Dorothy Day-Oblate Connections

By Harry Winter, O.M.I.

When Pope Francis spoke to the US Congress, on Sept. 24, 2015, he proposed four Americans as models.  Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton, were fairly recognizable by most of the media present.  But the fourth, Dorothy Day, already a Servant of God on her way to canonization, and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, had media experts scratching their heads.

In 2022, an author who describes herself as a “white evangelical,” D.L. Mayfield, published an examination of Day’s work which seems to me a bit controversial: Unruly Saint (Minneapolis, MN:  Broadleaf Books).  But before I present my reservations, let us examine some of the Oblates who found Day’s life to be one of evangelizing, and working for social justice.

Fr. Richard Murphy, OMI

Richard Murphy, O.M.I. was in Rome during of the fourth session of Vatican II, taking a sabbatical. When he returned to the community at Oblate College, Washington, DC, in October, 1965, he told us that he had been at lunch in an inexpensive restaurant near the Vatican, at which Dorothy Day, who was in Rome for the second to fourth sessions, was also at lunch.  When she left, Murphy watched as she went past a gypsy woman begging outside the restaurant. He told us that Day stopped, opened her purse and emptied it into the gypsy’s lap.

Murphy admired her for doing it, but admitted he couldn’t do it himself.

Murphy had served as part of a tank unit in World War II, being awarded the Purple Heart.  A native of New York City, he had checked out both the Catholic Worker House in the city, and the nearby Harlem Friendship House founded by Catherine Doherty, a good friend of Day.  His admiration for both women continued after he joined the Oblates.

Fr. Sal de George, OMI

Sal De George, O.M.I., has verified that the Oblates of Houston, TX, have extensively supported the Catholic Worker community there, especially Casa Juan Diego. So many volunteers have come that the staff has to decline some, at least until covid occurred. Sal cooked for the paraplegics …until outsiders were not allowed in the facility during the pandemic. And he praises Casa Juan Diego especially for accepting quickly and effectively the victims of spousal abuse.

Fr. Charles Banks, OMI

Charley Banks, O.M.I., in the early 1990s was assigned in San Antonio where he got involved with Catholic Worker House (CWH) during his free time.  As an ecumenical community providing shelter, food, and fellowship for the needy, it continues to thrive at its long-time location east of the Alamo City’s downtown.  The Oblates provided some financial support for the ministry there.  Fr. Banks would visit the folks staying at CWH, and celebrate Mass.  He was a friend of the young husband and wife directors, Ken and Sarah De Candio.  Following the birth of their first child, he baptized their infant at an Oblate staffed parish in the city.

Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. has written two columns very explicitly centering on Dorothy Day:  “Dorothy Day, A Saint for Our Time,” Aug. 31, 2015, and “Complexity and Paradox,” Aug. 9, 2021.

Mayfield’s book Unruly Saint, in its 256 pages (half size, 5 3/4″ x 8 3/4″) gives a very comprehensive survey of Day’s writings, and the writings Robert Ellsberg of Orbis Books co-authored. Mayfield captures well Day’s controversial pacifism during World War II, which led to the drop in circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper from 150,000 circulation, to 75,000, and the same 50% drop in the houses from 30 to about 15 (today, about 150 if one includes the Catholic Worker farms).

But Mayfield differs very much from other sources on the role of Father John Hugo.  According to Mayfield, the retreats which Hugo led for Dorothy and the Catholic Worker core were extremely negative, and centered on rules and regulations.  This led to the alienation of Day and her daughter Tamar for about a decade.

But if one googles Father John Hugo and the Catholic Worker, there is a very interesting edition of the Houston Catholic Worker newspaper praising Hugo to the skies, especially for being in advance of Vatican II for the participation of the laity in Mass.

Mayfield also quotes Cardinal Francis George O.M.I. praising Day as a “champion of conservative ideals” (p. 227). Then she finds that George “is among the many examples of a revisionist history, which attempts to capitalize on her life . . .to further their own aims. In George’s case, it is political”(p. 228).

I find that like many leaders, Day is a paradoxical blend of liberal and conservative qualities.

Mayfield briefly explains Day’s two great expressions “The World Will Be Saved by Beauty,” and “The Duty of Delight.”

If other members of the Oblate Family have experience with the Catholic Worker movement, I would like to hear from you:

May we conclude that Day is a great evangelizer, and her ministry has influenced many Oblates, especially for social justice?