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Finding family at the Catholic Worker

Marlboro and Manhattan, N.Y.

On a chilly evening in late fall, a dozen people gathered around the dinner table at the Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro, N.Y. It could have been a picture of America. There were young and old, male and female, white, black and Latino guests. Marvin Bu-ga-lu Smith was a jazz musician living at the farm and giving music lessons in the next town over. Lorenzo, an undocumented worker from Mexico, was in transit to a destination yet to be determined.

Everybody had a story.

Theodore Roosevelt Ridlon, commonly known as Slim, age 83 and mentally disabled, was the oldest member of the community. John Good’s 5-year-old daughter, Serene, was the youngest person at the table. With Serene, there was less history to plumb, but she was history in the making, a sign of how Catholic Worker communities like the Peter Maurin Farm are changing. A movement based on voluntary poverty and community, one associated with single people more than couples, is increasingly family-based.

Look at Catholic Worker houses around the country, and these days you’ll often find different configurations of family, not singles, running them. In Worcester, Mass., Claire and Scott Schaeffer-Duffy raise four children and run a house of hospitality. In Redwood City, Calif., Jan Johanson is raising a granddaughter in a Catholic Worker house for teenagers where Johansen has lived and worked for 14 years. In nearby San Bruno, Calif., Kate Chatfield and her husband, Peter Stiehler, run a Catholic Worker shelter and soup kitchen for the homeless. In Houston, Louise and Mark Zwick are a married couple who for 20 years have run a Catholic Worker that provides housing, employment, medical care, and food and clothing for new immigrants and refugees.

As it approaches its 70th anniversary, the Catholic Worker movement is evolving in ways its founders didn’t anticipate.

“The typical Catholic Worker in the past was single, worked in a soup kitchen, and resisted the war,” said Larry Purcell, founder of the Catholic Worker in Redwood City, Calif. “But now there are Catholic Workers in suburbs and small towns. There are many more families than there were. The Catholic Worker tradition has not been hospitable to families. The struggle of how to be a Catholic Worker and a family is being engaged vigorously on a number of fronts.”

Dorothy Day was a single mother when in 1933 in New York City she and Peter Maurin started The Catholic Worker newspaper. A passionate champion of the poor and a talented journalist who, before her conversion to Catholicism at age 30, was a personality in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, Day had a searching, almost ruthless moral honesty that impressed those who came in contact with her. Tom Cornell, a community member at the Peter Maurin Farm who served as managing editor of The Catholic Worker in the early 1960s and who knew Dorothy Day well, remembers her as “extraordinary.”

“She was the object of many men’s attention. She wasn’t just attractive. She was also sparkling and commanding.” But it was Day’s “authenticity” that set her apart, Cornell said.

“When you met her, you realized you were in the presence of a woman of absolute truth,” Cornell said. “Everything she said and did came out of an honest perception of reality. We loved her. The reason she was able to exert the kind of authority she did is because we loved her.”

From the beginning, The Catholic Worker newspaper spoke for the needs of the working person and the unemployed, attacked racism and anti-Semitism and presented the personalist ideals that would inspire the Catholic Worker movement. The latter evolved more by accident than design, with Peter Maurin opening the first house of hospitality in 1934. Maurin, who provided much of the intellectual ballast for the movement, died in 1949. Day died in 1980.

Today, said Cornell, there is no one in the Catholic Worker who speaks for the movement the way Dorothy Day could and did. But Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s vision of living out the gospel by caring for the poor, protesting war and violence, and practicing community in an age of individualism is still going strong. That so many couples with children are trying to live out the ideals of the Catholic Worker speaks to the appeal of that vision, which these days seems as strong, if not stronger, when interpreted by families.

“I think a lot of Catholic Worker communities that have any kind of staying power have a dynamic duo at its core with the exception of the Catholic Worker community in Manhattan. That is its own kind of animal. It really is a community of single people,” said Tom Christopher Cornell, 35, the son of Tom and Monica Cornell and the chief farmer-gardener at the Peter Maurin Farm. The 50-acre property in Marlboro provides residents at the farm and at the two Catholic Worker houses in Manhattan with fresh produce and has living space for 15 people.

The Cornells are an example of how durable Catholic Worker ideals can be. Tom and Monica Cornell have been active in the Catholic Worker movement since the 1950s. Monica’s parents played a part in setting up the [Cleveland] Catholic Worker, making Monica’s children third-generation Catholic Workers. The Cornells have been at the Peter Maurin Farm since 1993. For a time their daughter, Deirdre, and her husband and three children also lived at the Peter Maurin Farm. Deirdre Cornell and her husband now run Aleluya House, a Catholic Worker house in Newburgh, N.Y., 10 miles south of Marlboro.

“Communities function best when there is a visible leadership core. The good thing about a family is that you have a man and woman who share responsibilities,” said the senior Tom Cornell, who credits his wife, Monica, with being the engine that makes the Peter Maurin Farm go. “When you minimize authority structures or make believe they don’t even exist, there’s a negative.”

Only three rules

Cornell admits there’s always been an anarchist streak to the Catholic Worker. The only three rules of Catholic Worker houses are no drugs, no alcohol, no violence. While most Catholic Worker communities share a commitment to voluntary poverty and community, every Catholic Worker house is different. Not all are even Catholic. The Catholic Worker house in Boston is largely Buddhist. The Open Door Ministry in Atlanta is Protestant. All Catholic Worker houses are engaged in the works of mercy, but these can and do run the gamut, from soup kitchens in one Catholic Worker to housing immigrant workers in another.

“It’s really dicey to speak about the Catholic Worker en masse because each Catholic Worker is its own instrument of God,” said Joanne Kennedy, who lives at Maryhouse, the Manhattan Catholic Worker home for women.

Maryhouse and St. Joseph’s House, a home for men just a few blocks away, are the flagship institutions of the Catholic Worker movement. Though the houses in Manhattan have changed their location, it was in Manhattan that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin began The Catholic Worker, producing the first issue of the newspaper on May 1, 1933, for a penny a copy, still the price for the paper on the streets today, and offering food and hospitality to the poor in the depths of the Depression. The New York movement’s connection with Dorothy Day gives it a special standing. At Maryhouse on the lower East Side you can still see the cluttered yet curiously pleasing office where Dorothy Day wrote and worked. A photograph of the founder hangs on the wall. Beside the office is a spare, dimly lit chapel, and nearby the large auditorium where the newspaper is put together. The dignified, decrepit brownstone, the darkened hallways, and the gritty bathrooms that remain stoutly ungentrified have not only the patina of age but a slightly hallowed atmosphere.

Even at Maryhouse, there are signs of change, however. Amanda and Matthew Daloisio are a young married couple who live at Maryhouse, an anomaly at a house where for years young volunteers came and went but seldom stayed long-term.

“I don’t ever remember a married couple at Maryhouse or St. Joseph before,” said Tom Cornell. “It wasn’t an unwritten rule. It was just the bachelor culture was so strong.”

Children represent an even greater break with the bachelor culture of the Manhattan Catholic Worker, but Kennedy, 34, now lives at Maryhouse with her 2-year-old son, Jonah.

“If you’re around the Catholic Worker long enough, somehow Dorothy Day’s line about the Catholic Worker is not a place for children always comes up,” said Kennedy. Partly because the tradition has been for Catholic Worker volunteers not to take outside employment and partly because Maryhouse is so much geared to single people, Kennedy said she’s honored that she’s allowed to stay. Her husband lives elsewhere. The couple see each other on weekends.

Kennedy and others said there are special challenges in raising children in a Catholic Worker house.

“The benefits are having this huge family, this tableau of characters that bring richness to our lives.” Kennedy said. “The disadvantages are that I think there are some stresses. I can’t provide the completely safe environment that a contained house does. It means in some ways I have to be more vigilant, but it also means that when I’m downstairs and there are five other adults around I am less vigilant.”

So far, Kennedy said the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.

“If something changed and I became gravely concerned, I reserve the right to change, but I don’t think I’d leave the Catholic Worker. I’d just leave the New York Catholic Worker,” said Kennedy, who calls the Catholic Worker “the truest thing I ever did.”

Adapting the model

Other families are experimenting with their own approaches to living out the Catholic Worker vision. Larry Purcell was a Roman Catholic priest when he and two nuns started a Catholic Worker house in Redwood City, Calif., 26 years ago. The house provides a home to troubled teenagers. Purcell subsequently left the priesthood and married. At the time of their marriage, his wife, now a schoolteacher, was running a Catholic Worker house for battered infants.

Purcell describes the experience of raising a family and living in a Catholic Worker house as being caught between two dark holes. “If you’re raising a family, you never think you’re doing enough. If you’re living in a Catholic Worker house, you never feel you’re doing enough. You’re caught between those two commitments,” he said.

Though Purcell is still very much a presence at the Catholic Worker in Redwood City, he and his wife and two children now have their own home off-site. Because of his children, Purcell said he has also cut down on the jail time he used to serve for protesting nuclear weapons.

“The truth is, a Catholic Worker life is considerably easier for a single person than it is for a couple with children. A life lived in intimate proximity with the poor will, by its very nature, include intimacy with the dangerous, the mentally ill and the physically ill,” wrote Larry Holben in a publication called Family Life in the Catholic Worker Movement that appeared in May 2001. A collaboration of the San Bruno, Calif., Catholic Worker and the Las Vegas Catholic Worker, the pamphlet of essays is another sign of how the Catholic Worker is evolving.

“While Dorothy Day was undoubtedly a saint, she does not appear to have been a very good mother,” Holben wrote, who went on to urge Catholic Worker parents to recognize that all children, including their own, “are the poor among us, indeed the poorest of the poor in their absolute vulnerability and dependency.” What that means, wrote Holben, is that choices Catholic Workers make for the sake of their children’s safety, health or fulfillment should not be seen as an abandonment of Workers’ commitment to the poor but a particularization of that commitment.

Most Catholic Worker parents recognize that, but many also say they struggle with trying to reconcile their mission as Catholic Workers to practice poverty and social justice with their role as parents.

“Dorothy was a model for so many things for us in terms of living a spiritual life. One of the areas she didn’t model for us was a way to include children in this lifestyle,” said Julia Occhiogrosso, a Catholic Worker in Las Vegas. “She was kind of opposed to families living in Catholic Worker houses, yet there is more and more a desire for couples to live in this alternate lifestyle.”

In an essay in Family Life in the Catholic Worker Movement titled “Reflections of a Catholic Worker Mom,” Occhiogrosso spoke of her own efforts to adapt the ideals of the Catholic Worker to a life with children. “It took many months of discernment before arriving at a decision to move out of the hospitality house, a lifestyle I had embraced since my introduction to the Los Angeles Catholic Worker,” wrote Occhiogrosso of her and her husband’s decision to move into their own home after they adopted two foster children. The couple still help run the soup line and the house of hospitality at the Catholic Worker house in Las Vegas and are part-time directors of an interfaith program for homeless families.

“I’m very steeped in what the Catholic Worker is about,” said Occhiogrosso. “I’ve had to move away from some of the models, the expressions I was formed in, to reconcile my family life and a commitment to that and trying to live some kind of witness to this rich tradition.”

Just recently, Occhiogrosso said she and her husband discussed whether with their children now 7 and 8, it was time to move back into the Catholic Worker house.

At the San Bruno, Calif., Catholic Worker, Kate Chatfield and her husband, Peter Stiehler, have wrestled with that same issue. Before their first child was born, they had welcomed into their home single, homeless individuals, including a fair number of mentally ill people. After their first child was born, they screened more strictly those who lived with them. After the birth of their second child, they stopped taking guests, but continue to run a Catholic Worker shelter and soup kitchen in San Bruno.

“It was quite a struggle for us when we decided not to have families staying with us. In our mind, a Catholic Worker house was a house of hospitality,” said Stiehler.

“I’m still trying to figure out if I am a Catholic Worker,” Chatfield added ruefully.

Whether Catholic Worker parents raise their children in a nuclear family or as part of a larger community, parents say the effort to live an intentional life in the spirit of voluntary poverty comes with an array of ethical dilemmas that family life can complicate. Over a cup of coffee at the Redwood City Catholic Worker, a comfortable wood frame house in a suburb of San Francisco, Purcell mentions that his 13-year-old son wants Nike sneakers. His 15-year-old daughter wants a horse.

“It’s a question,” said Purcell. “Do you spend money on your kids’ swimming lesson? Do you use house money for that?”

An essay by Gayle Catinella in Family Life in the Catholic Worker Movement depicts a parent torn between her own pacifist principles and wanting to support her children. In “Nonviolent Football,” Catinella describes the hypocrisy she feels in cheering for her eighth-grade son at football games. “It would be simpler to tell Paul that he could not play football. But that in itself would be violent,” she writes.

Safety is a common dilemma for Catholic Worker parents torn between their ideals and their responsibilities as parents. Money is another. So are time and energy.

“The number of people coming through means that your attention is dispersed among a lot of people. Sometimes that is difficult because raising children requires a lot of attention and focus. I have four. That in itself is difficult. Then you add maybe four guests. We sometimes number between 12 and 13 people in a house at the same time. It means that your children’s conversations are sometimes put on hold,” explains Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, who lives in a Catholic Worker house in Worcester, Mass., with her husband and children, another couple and a shifting number of guests who come to the house usually through referrals from social service agencies.

These days what is taking place is that instead of trying to fit family into the model of hospitality practiced by the Catholic Worker of the past, a model exemplified by the New York Catholic Worker, Catholic Worker families are trying to practice hospitality in the context of family, said Schaeffer-Duffy.

“Dorothy’s statement that you can’t do it with families has clearly been disproven,” said Schaeffer-Duffy.

Motherhood and the Catholic Worker

Ironically, while Dorothy Day has frequently been perceived as a mediocre mother, it was the birth of her only child, Tamar, that triggered her conversion to Catholicism and the subsequent end of a happy relationship with Tamar’s father.

“I wanted Tamar to have a way of life and instruction. We all crave order, and in the Book of Job, hell is described as a place where no order is. I felt that ‘belonging’ to a church would bring that order into her life which I felt my own had lacked,” wrote Dorothy Day in her autobiography The Long Loneliness.

Day’s love for and concern about her daughter are evident in her autobiography, yet Tamar was often shuffled off to boarding schools and friends and relatives while growing up.

“Dorothy was a bohemian and she couldn’t help being on the go,” Tom Cornell said.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist who teaches courses in peace studies, makes the point that many great peacemakers are poor spouses and parents. While saying he didn’t know Dorothy Day well enough to comment on her parenting abilities, McCarthy said his observation clearly applies to Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas K. Gandhi. McCarthy said the oldest son of Gandhi was so angry with his father, he joined the army and later became an alcoholic and prostitute.

McCarthy, who first met Dorothy Day in the early 1960s, recalls her as clear-sighted and having enormous will power.

“She was a strong-willed, very self-confident woman. She had views. She thought she was right about the issues. She was a leader, and leaders have to be forceful people,” said McCarthy.

In an interview with NCR (see related story, Page 14), Tamar Day Hennessy said she resents rumors that Dorothy Day had not been a good mother. “She loved her family so much, and in so many, many ways she kept me going,” said Hennessy. At the same time, Hennessy acknowledged that Dorothy Day demanded much from her family, friends and associates.

Despite the complications that come with being a Catholic Worker and raising children, many who live in a Catholic Worker community with children said there are benefits to having children present.

At the Peter Maurin Farm, Joan Gregory, a widowed volunteer who came to the farm four years ago when she wanted to leave the city for the country, talks about what John Good’s 5-year-old daughter brings to the community.

“This little girl can come in and change the atmosphere of the room. She makes it light. Serene has a wonderful life, and John is a caring father,” Gordon said.

Mark Zwick, who with his wife, Louise, started the Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker house in Houston, remarked how enriching the experience has been for their children and now their grandchildren. Because of their children, the Zwicks chose to live across the street from the main shelter they established. While they made an effort to limit the traffic in and out of their home, their children participated in various aspects of the Zwicks’ Catholic Worker operation, which has now grown to separate buildings for male and female immigrants and refugees, a hiring hall, apartments for battered women, and an infirmary and hospice for undocumented workers who have been shot or stabbed or are dying of AIDS or other diseases.

His children, he said, “were in and out of the center and would have some meals there. They were close to the other Workers. We’ve had all the Workers gather at our house for a meal every Friday night for 15 or 20 years. Our children and now our grandchildren are part of that. They know all the Workers and are inspired by them. The Catholic Workers became our extended family,” Zwick said.

Zwick remembers people criticizing him for not earning a salary when his children were young and for depriving his children of material advantages. “The first question we always got asked is, ‘How could you do this to your children?’ ” he said. For a time, Louise Zwick worked as a librarian so the couple could send their children to Catholic schools and pay for music lessons for them. Now, with their children grown, both Zwicks dedicate all their time to the Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker.

Whatever decisions parents come to in reconciling their role as Catholic Workers with the demands of raising children, most Catholic Worker parents seem to feel it’s worth it.

In California, Peter Stiehler said he and his wife have a better quality of life than do most of their mainstream friends.

“I think it’s hard to be a family in America,” said Stiehler. In contrast to friends who commute to work and leave their kids for eight to 10 hours at a stretch, Stiehler said he and his wife have meaningful work, set their own hours, and have their two small children with them most the day.

“We have this great life. Everyone thinks we have this life of penance. We get to spend time with our kids. We have control over our work. We’re around our kids all day,” Stiehler said.

A work in progress

Over the past 70 years the Catholic Worker has changed in many ways. Tom Cornell remembers when Catholic Workers lived on donated food, much of it rotten. Living conditions were horrible, he said, and the food “execrable.” Now the nation has become much more affluent, and with it the Catholic Worker movement. Contributions of food and money to the Catholic Worker have become more plentiful. “It’s hard to be poor in America,” said Cornell. “Here we are dedicated to voluntary poverty and look how well we live.”

Kennedy at Maryhouse observed that the Catholic Worker started at a time when there were bread lines. Today, Kennedy said, there are many more social services available to people, and the Bowery in New York City is empty because many alcoholics are in detox. “The Catholic Worker is meant to be responsive to the needs of the society, and depending upon the needs it will change,” Kennedy said.

Increasingly, those needs extend to living out a different model of family life.

In Las Vegas, Occhiogrosso said that she thought that in previous generations people wanting to live a religious life entered a religious order. Today, she said, lay movements like the Catholic Worker have influenced many young Catholics to embrace a lay religious calling.

“We’re living in different times,” Occhiogrosso said. “People have had all the material things they need and have an ability to let it go because they’ve had it. There are a lot of cultural forces that are making it more attractive for couples to search out an alternative way. The beauty of the Catholic Worker is that it is a movement, and it’s meant to be organic without losing sight of the powerful principles that are part of the tradition.”

Today, as 70 years ago, the Catholic Worker movement is a work in progress.

On a cold night at the Peter Maurin Farm, Ralph Dowdy, 60, talked about what had brought his wife and him to the farm with their two children 17 years ago. For Dowdy, the anarchism of the Catholic Worker is a great part of its appeal. “There’s too much fencing of people. Where’s the motivation that’s needed to really put your passions into whatever you do? Society destroys that. We’ve become so bureaucratic,” Dowdy said.

In contrast, the Catholic Worker offers an exhilarating, even dangerous freedom. “The freedom you have. People can’t take it in,” said Dowdy. “I could stay in bed all day long, and nobody is going to say you’ve got to get up.”

A little later, Marvin Bu-ga-lu Smith is buttonholed in the kitchen. A wiry black man with brio, Smith, just on his way out the door, wears a fur-trimmed suede coat and looks every inch the eccentric musician he is.

For him, too, the Worker’s free form, improvisatory nature is its chief attraction. Smith said the Catholic Worker community at the Peter Maurin Farm is the best place he’s ever lived.

“This Catholic Worker is more like jazz,” he said.

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

At a Glance

The Catholic Worker newspaper was started in New York City in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Shortly after, they opened the first house of hospitality. Since then, the Catholic Worker movement has grown to 185 houses around the world. They are located in the United States, Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and the Netherlands. There is no Catholic Worker headquarters; anyone who wants to can open a Catholic Worker.

Though a few houses are interfaith, most are grounded in the gospel and the Catholic faith and are committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for those who are homeless, hungry, exiled or forsaken. Catholic Worker communities commonly protest injustice, war, racism and violence in all forms. Income for Catholic Worker houses can come from outside jobs held by members or through cottage industries developed by the community. Many Catholic Workers communities survive by contributions and donations of food, and most use volunteers to help with the work.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003 [corrected 03/28/2003]