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By Rosalie G. Riegle


The Montréal Review, August 2014




There’s an old prayer, attributed to St. Catherine of Siena: “Thank you, God, for giving me what I didn’t know I needed.”  The “what” for me is the Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1932 and still on the planet, sturdy and strong in 2014.  The Catholic Worker is where my insides and outsides match.  In its folds, or at least on the edges of its folds, I am able to live both comfortably in simplicity and uncomfortably in concern and care for the world.  For the Catholic Worker daily reminds me of my responsibility to make a “world where it’s easier to be good,” to quote a favorite phrase of co-founder Dorothy Day. Simply put, Catholic Workers feed and succor the proliferating poor while simultaneously working to amend society’s structures so there won’t be so many of them.

The late Michael Harrington said that the Catholic Worker (CW) movement was as far left as he could go and still remain in the Catholic Church. When I met the Catholic Worker in 1968, I felt that way, too. I had just started to teach at what was then Saginaw Valley College in Michigan. Students introduced me to anti-Vietnam activism, friends to the Catholic Worker movement and its nonviolent way of resistance. That spring I met Dorothy Day in her last visit to Thomas Merton House, a small and short-lived Catholic Worker Community in Saginaw.

Dorothy didn’t pay much attention to the “peace people” who clustered around her after a short presentation. Instead, she sat quietly at a small table, listening to a young African-American woman tell her about a local Welfare Rights League she and other mothers had founded.  Even in her last years, Dorothy was still learning, and I learned from her that night that small is beautiful and that the connections were important—between war and the economy, between racism and the draft, between our rampant US materialism and how the rest of the world lives.

I went home after that meeting to a comfortable house in the suburbs and a husband who actively discouraged my involvement in the movement, seeing it—presciently, as we both subsequently learned—as a threat to our marriage.  So for the next fifteen years I buried my interest in loved busyness, with completing my doctorate and teaching and raising four daughters and making some mild mischief at the Pentagon. 

One day I was playing around with interviews I'd collected from my students, trying to capture their lives on paper but in their own words. I did some oral history portraits like the one Studs Terkel had drawn of Dorothy Day in his Hard Times. Then it hit me: I could write portraits of the followers of Dorothy Day, could combine my interest in oral history with my interest in the Worker. Maybe I could even cough up a book and get this lump of ideas out of my system once and for all. By late 1993, I’d interviewed 208 Catholic Workers, edited like mad, and coughed up a voluminous oral history of the movement,Voices from the Catholic Worker, published by Temple University Press and still in print twenty years later.

But I didn’t get the Catholic Worker out of my craw. In 1995, with the children all out of college and my marriage irreparably broken, I co-founded two Saginaw Catholic Worker houses—the Mustard Seed and the Jeannine Coallier House, the latter named after a dear CW friend who had started the first house with me and Sr. Leona Sullivan. (These were the third and fourth iterations of Catholic Worker life in Saginaw. Today only the Mustard Seed remains.) Both house provided live-in hospitality to homeless women and their children and for ten years I lived in community with women suffering from addiction and neglect. It was an exciting life, hard but rewarding and it was while living in a small CW community that my insides and outsides most truly matched.

I tell people I wrote my way into the Worker and it remains true to this day. In 2003, while living at the Jeannine House, I published an oral biography of Dorothy Day with Orbis Books. Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her is still selling well as it humanizes a woman the ecclesiastical saint-makers seem to want to sanitize out of existence.

The next year I left Saginaw and the CW house and moved into an apartment in Evanston, Illinois in order to be close to my grandchildren. I still have a “Christ room,” CW co-founder Peter Maurin’s word for the spare room families should have for the wayfarer and homeless.  But I miss living in the hustle and bustle of our Jeannine House, where you never knew how many would be at the table for dinner and where emergencies were always around the corner.

I think in part because I needed to stay connected with the movement, I became more active in its resistance to war and in 2004 was arrested with seven other CWs for crossing the line and trespassing into a military installation at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.  Whoee!  We were facing a possible six-month prison sentence. This was a far cry from  my mild protests in earlier times.  I decided I better find out what I was getting into by talking to those who had been there.  So I began interviewing Catholic Worker and other resisters who engaged in civil disobedience in order to speak in the loudest way possible against US warmaking—with their bodies.  They had moved from the “saying no” of letters to the editor, political action, legal vigils, and cocktail party talk (all legitimate nonviolent ways of combating war and other evils in our society) to the “acting no” of resistance, and had paid the penalty with incarceration. I needed to learn what it was like to go to jail.  And I did.

Almost ten years later, in 2013, I published two books from this large oral history project: Vanderbilt University Press took Doing Time for Peace: Resistance, Family, and Community, and Wipf and Stock Cascade published Crossing the Line: Nonviolent Resisters Speak Out for Peace. Since then, I’ve traveled the country with all four books, speaking at Unitarian Churches and universities, to community peace groups and in Catholic Worker houses. In my presentations I act as a megaphone for the men and women I’ve interviewed over the years and whose lived history informs new generations of Workers and other peace people. Even though I no longer live full-time in a Catholic Worker community, these presentations, yearly Midwestern Catholic Worker retreats, and occasional national gatherings keep me connected to the movement I couldn’t live without.

I remember one 1988 interview with Cathy St. Clair, who many years later became the leader of Su Casa Catholic Worker in Chicago. Cathy told me that Dorothy Day had saved her life, and when she said that, we both started to cry, as Dorothy saved my life, too. Cathy had come in the 70s as a confused young woman to Tivoli Farm, the Catholic Worker commune on the Hudson; I came much later as a confused middle-aged mother, drowning in materialism.  I remember lamenting that when you own a lot of stuff, you become nothing but a stuff-owner.  Of course, when I moved into a Catholic Worker house, I realized that you still deal with a lot of stuff—all the wonderful cast-offs that people donate so that you can live simply and they can buy new sheets.

What is this Catholic Worker which united my Catholic faith, my political leanings, and an economic analysis of late capitalism? Where did it come from and why? CW co-founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin met in 1932 in a world still recovering from the Great Depression.  She was a single mother who was a recent Roman Catholic convert with strong ties to pacifism and the American left.  He was a French peasant and former Christian Brother whose philosophy developed in the decentralist and personalist tradition of Emmanuel Mournier and Nicolas Berdyaev.  Both were writers.

Peter proposed a three-point program by which Christians could address the problems of an out-of-control society: an informed cultural critique which he called “clarification of thought;” houses of hospitality, where the poor would be fed and housed, along with those who ministered to them; and rural farming communes where people could learn to sustain themselves. Borrowing an old IWW phrase, he sought to build a new society in the shell of the old.

His ideas were the answer to Dorothy’s prayers that she could find some way to make her insides and outsides match (although she never put it that way). Out of that meeting grew a newspaper called The Catholic Worker, still published monthly at the original penny-a-copy price. And out of that newspaper grew houses of hospitality which provided meals and often lodging to those made homeless by the Depression. The movement grew quickly, attracting young Catholics and others aghast at the vast economic inequality and houses sprang up across the country.  The Workers lived in the same houses with the poor they invited to their table. They embraced a  voluntary poverty--really bleak in those early days--and collected food, clothing, and funds which they shared with their guests. They also vigiled and picketed in support of labor unions and against the country’s denial of entry to Jews fleeing Hitler.

World War II saw the Worker diminish greatly in size.  Dorothy Day was consistent in her pacifism, and the issue decimated the movement.  But a remnant remained and the newspaper, some twelve or so houses, and devoted readers of Day’s writing hung on. Peter died in 1949.  Dorothy kept going, traveling by bus around the country and even to Montreal to visit Labre House, founded by Tony Walsh in 1952. Dorothy’s spirituality deepened in the Fifties, and she was well prepared to offer support and succor to the growing nonviolent peace movement during the Vietnam War. When she would go on a speaking tour, visiting CW communities and colleges, she would speak hesitantly but sincerely about our need to heed the counsels of the New Testament, and to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy—to feed the homeless and visit the prisoner, but also to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, and admonish the sinner. It is under these spiritual works of mercy that so many Catholic Worker communities take the lead in nonviolent resistance to war. Dorothy saw no contradiction between a deep spirituality, opening a soup kitchen, and resisting war; for her, it was all of a piece and it’s this unifying aspect of Catholic Worker life that speaks most to me, that helps my insides and outsides to match.

Dorothy Day supported the first draft card burners and those who entered draft board offices and destroyed draft files. Later she appears to have changed her mind on the draft board actions, which violated the Gandhian principles of informing the authorities, but that’s the subject of another essay.

Let’s fast-forward to today and look at how the CW ideals are lived out in practice. When Dorothy died in 1980, many wondered if the movement would survive. But as Peggy Scherer said, “We may have lost Dorothy but we still have the Gospel.” Like everything else, the Catholic Worker today differs from its beginnings. Some people lament this.  I call them the “WWDD people.”  What would Dorothy do?  I personally thing she would do what she always did when she was alive—pretty much counsel each individual house to go its own way, to respond in a personalist way to the needs of its community. So the house in Los Angeles is very different from the one in Anderson, Indiana, and Houston from Chapel Hill, and Hartford from Seattle. Yes, she would decry the fact that some houses no longer pray together daily. But she would, I’m sure, applaud the longevity of Catholic Worker families and the houses they have founded since the Sixties, the attention to environmental concerns in all the houses, and the robust discussions of how to live a Catholic Worker life that take place whenever Catholic Workers get together.

The main differences I can see are these: more families than in the early days, more diversity in religious beliefs than when most of the Workers came from Roman Catholic backgrounds, more and more successful farms than the old days when most CWs on the land simply knew little about farming, and different attitudes towards sustainability.

Another difference in today’s Catholic Worker is the long-term commitment of the Workers, a commitment nurtured by probationary periods and other unanarchistic procedures that could give veteran workers pause, especially those familiar with the looseness of the Dorothy and Peter years. While Dorothy often characterized the Catholic Worker movement as a school whose students would move on to other endeavors, my research and the visiting I’ve done in the last two years reveals an increasing number of young people who come to the Worker and  stay for life.  Many of the houses founded during and after the Vietnam times are celebrating big anniversaries with the same founding couples and many Worker marriages come from these older houses. Frequently, these young couples establish small Worker houses or farms of their own.

What are Catholic Worker houses like today?  Let me tell you a bit about four of them: The Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia,  Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker in Maloy, Iowa,  Peace House in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and “the motherhouse,” CWs sardonic term for the flagship house on the Lower East Side of New York where Dorothy was living when she died.

I spent a week at the Open Door last winter and in 2015 plan to spend more time with this vibrant community. I was raised Roman Catholic in an affluent segregated neighborhood in the cold north of Flint, Michigan, but I felt the door was truly open for me in Atlanta, and I am strongly attracted to the spirit, religious commitment, organization, focus, and multi-racial character of this house.  The Open Door is one of the few houses with a multi-racial live-in Worker community. It was founded by Murphy Davis and Ed Lohring, two Presbyterian clergy who decided to make Catholic Worker ministry their life after visiting Dorothy Day years ago. This large and gently organized house serves the street poor of Atlanta with food, showers, clothing, blankets, and sleeping bag space when nights are cold.  It prays before every meal, offers a Sunday liturgy to its extended community, and hosts frequent movies and clarifications of thought on historical and contemporary concerns.  Its newspaper, Hospitality, contains articles about the prison ministry and anti-death row work for which it is widely known.

Brian Terrell and Betsey Keenan,  Catholics who are Benedictine Oblates as well as lifelong CWs, live their Worker life very differently than their Atlanta colleagues, but the two communities are probably closer in spirit than my readers are to their next-of-kin.  In a recent newsletter from their farm in Maloy, Iowa, Brian wrote,

Since the last issue, we have eked out a small harvest in the face of drought here on our little farm in Maloy. Stored for the coming months we have onions and garlic hanging in bunches, a bucket full of carrots, sweet potatoes, gallons of feta cheese from our goats’ milk, dried pears, pumpkins, canned applesauce and tomatoes, various nuts and an uncertain expectation that a jug of fermenting persimmons and honey will yield a potable mead to see in the new year. We are grateful to have something to show for our work on the land, even if it is less then we hoped for when we planted our gardens in the wet, cool, spring that came so late.

Betsy is a weaver who hosts a craft retreat every winter when the land is too frozen to farm. Brian is peripatetic, traveling to Europe to visit the Euro Catholic Worker gathering, vigiling against US militarism, and recently spending six months in Yankton Federal Prison for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against the drones which fly out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Betsy and Brian and their two children started their farm in 1986 and at the time it was one of the few Catholic Workers living out co-founder Peter Maurin’s vision of agronomic universities. Now there are lots of farms, and I think they’re the most exciting aspects of this constantly changing movement. Peter and Dorothy would be thrilled!

The founders would also embrace the “small is beautiful” theme of both Strangers and Guests and Peace House in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Started less than ten years ago by two couples who studied together at Kalamazoo College, Peace House doesn’t do live-in hospitality but is rebuilding its impoverished neighborhood through serving the children.  Molly Mechtenberg and Jerry Berrigan and Jen and Jerry DeWael are raising their own five small children in adjoining houses with a large back yard and a recently built back porch. There’s lots of room for play and learning. Daily homework and cooking sessions in the winter are complemented by a summer camp program for the neighborhood kids, which attracts volunteers and exciting donations from throughout the area. This year, neighborhood teens were hired to help as counselors, fostering leadership skills and providing role models for the children who came to the day camp. As the tee shirt Jerry gave me when I spoke at Peace House proclaims, “The future will be different if we make the present different.” 

Jerry Berrigan is the son of Liz McAlister and the late Phil Berrigan of Jonah House, a resistance community close to the Catholic Worker, and Peace House recently participated in a Walk to Ground the Drones coming to a nearby Battle Creek National Guard facility.  Peace House, Strangers and Guests, and the Open Door have all made changes in the years since they’ve been founded, adopting to serve both the needs of the live-in community and the needs of the communities to which they minister.

And then there’s Maryhouse in New York, where hardly anything ever changes. Sitting awkwardly on a rapidly changing street on the Lower East Side, it looks the same as it did when I first came in 1985, collecting stories for the oral history with which I wrote my way into the Worker. Visiting Maryhouse is lovely and welcoming, but also a little nerve wracking as I’m always afraid I’ll carry bedbugs to my next stop.  (I haven’t.) Maryhouse and its companion St. Joseph House, a few blocks away, were founded by Dorothy Day and in the chapel at Maryhouse I pretend I can still sense her presence.

The houses still serve soup and solace to the older guests living in the houses and to the soup line which still forms outside St. Joseph’s door, still give out gently used clothing to all who ask, still find young volunteers to do the all-important listening and advocating and taking to appointments that is so much a part of Catholic Worker life. Every few years this community updates and publishes in its May issue of The Catholic Worker the “Catholic Worker Aims and Means .” Read it at www.catholicworker.org.  It’s the closest thing to a manifesto that the Catholic Worker has and it serves as a guide, especially, one hopes, to people thinking of starting a Catholic Worker of their own.

I could go on, describing the diversity of the Catholic Worker communities in the United States but also increasingly in other countries. http://www.catholicworker.org  lists 25 communities outside the U.S., including the Benedict Labre House in Montreal, still going strong as a day house with many volunteers and many more guests.  For a history, see www.benedictlabre.org. I’ve never visited the house and I know they’ve never wanted to have the word “Catholic Worker” in their name, but they opt to be listed on the CW website and in the occasional listing of houses in The Catholic Worker  and they sure sound Catholic Worker to me.

Some years see national CW gatherings. Some lean toward the academic, such as last year’s at St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida, where formal papers were complemented by boisterous memories at after-hours parties. Some, organized by Catholic Worker communities themselves, are more informal, with featured speakers but also roundtables, skits, and much time for just sitting around and talking, something Catholic Workers love to do.  The Midwest Catholic Workers have had a yearly regional gathering in Sugar Creek, Iowa, for the last thirty years. Set in bucolic rolling countryside, last year’s retreat was almost too big for comfort, with over 160 tents and those sleeping inside packed like sardines. For the first time I can remember, there was no Mass at Sugar Creek, but instead, a moving washing of feet ceremony as well as a Roman Catholic liturgy featuring a litany.

In 2011, I spoke on a keynote panel at a CW National Gathering called by SS Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Massachusetts. At that time, I said that the movement is not sliding down some slippery slope to heresy and/or dissolution but is, in fact, thriving as it hasn=t since the heady days of the Sixties when a young America disaffected over the U.S. war in Vietnam flocked to the movement for its unswerving commitment to nonviolent peace action. There were approximately 134 houses when I completed my oral history interviews in the early 90s; today www.catholicoworker.org lists 172. These include 27 international communities. But don’t take that list too seriously as CW houses come and go.  If you want to visit and don’t know anyone who lives there, please call first.

I see one generally unmentioned reason for this growth--a diminishment in the concept of voluntary poverty embraced so fully in the early years. The late Joe Zarrella remembered those hard times:

You wonder why the health department didn't close us down. We violated practically every rule in the book. Bedbugs galore. No hot water. No place to take a bath or anything like that. Primitive cooking facilities. One toilet for a whole floor. No heat except for open fireplaces and a few kerosene heaters. Most of the time we dressed up to go to bed. 

Today some Catholic Worker houses may have bedbugs but then so do Hyatt hotels.  All of them have adequate if antiquated plumbing and even though some heat with wood, I don’t think any are really cold in the winter. The houses are simple and clean and warm and welcoming, with iconic CW art on the walls and plenty of books.  (Dorothy is famous for saying to a young volunteer who apologized for bringing so many books with her, “But my dear!  Books are necessities!”) So I would characterize most Catholic Workers as living in voluntary simplicity rather than in poverty.  Simple and comfortable is more sustainable than the conditions under which the early Workers lived and it’s also a better way to raise the many children born into Catholic Worker communities today.  CW children may not always have new tennis shoes but they always seem to get scholarships for fine college educations.

In the interests of sustainability, many Catholic Workers no longer embrace Dorothy’s principle of percarity (“Look at the lilies of field,” and so forth) but plan prudently and aren’t hesitant to launch a real fund-raising campaign to replace a roof or purchase a farm. I think it was Denver Catholic Worker, Sister Anna Koop, who pointed out that the pot has to have enough water in it so that it doesn’t boil dry. Both the gatherings and the many community newsletters are enlivened with discussions of such things as pecarity and whether one should rely entirely on outside funding or work part-time or develop a money-making craft (Peter Maurin’s ideal) to supplement donations.

Catholic Workers have always seen the movement as a chance to unite their religious values with their social values. Jim Levinson, for instance, experienced his conversion years ago at an anti-war action at the Pentagon.  Their story is paradigmatic of many who come to the Worker. An economist who had formerly worked for the Marcos regime in the Philippines, Jim and his wife realized they "were on the wrong side"  and came back to the states, searching for a new start in life. Returning to Boston, they connected with the peace group Ailanthus--named after the tree that grows through the cracks in the cement, a tree that thrives in adversity. A friend told them they shouldn't go to the Pentagon because "when you come back, there'll be no one to talk to."  But they found lots of someones at the Catholic Worker. And found their way back to religion, Louise to Catholicism from a mainline Protestant background, Jim to a reinvigoration of his Jewish faith that also connects him to his ancestors. For several years they became farmers and the story of their early failures at Noonday Farm in Massachusetts makes for one of the more hilarious passages in Voices from the Catholic Worker.

Despite these concrete examples, in the end it’s hard to describe the Catholic Worker. Jay Dolan, Professor Emeritus of History at Notre Dame, said it was “like trying to bottle morning fog.”  That’s a good symbol because you always know fog is there even if you can’t pen it up, but the late Nina Polcyn Moore, one of Dorothy Day’s good friends, gave me a better one. She characterized the Catholic Worker network as a spider web, and I've been thinking about her metaphor for years.  Spider webs are strong and fragile, often attached precariously to any structure, but quite capable of fulfilling their task if no one disturbs them. They can stretch over large spaces and often exist in out-of-the-way places. When they're bright with dew in the morning sun, spider webs are beautiful, but they're hard to see unless the light is right and are downright scary if your hand touches one accidently in the dark. It's hard to describe the difference between one part of a web and another, but each intersection is both distinct from and unified with the whole.  Yes, the Catholic Worker is spiderwebby. Travel down one of the strands of the web and see for yourself.


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