Dorothy Day

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Social Action
Dorothy Day is best known for her social action efforts with the Catholic Worker Movement.


Dorothy Day integrated social activism and Catholic religious traditions through her work to aid the poor, educate others about social injustices, and create and reform social structures. She is best known for her efforts with the Catholic Worker Movement. She initiated The Catholic Worker newspaper that served to educate both intellectuals and ordinary men and women of social injustices. As a writer and editor of the newspaper, she was able to shape and define the Catholic Worker Movement. In conjunction with the newspaper, Dorothy and others also began to meet direct needs, which formed the movement that blurred social distinctions and re-shaped the perceptions of the poor.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her family moved to California and then to Chicago. In Illinois, she studied for two years at the University of Illinios at Urbana. Day read widely, but life as student was not for her. She quit college and moved to New York City, where she worked as a reporter for The New York Call, The Masses and The Liberator. Living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, an immigrant neighborhood, she confronted the sight of grinding poverty in crowded tenements daily. Day made a deliberate choice to notice poverty for the rest of her life.

With the proceeds from a novel she published in 1924, she brought a small house on Staten Island, where she lived with her common law husband, Forster Battingham. Their child, Tamar, was born in 1926. Despite Battingham's opposition, Day had Tamar baptized; not long after that she was received into the Catholic Church. This association resulted in separation from Battingham.

While on a trip to Washington, DC in the early 1930s, to cover a hunger march by unemployed workers, she prayed at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for guidance. When Day returned to New York she met Peter Maurin (1877-1949). Together Dorothy and Peter founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Aware of her writing skills he urged her to start a newspaper. The Catholic Worker newspaper is still sent to subscribers all around the world. The newspaper's "a penny a copy" price has never changed. In later years, Day wrote that it was Peter with his belief in personal action, voluntary poverty and pacifism who had given her "an instruction to a way of life."

With the needs of the unemployed worsening during the depression, Dorothy and Peter also began a house of hospitality. There are now two in New York City: St. Joseph House for men and Mary House for women. Over the years, many similar houses have been established around the nation and abroad.

Day survived Maurin by three decades but his influence remained a core element for her and for the movement. Because of various acts of civil disobedience in anti-war protests and demonstrations for workers' rights - like Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers - she was jailed on a number of occasions.

She wrote several books including a life of St. Therese of Lisieux whose concept of "the little way" became a part of her own spirituality. Her best-known book remains her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, considered a classic.

Last November at a Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of her birth, Cardinal John J. O' Connor of New York suggested in his homily that it might now be the time to consider Day a candidate for sainthood.

Historic Roots

Day's efforts with the Catholic Worker newspaper began as a broad social movement. Through her religious beliefs and efforts to serve the poor, she contributed greatly to developing a nonviolent movement to challenge and change societal structures that perpetuated social distinctions. Anne Klejment summarizes it best with the statement :

Both a traditional Catholic and a dedicated lifelong radical, Day possessed a genius for synthesis. Without compromising her social radicalism, she joined the Catholic Church. By fortifying herself with a spiritual shield, Day built a nonviolent revolution from daily service to the poor and agitation for change. (Klejment, 1997, p. 151)


Day practiced "advocacy journalism" in The Catholic Worker. The articles aimed not only to expose but also to educate, interpret, and advocate resistance to social ills. Intellectual discourse and academic essays made the newspaper a major tool of education across the U.S. particularly on college campuses. It provided the working class with intellectual and theoretical enrichment - she wanted the newspaper to maintain a close relationship with ordinary men and women. The newspaper office soon became a refuge for transients searching for a good meal and a clean bed. The editorial staff began serving soup when they were not putting out the paper. By 1938, 1,200 people relied on the Catholic Worker house for food.

Day also contributed to development of the Catholic Church and the church's role in societal needs. Robert Ellsburg noted three gifts she contributed to the church. She united the corporal works of mercy - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless - with the struggle for justice. She was critical of a society that made these same works of mercy necessary to so great a degree, and her commitment to justice was often expressed in acts of civil disobedience which led to a number of stays in jail. Day had a belief in gospel-based nonviolence - a literal embracing of Jesus' command that we love our enemies. She served as a model of holiness as a lay woman and a mother (Anderson, 1997).

During the 1930's, she contributed seven articles, with social political themes, to the journal America. Specifically, one article discussed the southern tenant Farmer's Union in an effort to organize the impoverished sharecroppers of the area. Issues of faith were another theme - in one she described a conversation between her and her six-year old daughter, who had expressed surprise that a friend did not believe in God (Anderson, 1997).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Catholic Worker newspaper was started by Dorothy Day in New York City in the 1930s. Today, the price of the paper still remains at a penny a copy, excluding mailing costs. It is issued seven times per year and a year's subscription is available for 25 cents (30 cents for foreign subscriptions). All donations in excess of that amount go to the hospitality houses associated with the paper, Mary House and St. Joseph House. There are over 130 hospitality house nationally and more than eight in foreign countries.

Ties to K-12 Social Studies

Dorothy Day can be integrated into the American History curriculum. The story of her life and work are particularly relevant when discussing social movements, class struggles, religion, and women's history.

Key Related Ideas

The Catholic Worker Movement: "dedicated for caring for the poor and promoting nonviolent revolution" (Klejment, 1997, p.139). The movement connected traditional Catholic spirituality to American radicalism. By taking the Gospel seriously, by loving even enemies, the Catholic Workers' revolution of the heart aimed to change society from the bottom up (Klejment, 1997).

The movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, is grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person. Today over 140 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.

Also see, other women reformers and social issues such as: 1) Elizabeth Cady Stanton/Women's Rights Movement; 2) Jane Addams/Settlement House Movement; 3) Margaret Sanger/Birth Control Movement; 4) Dorothy Dix/Mental Health Reform; 5) Mary Ann Shadd Cary/Black Abolitionist; 6) Frances Willard/Temperance; 7) Betty Friedan/National Organization for Women.

Important People Related to this Topic

Peter Maurin (1877-1949) born into a French farming family, Maurin was, for a brief time, a Christian Brother. He left the order and emigrated to Canada and eventually the United States. Maurin was co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement and is chiefly responsible for the movement's visionary qualities.

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

Mary House and St. Joseph House were the first two hospitality houses of many across the country established to provide food, shelter, and refuge to the poor and in which both the staff and those seeking shelter shared the same living space and food. This arrangement removed the stigmatism of the poor. Income for Catholic Worker houses came from outside jobs held by members or by cottage industries developed by the community. Yet, most Catholic Worker houses survived on donations of money and/or specific food and clothing items. Most houses used volunteers from the surrounding community to help with the work. Today, Catholic Worker houses operate with the same type of support, structure, and services.


Coles, Robert (1998, June 6). "On moral leadership; Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in tandem." America [On-line] 178 (20) p.5 (9 pp.). Available: EBSCOhost/Web Full Disply/AN68869 [1999, February 15].

Anderson, G. M. (1997, November 29). "Dorothy Day centenary" America [On-line] 177 (17) p.8 (3 pp.). Available: EBSCOhost/Web Full Display/AN9711295470 [1999, February 15].

Klejment, A.(1997). "Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement." In eds. P.A. Cimbala & R.M. Miller, Against the tide: Women reformers in American society. Westport, CT: Prager.

Klejment, A & Roberts, N. L. (1996). American Catholic pacifism: The influence of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. Westport, CT: Prager.

The Catholic Worker Movement Homepage. [On-line] Available at

The Catholic Worker Archives Homepage.