A recent edition of the autobiography, The Long Loneliness, has a picture on the cover of Dorothy Day in old age walking through the woods in the fall. The publisher's subtitle at the bottom of the picture calls her book "The Story of the Greatest Woman of Our Time." This is quite a statement to make, but it is particularly interesting because Dorothy Day is not exactly a household name, but she is well-known in certain circles, especially among people who are trying to do the same kind of work that she did.
Since her death at the age of 83 in November of 1980, there has been a renewed interest in the work and philosophy of Dorothy Day. The Argentine who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, said that in order to learn about peace, we need to study the life of Dorothy Day. He included also the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton. The well-known psychologist and educator, Robert Coles, includes Dorothy Day among his "teachers" in the development of his philosophy and his values in life. It was her teaching of nonviolence that has moved so many people. She was a social reformer who believed that our social problems could and had to be resolved nonviolently. But she did not always think this way. Her life, if anything, was a life of change. She was a radical and a Communist in her early youth, later converted to Catholicism and took the Christian message of love to heart in her work for the poor and the workers. A look at her life and the changes in her thinking documents this development of her worldview of peace and nonviolence.
Dorothy Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was a Calvinist and a firm believer in the Protestant Work Ethic. Her mother was Episcopalian, and it was in this church that Dorothy was first baptized and confirmed. For all the years she was growing up, her father worked as a newspaperman, and this affected the family in a number of ways: for one thing, they moved a lot, so Dorothy often found herself in new situations and having to make new friends. Her father also worked nights and slept days, so the children had to be quiet in order not to disturb his sleep. To occupy themselves, the children read a great deal, and from a very early age they wrote stories, essays, and even created a family newspaper. This marked the beginning of Dorothy's later career as a writer.
When she was six years old, the family moved to California, living first in Berkeley, and eventually settling in Oakland. Her most vivid memory of their life in the Bay Area was of the tremendous San Francisco earthquake in 1906. She remembered being awakened in the early morning hours by a roar in the earth and the sensation that the roof was going to cave in. Their house was cracked from roof to floor and many things were broken, but no one in the house was hurt. The next day, hundreds of refugees from the city came across the Bay, seeking shelter in the less-damaged East Bay. Dorothy found something in all this activity that she liked very much. She liked the way in which everyone was so kind and loving to those less fortunate than themselves, and she felt for the first time the joy of doing good for others. The Oakland residents very generously gave away their food and clothing, and her mother cooked pots and pots of soup. Dorothy realized that human beings could be truly good and unselfish. She looked back on this example from her childhood as a reminder and an inspiration over her long life of service to the poor and the suffering.
Because of the earthquake, her father's newspaper company burned to the ground, and he lost his job. The family moved to Chicago to find work. In between trying to write a novel, Mr. Day did odd jobs, and the family lived for several years on a very meager income. They lived in the working class neighborhood not far from the factories, and the families of hard-working industrial workers made up her new companions. For the first time Dorothy became acquainted with Catholics, for many Poles, Italian, and Irish workers lived in these Chicago neighborhoods. Her next-door neighbors were a family of nine children. She played over at their house often, and their mother used to tell the children the stories of the lives of the saints. Dorothy went back to her own house and asked her mother why they never prayed or sang hymns in their home. Her mother was rather at odds about how to deal with this pious little girl.
One day, Dorothy went running through the house of her neighbors, looking for her playmates, and ran by accident into their mother's room. The mother was kneeling and praying. A rush of love and gratitude and happiness flashed through little Dorothy at this sight, an emotion that she was never to forget. She was moved by the woman's love of God seen through this simple act of prayer. Religion, for the young girl, had authority and meaning at this stage of her life. She had the simple faith of a child; there were no questions, no doubts. She herself longed to become a saint and wrote stories on how to do so with her young friends.