each child, they rearranged their household space slightly to honor their family’s privacy or give more independence to the older children. Claire worked as a house cleaner and then later as a freelance journalist to earn money for the children’s music lessons. At the same time, Claire’s concern for her children’s safety led her to supervise basketball games for the entire neighborhood; likewise, the couple’s concern for global solidarity led to opportunities for their children to travel and make friends with refugees from several countries.

Mike Boover lived at Worcester’s Mustard Seed Catholic Worker before beginning his own family. Though the Boovers were emphatic that their house wasnota Catholic Worker house, the marks of the Worker were present everywhere. Mike and Diane maintained a Christ room that had been used by many individuals, though they also honored their children’s requests for periods of family-alone time. They also shared their table regularly. They spontaneously invited me to share two meals; at the first we were joined by two families from their parish, and at the second we celebrated a birthday for a former guest of the Mustard Seed. This family hospitality, Mike explained, had a relaxed quality he had not been able to achieve at the Mustard Seed. I was in a whole different orbit in terms of my chemistry and my sense of livelihood, sense of energy, when I was living with so, so many people. At home he was able to practice hospitality with the intimacy and depth of one-on-one family relationships, granting the vision some room.

Families like the Schaeffer-Duffys and the Boovers offer two distinct, equally powerful, visions for families who seek to respond more fully to the radical call of the Gospel. A cardinal virtue of families in the Worker is flexibility: they show that it is possible to honor seemingly contradictory vocations, so long as one is willing to make small changes as each vocation unfolds. Families from the Worker model the virtue of humility. Trusting that the work of the Worker will go on even without their full-time involvement, they open themselves to the possibility that for them the call of discipleship might look very different.

By practicing these virtues of flexibility and humility, Catholic Worker families show that it is possible for all of us to be radical disciples while remaining connected to the larger society. As Claire Schaeffer-Duffy told me during my visit: So many people in the world are in families. That’s their reality. So for the Catholic Worker to embrace so many families is a very powerful witness.

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11 years 8 months ago
I very much enjoyed your three recent articles (11/21), occasioned by the 25th anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day, on her person and her work through the Catholic Worker Movement.

Catherine Doherty, a friend of Day years ago, died 20 years ago on Dec. 14. The bishop of Pembroke, Ontario, will celebrate Mass in her memory. She was the foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate and one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century. May I suggest some similar coverage or articles in America on the Baroness, as she was affectionately nicknamed? There is a Web page dedicated to her at www.catherinedoherty.org, and the postulator for her cause is the Rev. Robert Wild of Madonna House, Combermere, Ont., Canada. Catherine and Dorothy were kindred souls in their love for the poor, simplicity, deep prayer and interracial justice.


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