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Issue Date:  April 14, 2006

Catholic Worker pioneers dies at 93


Joe Zarrella, 93, Catholic Worker pioneer, has gone home to God. Deo Gratias, as Dorothy Day would say. Joseph Zarrella was one of Day’s earliest recruits and until his death March 28, he was a shining light of the movement. I first met Joe when I interviewed him for my book, Voices from the Catholic Worker. The penetrating questions he asked me after the interview helped to seal my fate as a Catholic Worker. We became friends and I will never forget him.

Joe came to the Worker in May 1935 and as he said, “The bug bit me, and I was captured!” In my first interview with him, he said: “People would come, and they’d need a bed to sleep. Well, you can’t turn somebody away. So you’d get up and give them your bed, and you’d sleep down in the office. For a while there, we were giving our bed away so often, we said, ‘To hell with it,’ you know, and just slept downstairs. If we had some money, we’d give them 30, 35 cents, whatever it was to get a bed in a flophouse. …

“Finally, somebody complained to the health department. Not because of the health specifically, but they were trying to get rid of the breadline. So the health people came down. [Day] asked them why they investigated.

“ ‘Well, we got a letter. Somebody was complaining about you.’

“She said, ‘Well, if you answer all anonymous letters, you might be deluged.’ [laughter] But you know, before those people left, they gave us a donation.’ ”

He and Gerry Griffin usually managed the house of hospitality when Day was traveling. Until his death, Joe called her “Miss Day,” and he was just crazy about her. He told me:

“I guess we were kind of protective of Miss Day, and didn’t always let her know everything that was going on, especially when she was away. … We were constantly on the verge of being closed down because of lack of money. Lots of times I’d go up to George Shuster at the Commonweal [magazine], the man who got Peter and Dorothy together, and borrow money from him. But Dorothy didn’t know about all these things. When she came home, we didn’t bother her.”

As World War II loomed, Joe and Day went to Washington to convince Congress that lay Catholics should be allowed conscientious objector status, a ruling that resulted in many Workers and other Catholics refusing military service.

Joe met Mary Alice Lautner while at the Worker. They married and moved to Mary Alice’s home town of Tell City, Ind., where they raised four daughters and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren during a 63-year marriage. Dorothy would visit them often, Joe’s deep faith and his devotion to the movement and its principles never faltered.

Mary Alice told me, “Joe wasn’t really well received when he came here. And then he became a labor organizer and organized the factory that my father was superintendent of. So we were not very ... we had some real difficult years in Tell City. People have grown up now, but they have no idea what unions did. Fifteen cents an hour! That’s what some of our workers were making.”

Joe was a fighter, but I’ll always remember him for his warmth, the perpetual sparkle in his eyes, and his gentle, sometimes crazy humor. He was the kind of man who always remembered the names of your children, even if he hadn’t met them. He counseled countless Catholic Workers, especially those from the Midwest.

In his old age, Joe traveled as long as he could, sometimes celebrating May Day, the movement’s anniversary, in New York or speaking at the New York house about the early days.

For several years he had been in poor health and unable to attend the annual Midwest Catholic Worker retreats, a weekend he always relished. He died surrounded by his family, who sat by his bedside and told family stories.

Funeral services were March 31 at St. Paul Catholic Church in Tell City. Memorial contributions may be made to Hospice Foundation of Louisville, Ky., or to the Catholic Worker of New York.

Rosalie Riegle, professor emerita from Saginaw Valley State University, was the co-founder of two Catholic Worker houses in Saginaw, Mich. She is the author of Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2006

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