Dorothy Day: 'Servant of God,' Vermont 'Granny'

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Eighty-five years ago on May 1, 1933, Vermonter Kate Hennessy's grandmother stood amid 200,000 social justice protesters in Manhattan and sold penny copies of a new publication.

"This little paper is addressed," it said, "for those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain. For those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work. For those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight."

Readers of the first issue of the Catholic Worker couldn't foresee how it would spark a movement of 240 global communities that help "the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken" while fighting "injustice, war, racism and violence of all forms." Nor could they know its creator, the late Dorothy Day, would go on to earn the Vatican title "Servant of God" — the first step toward canonization as a saint.

Hennessy, however, can tell you the whole story. The Windham County resident is author of the book "Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty," which offers "an intimate portrait" of the woman she called "Granny."

"To me she wasn't this formidable, severe, imposing figure — she was very animated, had a fabulous sense of humor and a wonderful laugh," Hennessy says. "She was an incredibly powerful person in ways we don't normally recognize. There are many biographies already, but I thought if I didn't write this, a really important part of the history would be lost."

Pope Francis cited Day as one of four "great Americans" (along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton) in his unprecedented 2015 address to Congress.

"Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed," the pontiff said of the woman who covered strikes and ladled soup, "were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints."

Yet Day was particularly human. A child survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the college dropout became a New York City cub reporter who, after hours, joined playwright Eugene O'Neill at a bar nicknamed the Hell Hole, "drinking rye whiskey straight with no discernible effect and smoking like a chimney at a time when women weren't allowed to smoke in public," Hennessy writes.

There, Day could reminisce about the time she picketed for a woman's right to vote, only to be arrested, jailed and beaten, leading her to launch a week-long hunger strike.

Next came an abortion, failed marriage, two suicide attempts and birth of an out-of-wedlock daughter, followed by her Depression-era leap into faith.

"The fundamental aim of most radical sheets is the conversion of its readers to radicalism and atheism," she wrote in the first issue of the Catholic Worker. "Is it not possible to be radical and not atheist? Is it not possible to protest, to expose, to complain, to point out abuses and demand reforms without desiring the overthrow of religion?"

Day devoted the rest of her 83 years to those questions. Her daughter, Tamar, for her part, grew up to buy a southern Vermont farm in 1957 and raise nine children. Even with so many descendants to talk up their late grandmother, Kate Hennessy knows relatively few people are familiar with her today.

"They say, 'Dorothy Day? You mean Doris Day?'"

After the activist died in 1980, Hennessy spoke with her mother.

"I said, 'You've got to write a book.'"

But Tamar Day Hennessy declined, right up to her own death in 2008. Two weeks later, a publisher released Dorothy Day's diaries. Her youngest granddaughter needed almost a year before she could bring herself to read them.

"They opened something up in me — I said, "I've got to write a book.'"

Kate Hennessy has spent the past year traveling the country promoting her 400-page Scribner title. Interviewed by such press outlets as National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," she's often asked whether her grandmother will be canonized as the fourth American saint.

"Who knows what will happen — we may find out in our lifetime, we may not."

Hennessy nonetheless sees Day as someone to look up to.

"Dorothy is in danger of being lost in all her wild and varied ways, her complexities, her contradictions, and this sense of power that defies description," she writes. "We all need to live our lives as if we are Dorothy's children and grandchildren, being comforted and discomforted by her as she invites us to be so much more than how we ordinarily see ourselves and, perhaps more important, how we see each other."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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