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Catholic Worker lessons stayed with me

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker movement she founded with Peter Maurin is a unique expression of Christianity. No history of 20th century American Catholicism would be remotely complete without the pilgrim presence of the Catholic Worker.

Judith Gregory was acquainted with many of the original Workers. She was a member of the Catholic Worker community in New York from 1959 to 1962 and remained an editor of the legendary little Catholic Worker newspaper until 1970. This gives her a unique vantage point from which to remember.


In March 1959, I drove to New York City in my black Chevy sedan to live for an indefinite time at the Catholic Worker house of hospitality near the Bowery. I gave the car to the Catholic Worker community, and when I had handed over the keys I was, I guessed, ready to settle in.

I had no clear sense of what that would involve. My first impression of the Catholic Worker on a visit the year before had been of a uniform gray. The Worker had a loft in the midst of the Italian neighborhood close to old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Bob Steed, an editor of the paper who was about my age -- I was then 27 -- showed me where I would live temporarily in one of the neighborhood apartments. Scotch Mary had moved into one of the hotels so that I could have her place. I said that seemed unfair, but Bob told me she was glad to do it.

Bob and I walked up the five flights. I never saw an uglier apartment. It was at the rear of the building, where at least it did have sun, and consisted of two small rooms. The toilet was in a closet just big enough to turn around and sit down.

Hattie Crafts lived in bed in the larger room, just large enough for her old metal bedstead. As far as I know she was not sick; she simply lived in bed. I got to know Hattie during the month I stayed with her and the subsequent months when I visited her, bringing her detective stories and cans of Dinty Moore beef stew, which she considered a great treat. She was a spirited, stringy, very thin old woman, her face and hair both a thin gray color, her eyes alight with intelligence. She never went out after she moved into the apartment. I gathered she had had some close calls while dancing blind drunk on the fire escape at the Catholic Worker house on Chrystie Street.

Scotch Mary’s room was empty except for a bed and a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling. I peered at the bed, a grayish swirl of sheets touched with a lime-green cast reflected from the walls. I realized that this bed was what I had expected, but what I’d refused to articulate even to myself. This was what life would be like at the Catholic Worker. The sheets obviously had never been washed. That night, I lay on my raincoat on the bed and covered myself somehow with my heavier clothes.

The next day, stealthily -- for I thought it would be impolite to let Hattie see what I did -- I gathered up the bedding and took it to a laundromat. I had no trouble neatening the room, for there was nothing to neaten. I set my belongings in it, made up the bed afresh and walked over to the loft to begin my new work.

We talked about her

A month after I got to the Worker, someone found an apartment for me on Cleveland Place around the corner from Hattie’s, two rooms on the second floor above a small restaurant. Dorothy Day, founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, was to share this apartment with me when she was in town. Dorothy was 62 the year I came to New York. Much of the time she traveled, visiting friends and coworkers all over the country and speaking on the Catholic Worker movement.

Though Dorothy was often away, her presence was felt. We talked about her, of course, and complained about her habit of arbitrary responses, her volatility, her tendency to change her mind.

Dorothy was not a good listener. She was impatient to be off to her own work, especially to write her abundant correspondence, her articles and books. She liked to see others go ahead and do something, anything, whatever they thought was to be done. She did not like to give directions nor to feel others giving her responsibility for their work. She wanted people to take responsibility on their own.

I remember one noon having deli food (which Dorothy loved) with her and Bob. Bob told Dorothy that he’d heard she was the model for the painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” She didn’t deny it. She said she’d known artist Marcel Duchamp in Paris. To my eyes she did have the large, angular shape of the “Nude.”

When Bob asked if she had really drunk Eugene O’Neill under the table, she said testily, “When you stay up all night you have to have something to keep you going.” She rarely talked of her youth. We used to speculate that if Dorothy were ever to be canonized, she would, in the missal, be called a penitent like Mary Magdalene, for she was neither a virgin nor a martyr nor a widow. She disliked this kind of talk. She said people talked about her being a saint in order to dismiss her, so they wouldn’t have to think about changing the way they lived in the world.

Dorothy was by no means always repressive and severe. She could enjoy the comic aspect of things. In the winter of 1962, some young people started a magazine called F--- You, and composed it in the Catholic Worker office. When Dorothy discovered this, she told them to leave. They were taken in by the American Friends Service Committee, where they changed the name of the magazine to F--- Thee. When Dorothy heard about this, she laughed out loud.

Dorothy didn’t so much share an apartment with me as take in Cleveland Place on her travels -- “On Pilgrimage,” as she called her column in the paper. According to an apparent law of hospitality, Dorothy’s intended bed in the apartment was immediately taken by someone with no other place to go, despite her instructions to me to save the bed for her.

I settled in this comfortable apartment and lived there for a year and a half, through the summer of 1960 with the exception of the summer I stayed at Peter Maurin Farm. In addition to fixing up the apartment, I learned the usual routine of the office and loft, which had daily, weekly and monthly cycles.

The monthly cycle revolved around publishing the paper, The Catholic Worker. Articles would be written by us in New York or by friends and others. Dorothy would read these or delegate someone else to do so. Articles were rarely edited. Proof sheets would come from the press but, at least while I was at the Worker, were seldom read.

A truck delivered the papers and some of the men hauled these up to the loft. Keith produced the packets of cut addresses, arranged geographically, by city, state or foreign countries. Most of us did our stint, folding, labeling, wrapping, chatting, watching the life of the loft.

We mailed about 85,000 copies each month. A subscription cost 25 cents. The Catholic Worker is said to be the only periodical that costs more per year to subscribe to than to buy on the street, where it costs a penny a copy. If you once subscribed, you would receive the paper whether you paid again or not -- in some instances whether you wanted it or not.

When you have helped to mail the Worker, you are astonished that it comes as regularly as it does.

The weekly routine

The main event of the week was the Friday night meeting. An invited guest or one of us would give a talk or we would debate some subject of likely interest. We set chairs in the kitchen and dining area and the room filled with a variety of listeners, local or visiting subscribers, students, friends and those who wandered in -- like a woman I remember who sought shelter because she thought Cardinal Spellman was after her. When the talk and discussion were over, we chatted and drank sassafras tea.

We sold the paper on the street. Some, like Ammon Hennacy, kept a weekly schedule. He sold papers in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue every Sunday morning. He sold it on Wall Street one weekday, at Fordham University on another, and one day a week he stood on Lexington Avenue not far from a Catholic church whose politically reactionary pastor he loved to bait. He talked with anyone willing to talk with him -- or more likely listen to him.

What most struck me about Ammon were his perfect fearlessness, his good temper and sharp tongue. He would say awful things about people without the least trace of animosity. Some reproached him for his “holier than thou” attitude. “You’re damned right I’m holier than thou,” he’d say, “I’d be in a hell of a fix if I wasn’t.”

Ammon nearly managed to live the impossible ideal of anarchism. In his fear of nothing and in his determination to harm no one -- except verbally! -- he lived his own saying: “Good men don’t need laws and bad man don’t obey them, so what use are they?” When he became a socialist, he thought he also had to become a vegetarian, that it was part of socialism; eventually he preferred it.

Ammon was a thin, active man of medium height, always simply and neatly dressed, with wavy gray hair, cut short except for a stiff, curly flourish in front. He walked briskly with a springiness like his alert gazes and his witty responsiveness in conversation. He worked hard and kept a strict schedule: answering letters on a typewriter in the office, selling papers, fulfilling speaking engagements and fasting every year, starting Aug. 6, one day for each year since the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Ammon seemed to have a talent for fasting and for civil disobedience. He not only believed in the efficacy of these acts, he liked them. Some months after I came to the Worker, he left to join a group that climbed the fence of a missile site in the Midwest, for which he got six months in a federal prison. After he came back, he spoke of the relatively pleasant life in a federal prison compared to state or local facilities.

Once the loft opened in the morning, some ate breakfast, some started to make the great vat of soup for the line at lunch, others wandered in when they felt like it, to answer mail, to talk to visitors or to sit around and talk with each other. The anarchism or personalism so often mentioned in the paper is probably more descriptive of the daily life at the Worker than of any ideal state. People arranged their own lives in the context of the community, often slipping out of it, and back, without giving any sort of notice.

Reliable people could be found to be in charge of the loft, to drive the car -- though someone once drove off with a car -- and to do other jobs. Still, many of us at the Worker were temperamental, eccentric, neurotic or verging on crazy; many were alcoholic. Rules and routine remained minimal.

Bob always said, “There’s a reason for every one of us to be here.” For myself, the Worker was definitely a temporary refuge. I had problems with intimate personal relationships, yet I liked to be around people. The Worker suited me well: It was stimulating, entertaining -- and safe.

All income came from individual gifts, for Dorothy would never take grants, considering subjection to the IRS too high a cost for tax-exempt status. None of us was paid any wage. When we needed money, we asked for it and usually could have it.

The soup line would form earlier in cold or wet weather. Men and a few women climbed the stairs and waited. Slowly they would all be fed. Every morning we got day-old loaves of crusty Italian bread made around the corner. We all ate the same lunch, and it was a good one: a hearty soup, tea with milk and sugar if you wanted it, and bread with margarine.

The floor of the loft was rough and dirty -- swept but not clean. Two toilets enclosed in closets just large enough to stand or sit in stood on one side wall. You would sometimes find wine bottles tucked into the grimy pocket behind the toilet bowl or crammed into the tank, for no drinking was permitted on the premises. The men in the line -- so few women came just for a meal that they did not stand in the line -- seemed, usually, very patient.

Some people liked to say the rosary every day. Millie, a thin, neat, diffident and kindly woman in her 50s, would ring a bell and several people would gather outside the office to pray. Bob would mutter some violent epithet, irritated by this sign of piety, fling down whatever he was doing and get out of earshot as fast as he could.

The daily routine included supper for about 75 people, the entire Catholic Worker community. I looked forward to these meals: good meat, vegetable and potato fare, cooked well considering the conditions. One evening Bob and Michael Kovalek and I were in the loft late. Bob said he wanted to try something. We went into the kitchen and Bob lit the oven in the large stove and opened its door. We watched the exodus of cockroaches, a solid rippling outward from the heat. The cooks always lit the oven before placing the food inside.

I took a liking to roaches. They seemed to breed in the desk drawers. Cockroaches waving their feelers gave me an impression of alertness and a certain shy sociability that I found charming.

After supper, whoever was in charge would hand out tobacco to the regular smokers. Sometimes one of the women or men was drinking or drunk and needed to be guided to a Salvation Army hotel or flophouse.

Peter Maurin Farm

Many Catholic Worker communities have had a farm. Peter Maurin, who died in 1949, wrote and talked about farming communes, living on the land, scholars becoming workers and workers becoming scholars. Peter Maurin Farm on Staten Island was a rural house of hospitality and a working farm as well. There was a modest house with outbuildings. In the barn was a small chapel, its hand-wrought pews, an example of the work Maurin so much extolled.

Deane Mowrer and a dozen others lived at the farm. Slim, who had once lived at the house in the city and been known for his violent temper, washed the dishes, then stood in the yard for hours, looking out over the landscape, or sat inside reading The New York Times. He rarely spoke but his laugh told me he was listening. Hans had been a cook in the Norwegian merchant marines for many years. He made bread, a tiny man with thin arms kneading two loaves at once, one with each hand, his blue eyes shining with pleasure.

Stanley Vishnewski lived in a small room on the second floor, partly filled with his press. He printed prayer cards and stationery by hand. When he was 17 years old, he used to tell us, he was walking across Union Square and saw this old woman carrying a typewriter. It was the 35-year-old Dorothy Day. He followed her and spent his life at the Catholic Worker. He published several books. One summer I was put in charge of the farm, which meant generally keeping an eye on things. Years later, driving from Virginia to New England, my family and I had a breakdown near Trenton, N.J. I called the farm, asked for help and we were put up for two nights while our car was fixed. It was wonderful to be on the receiving end of Catholic Worker hospitality.

The Catholic Worker became my image of Christian life: to live with poor people, with few possessions of one’s own, sharing food and drink and clothing and shelter, practicing all the works of mercy, praying, crying out against injustice, working for clarification of thought and enjoying the immediate company of a diverse and colorful community. Stanley used to say, “We feed the naked and clothe the hungry at the Catholic Worker, and we know one another in the breaking of heads.”

We lived according to no rule, nor out of any book except, in some ways (we hoped), the gospels and -- as Dorothy liked to say -- a novel by Dostoyevsky. No matter. I do tend to think of that life as exemplary. The Worker was a community in voluntary poverty, a surprising, difficult ideal even to strive for, let alone to achieve. The Catholic Worker has over the years made it possible for many of us to live this life for a while and perhaps to achieve at least aspects of it later on in other places.

That such a life is possible, that it has in it much enjoyment, intellectual interest, congeniality and spiritual learning -- though it can often be confining and stressful -- is knowledge that has stayed with me and helped me not to be afraid. The Catholic Worker is still a powerful presence in my life and remains my ideal, however little realized.

Judith Gregory is a free-lance writer living in Jaffrey, N.H.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 1997