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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

The Catholic Worker's first donor dies

From Brooklyn slums to rural Mississippi, Sr. Peter Claver Fahy served the poor


Sr. Peter Claver Fahy, the nun credited with giving Dorothy Day the first donation for The Catholic Worker, died Dec. 3 in Philadelphia. She was 105.

She was born Hannah Fahy, one of 11 children in a middle-class family in Rome, Ga. She dreamed of being a dancer and at 18 entered the Russian School of Ballet in New York City, but that lasted only a year.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, she entered the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity in Philadelphia in 1926. Until her retirement in 1979, she lived in slum-blighted urban areas and poor rural districts from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Mississippi, working mainly with poor African-Americans and Native Americans.

In her writings, Day recorded quite a few visits she made to Sr. Peter Claver’s ministries. Tamar Hennessy, Day’s daughter, described a visit with Sr. Peter Claver in the late 1930s for Rosalie G. Riegle, author of Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis, 2003):

“Sr. Peter Claver took us all around. Alabama was still under the Depression and she took us to visit the Hoovervilles. The people had built their little shelters out of old car bodies, even laid out streets,” Hennessy told Riegle.

Riegle also interviewed Sr. Peter Claver after her 100th birthday. She told Riegle that she was working among African-Americans in Newark, N.J. when she met Day. They became close friends and lifelong confidants. “I think it was the ministry among the blacks that attracted her,” Sr. Peter Claver told Riegle. “She had a love for the poor, the disadvantaged, and the street people,” she recalled. “She used to tell me her work was one step below mine.”

In the 1970s, Sr. Peter Claver founded two shelters for battered women, one in her hometown, which she continued to support until her death. She retired to Philadelphia in 1979 but continued to work in homeless shelters, prisons and afterschool tutoring programs for children.

Sarah Fahy, the nun’s niece, told the Rome News-Tribune that her aunt was one of the most remarkable women she ever met. “She exuded unconditional acceptance and love,” said Sarah Fahy, who lives in Asheville, N.C. “She always had great interest in who you were and what you were doing, and she was very nonjudgmental, whatever your response.

“She wanted to really work with the poor and particularly blacks,” Sarah Fahy said.

Day biographer William D. Miller wrote that Fahy “perhaps more than anyone understood Dorothy’s spiritual need.” Miller described Fahy as “a prayerful woman” who like Day “wanted to change the world through ‘weapons of the spirit.’ ”

With Fahy’s prodding, Day started a series of retreats for Catholic Workers based on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. These exercises, known among the early Catholic Workers as “the Great Retreat,” were led first by Josephite Fr. Pacifique Roy and later by Fr. John Hugo in the 1940s and ’50s.

In spring 1933, Day visited the office of Fr. Harold Purcell, editor of Sign magazine, to collect payment for an article she had written. Fahy also was in the office, and when she heard Day’s plans to launch The Catholic Worker newspaper, she gave her what she had -- a dollar.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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