“This must be a scam!” I thought, looking at my screen in disbelief.
Social media is generally not a place where Saints are created. My own Facebook feed has become a jumble of travel photos, heated political opinions, and online quiz results that reveal what friends of romantic comedy characters would play based on their breakfast preferences. I repeat: social media is generally not a place to make saints. But on that hot September day, I sat in awe of a post that sought to do just that.
The Dorothy Day Guild in New York was looking for a team of volunteers to transcribe diary pages and handwritten letters from Dorothy’s life into typewritten documents. Once completed, these documents would be submitted to the Vatican along with other files to further the cause for Dorothy’s canonization. As a young woman starting a career in theology and ministry, I jumped at this epic opportunity. After an exchange of emails with the project organizer and a quick training session, I was in it! This trip could change America’s Catholic history, and my inner theological nerd couldn’t have been more excited.
Dorothy’s life was simply extraordinary, so much so that since her death Dorothy has been recognized as a Servant of God, the first step towards formal holiness.
Like all lives, Dorothy’s life contained great joys. As a young woman, she lived in New York City during the height of the Roaring Twenties, became involved in the women’s suffrage movement and other social causes, pursued her passion for journalism, fell in love and had a beloved daughter. Like most lives, these joys were juxtaposed with the most abandoned depths – the disenchantment of the communist movement that had puzzled her for years, the failed loves, the scars of an abortion early in her adult life and her separation. life of the man she loved because of his conversion to Catholicism.
At 30, Dorothy finds herself lost. As a newly unemployed single mother after the stock market crash of 1929, she faced the terrifying task of rebuilding her life while also incorporating the new faith that had torn her apart in the first place. She returned to New York City, praying fervently that God would show her where her place was in the Church and how she could continue to advocate for social causes while remaining firmly in her faith.
In a somewhat comical scene, God’s answer literally appeared on Dorothy’s doorstep. Peter Maurin, a French epigrammatist, approached her with an exciting idea for a new Catholic movement. Together, they founded the Catholic Worker Movement, which published an affordable newspaper that championed justice issues from a distinctly Catholic perspective. This movement later included farms and foster homes, where those without accommodation or families could go to enjoy meals and fellowship, being welcomed as they were.
As a prophetic voice, Dorothy was certainly controversial – her steadfast commitment to pacifism cost supporters, her religious conservatism raised eyebrows, her anarchist views aroused skepticism in the Catholic Church, and she even made it to the list of FBI surveillance for a while (his FBI file will also go to the Vatican, perhaps a first in making a saint). Throughout her life of intense social action, she kept prayer and faith at the center of her concerns, attending daily Mass and often doing retreats and receiving the sacraments. Dorothy has spent her life acting with the love that her Creator first showed her.
I dove greedily into the life transcriptions of such a legendary character. Every few weeks I would receive a scan of the original newspapers or letters, type them up according to specific Vatican guidelines, and return the finished product pending my next assignment. Transcription has become a prayer activity. It couldn’t be rushed like so many tasks today. It sometimes took days to decipher Dorothy’s hasty handwriting, and more than once I asked friends and colleagues to help me with particularly difficult words. If Dorothy misspelled a word, forgot punctuation, or made a mistake, I should keep them in my transcript. They had to reflect it exactly as it was, misspellings and everything.
Some pages of the diary were filled with mundane topics – descriptions of car problems, finance lists, daily activities. Others were surprisingly funny, like her joke that she would have to resume the practice of retiring on Christmas one year when her holiday company was particularly irritating, or when she decided to give the Laetare medal in pure gold that she had received from Notre-Dame simply because “why keep it” My favorite cut line reads: “Mass was long and boring, God forgive me. Fr. Cletus slow and praying. I have to talk to him tomorrow. I don’t know what happened to Father Cletus, but that must have been the whole conversation!
Other documents have revealed other “human” moments in Dorothy’s life. The ardent peace activist pretended not to notice a casually disguised knit gun case while visiting her adult daughter. At one point, she had to deal with the unexpected news of a priest from the Catholic labor movement running away with her pregnant lover. Writing to a younger person in the movement, she shared her hope to open a center for women and reflected on the appropriate role of church and state during crises, encouraging her to pursue her compassionate social vision. .
Still other passages laid bare the depths of Dorothy’s heart in an intensely personal way. In some vulnerable entries, Dorothy reflects on the sadness of leaving her daughter’s home after a visit or the grief of losing loved ones. Some of the most raw letters were from Forster Batterham, his partner of many years and the father of his daughter. Shortly after their separation, Dorothy was living in Mexico. While learning Spanish, Dorothy and her daughter taught English to the family they lived with. In a surprisingly sad passage, Dorothy writes that Mexican children ask, “What is a Forster? Because her daughter spoke, sang and asked questions about her father so often. If her life is indicative of a saint, then being a saint is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Throughout the nearly two years of this transcription project, I have developed a unique fondness for, and even a friendship with, Dorothy. Reading his words week after week, I peeked through a window in his life that only close friends or family would normally access, to the point that it seemed almost overwhelming at times.
I started this project assuming that I would be the one to accompany Dorothy on her journey to official holiness, but in a manner typical of God’s sense of humor, it ended up walking with me the last two years. When I began my young adult life after college, she showed me that being a Catholic peacemaker does not mean giving up difficult conversations in the Church or in the world; rather, it requires the opposite. As I dealt with the hurts and losses of the past, she shared her own experiences of loss and grief, showing me the paradoxical beauty of recognizing our hurts and allowing them to shape and form us. As I began to understand what it means to be a female minister and theologian in the Catholic Church (a task that is sometimes difficult!), She encouraged me, showing how to love fearlessly in the face of adversity.
Anyway, I guess Dorothy helped me broaden my understanding of what a saint is.
I don’t pretend to know what Dorothy would say and do if she was alive today. I’m sure she would surprise me, as she has done time and time again in her personal writings. But I’m sure: somehow, in the midst of a global pandemic, it would make us hope; in the midst of the deep wounds of racism, she urged us to work for justice and for peace; in the midst of so much darkness, she exhorted us to be a light of love. She would strive, as she wrote in her letters, to “make more paradise here”.
During her lifetime, Dorothy said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be fired so easily. Maybe against his will, I pray for that very. The Saints have the power to change the here and now. They show us that although this world is not as it should be, we can allow God to make it a little more heavenly through us.
I’m already looking forward to the big party I’ll throw when Dorothy is (hopefully!) Named a saint one day. And on that day, I’m going to smile like a fool as I recount the story of that fateful Facebook post that invited me on her journey and she into mine.
Sadie Yates is originally from Charlottesville, Virginia, and is currently pursuing an MTS at Boston College.