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Inventing the Catholic Worker Family

  • Dan McKanan (a1)

“The Catholic Worker movement is evolving in ways its founders didn't anticipate,” declared a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter, explaining that the movement has evolved from a community of single people to a network that includes many family-centered houses of hospitality. Such media perceptions are widely shared by Catholic Worker families. “In 1933,” explained Julia Occhiogrosso of the Las Vegas Catholic Worker, “Dorothy [Day] didn't give us models for families who want to minister to the poor, Catholic Worker style.” These claims demand a more sustained historical analysis. Just how new are Catholic Worker families? What historical factors contributed to their emergence? Who did create the models for the dozens of families that today are feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, visiting the prisoners, and bending swords into plowshares?

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1. Paterson, Margot, “Finding Family at the Catholic Worker,” National Catholic Reporter, 7 03 2003; and Occhiogrosso, Julia, cited in Abercrombie, Sharon, “Catholic Worker: Can it Work as a Family Activity?,” National Catholic Reporter, 29 10 1999.

2. My research on the contemporary experience of the Catholic Worker movement is presented more fully in Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2007). As part of that research, I have visited Catholic Worker houses of hospitality or farms in Duluth, Minn.; Winona, Minn.; Des Moines, Iowa; LaCrosse, Wise; Boston, Mass.; Worcester, Mass.; Hartford, Conn.; Marlboro, N.Y.; New York, N.Y.; and Baltimore, Md. My practice in conducting interviews has been to allow each person to decide whether to be quoted by name or anonymously, and to review all quoted material prior to publication. I have also benefited from the excellent oral histories published by Riegle Troester, Rosalie (now Rosalie Riegle) in Voices from the Catholic Worker (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1993); and Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 2003), as well as several oral histories available at the Dorothy Day–Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wise. More general studies of the movement and of Day, Dorothy include Piehl, Mel, Breaking Bread: The Catholic Worker and the Origins of Catholic Radicalism in America (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1982); Miller, William D., A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (New York: Liveright, 1973); Coy, Patrick G., ed., A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1988); Thorn, William J., Phillip, Runkel, and Susan, Mountin, ed., Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays (Milwaukee, Wisc.: Marquette University Press, 2001); Miller, William D., Dorothy Day: A Biography (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper San Francisco, 1984); and Forest, Jim, Love Is the Measure: A Biography of Dorothy Day, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994). Readers interested in encountering Catholic Worker life more directly may wish to contact one of the roughly two hundred communities listed at

3. Day, , “The Family vs. Capitalism,” Catholic Worker 3:8 (01 1936): 4.

4. Burns, Jeffrey M., American Catholics and the Family Crisis 1930–1962 (New York: Garland, 1988), 19.

5. Pius XI, Casti Connubi, paragraph 11.

6. Burns, , American Catholics, 10105.

7. For general treatments of American Catholic families in the twentieth century, see Firer Hinze, Christine, “Catholic: Family Unity and Diversity within the Body of Christ,” in Faith Traditions and the Family, ed. Airhart, Phyllis D. and Margaret Lamberts, Bendroth (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 5372; and Cunneen, Sally, “The American Catholic Family: Reality or Misnomer?,” in The Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century: Renewing and Reimagining the City of God, ed. John, Deedy (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2000), 5771.

8. For an overview of Distributism as it influenced the Catholic Worker, see Mark, and Zwick, Louise, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins (New York: Paulist, 2005), 156–76.

9. Purcell, Larry, Catholic Worker Grapevine, 11 07 1993, in folder 6, box 1, series W–54, Dorothy Day–Catholic Worker Collection (hereafter DD–CWC), Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wise.

10. Occhiogrosso, Julia, “Reflections of a Catholic Worker Mom,” Family Life in the Catholic Worker Movement 1 (05 2001): 24. Perhaps as a reflection of the multiple demands placed on Catholic Worker parents, no additional issues of this newsletter were published.

11. Klein, Marilyn L., “Families in the Catholic Worker Movement” (masters thesis, Graduate Theological Union, 1991), 4, in folder 2, box 4, series W–7.1, DD–CWC; see also Flynn, Elizabeth, “Catholic Worker Spirituality: A Sect Within a Church” (masters thesis, Graduate Theological Union, 1974), 84, folder 9, box 3, series W–7.1, DD–CWC; and George Boehrer, Frederick III, “Christian Anarchism and the Catholic Worker Movement: Roman Catholic Authority and Identity in the United States” (Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, 2001), 163.

12. Interview with Tom Cornell, October 3, 2004.

13. These memos, for example, are central to Marilyn Klein's excellent thesis, which rightly cautions “that both of these writings are in response to specific situations that arose in the community; caution should be used towards interpreting Day's responses as absolutely paradigmatic of her views.” Unfortunately, in my view, Klein does not dig deep enough in searching for countervailing tendencies in Day's writings. See Klein, , “Families in the Catholic Worker Movement,” 5152.

14. Dorothy Day to “Fellow Worker,” 10 August 1940, box 1, series W–11, DD–CWC; Dorothy Day, Memorandum, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1948, box 1, series W–4.2, DD–CWC.

15. Day mentioned the burning of the papers in an interview with Finn, James, Protest: Pacifism and Politics: Some Passionate Views on War and Nonviolence (New York: Random House, 1967), 375; and two Los Angeles Workers, John Hollow, Sr., and E. Virginia Newell, mentioned it in letters written to Dorothy Day, ca. September 1940, and 22 October 1940, box 1, series W–41, DD–CWC.

16. Dorothy Day to “Fellow Worker,” 10 August 1940.

17. Jimmy Flannery, Pittsburgh, to Dorothy Day, ca. August 1940, folder 1, box 4, series W–4, DD–CWC, cited in Klein, , “Families in the Catholic Worker Movement,” 53. Flannery's letter is one of about twenty in the Catholic Worker Collection responding to the circular letter; all of the others focus on the question of pacifism and make no response to Day's comments about families.

18. For an overview of the theology of the lay apostolate in the twentieth century, see O'Shea, David, “The Lay Movement in Roman Catholicism—Developments in the Lay Apostolate,” Religion in Life 31:1 (winter 19611962): 5667. On Virgil Michel's influence on Dorothy Day, see Zwick, and Zwick, , Catholic Worker, 5874.

19. Day, Dorothy, House of Hospitality (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1939), 109–11.

20. Maurin, Peter, “The Law of Holiness,” in Easy Essays (Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1977), 137–38. This quote also appears in an editorial, “Pacifism Is Dangerous, So Is Christianity,” Catholic Worker 8:3 (January 1941): 4. During the early 1940s, Day's clerical allies John Hugo (who regularly led retreats for the Worker) and Paul Hanly Furfey helped her clarify her view that all Christians are obliged to strive for a “maximum” standard of perfection, and that the “counsels” are means to that end that can be adapted to the different life situations of celibate and married persons. She also made a point of reprinting any magisterial statements that supported this understanding. See Day, , “Counsel and Precepts,” Catholic Worker 8:9 (0708 1941): 2; Day, , “Day After Day,” Catholic Worker 10:1 (12 1942): 6; Furfey, , “Maximum—Minimum,” Catholic Worker 3 (05 1935): 5; Hugo, John J., “In the Vineyard VIII: The Two Rules,” Catholic Worker 9:7 (05 1942): 12; Archbishop, of Moncton, , “Holiness for All,” Catholic Worker 13:1 (02 1946): 4; and Thomas Krupa, Stephen, “Dorothy Day and the Spirituality of Nonviolence” (Ph.D. thesis, Graduate Theological Union, 1997), 354. Ready access to Day's columns and other writings in the Worker is available online at

21. Dorothy Day to “Fellow Workers in Christ,” Christmas Season 1938, box 1, series W–1, DD–CWC; and Dorothy Day to “Fellow Workers in Christ,” 21 February 1939, box 1, series W–1, DD–CWC.

22. Dorothy Day to “Fellow Workers,” 15 August 1940, box 1, series W–1, DD–CWC.

23. Miller, , Harsh and Dreadful Love, 202–4, 209–10.

24. Day, Dorothy, Memorandum, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1948.

25. Day, Dorothy, “To Christ—To the Land!,” Catholic Worker 3:8 (01 1936): 1; and Echele, Cyril, “An Idea of a Farming Commune,” Catholic Worker 3:8 (01 1936): 2.

26. Day, Dorothy Memorandum, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, Mary, 1948.

27. Ibid.

28. Day, Dorothy, “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 13:5 (06 1946): 8. She had not always been quite so clear. In a 1938 editorial, for example, she commented that “For a long time, Peter Maurin has talked about the need for an order of lay people, married and unmarried to live a life pledged to prayer, poverty and labor who will have the strength which comes from banding together”: “Jesus the Worker,” Catholic Worker 6:6 (December 1938): 4.

29. Day, Dorothy, Memorandum, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1948.

30. Miller, , Dorothy Day, 394.

31. Day, Dorothy, Memorandum, Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1948.

32. Day, Dorothy, On Pilgrimage (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 229. “On Pilgrimage” was Day's regular column in the Catholic Worker, and she published two books that shared its title. This one was a compilation of her personal journals from 1948; the other, subtitled The Sixties (New York: Curtis Books, 1972), is a republication of her columns and other Worker articles from the entire decade of the 1960s.

33. Purcell, Larry, “Reflections of a Catholic Worker Dad,” Family Life in the Catholic Worker Movement 1:1 (05 2001): 18.

34. Holben, Larry, “Family Life and the Catholic Worker,” Family Life in the Catholic Worker Movement 1:1 (05 2001): 1112.

35. Hennessy, Tamar, in Riegle, , Dorothy Day, 109.

36. Katherine M. Yohe's insightful analysis of Day's relationship with Tamar, , “Dorothy Day: Love for One's Daughter and Love for the Poor,” Horizons 31:2 (2004): 272301, suggests that this struggle continued from Tamar's birth all the way to Day's death, with Tamar at her side. Interestingly, Day's regret at her neglect of Tamar during her childhood seems to have led her to invest a great deal of energy into Tamar's own family in later years.

37. “Day by Day Account of Editor's Travels Thru West and North,” Catholic Worker 3:7 (December 1935): 1.

38. For an overview of the theology of the lay apostolate in the twentieth century, see O'Shea, David, “The Lay Movement in Roman Catholicism—Developments in the Lay Apostolate,” 56–43. As James T. Fisher has suggested, the release of Mystici Corporis Christi was only a partial vindication of Day's position, for that document expressed an understanding of the mystical body that was significantly more triumphalist and hierarchical than Day's own. See Fisher, , The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933–1962 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 4753.

39. For an overview of the last movement, see Burns, Jeffrey M., Disturbing the Peace: A History of the Christian Family Movement, 1949–1974 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999). Richard Ward, Leo, C.S.C., The American Apostolate: American Catholics in the Twentieth Century (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1952), is a postwar publication that gives a vivid sense of the interrelations among these movements.

40. Day, Dorothy, “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 13:9 (11 1946): 1, 7, 8.

41. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 18:3 (10 1951): 1, 2, 6.

42. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 18:4 (11 1951): 1, 2, 6.

43. Day, , “Have We Failed Peter Maurin's Program?,” Catholic Worker 20:6 (01 1954): 6.

44. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 29:6 (01 1963): 2.

45. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 30:2 (09 1963): 2.

46. Day, , “Poverty is the Face of Christ,” Catholic Worker 18:16 (12 1952): 3.

47. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 18:3 (10 1951): 2.

48. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 24:4 (11 1957): 4.

49. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 30:4 (11 1963): 1, 6. See also Day, , “Community of Brothers,” Catholic Worker 22:5 (12 1955): 1; and “Pacifist Community Suffers Fire,” Catholic Worker 23:8 (March 1957): 1 on the Bruderhof; “Bombing at Koinonia Farm, Americus, Ga.,” Catholic Worker 23:2 (September 1956): 1; “Developments at Koinonia,” Catholic Worker 23:3 (October 1956): 5; “The Story of Koinonia,” Catholic Worker 23:6 (January 1957): 8; Dugan, Kerran, “Interracial Community Attacked,” Catholic Worker 23:8 (03 1957): 1; Steed, Robert, “Two Weeks at Koinonia,” Catholic Worker 24:1 (0708 1957): 8, on Koinonia; Goodridge, Frank, review of Community Journey by George Ineson, Catholic Worker 23:2 (09 1956): 5; and “Taena Community,” Catholic Worker 23:4 (November 1956): 3, on Taena; Sheehan, Arthur, “News from Marycrest,” Catholic Worker 29:2 (09 1962): 7, on Marycrest. For more on these communities, see Zablocki, Benjamin, The Joyful Community: An Account of the Bruderhof, a Communal Movement Now in its Third Generation (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1971); Baum, Markus, Against the Wind: Eberhard Arnold and the Bruderhof (Farmington, Pa.: Plough, 1998); Elaine K'Meyer, Tracy, Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997); and Holland, Jack, “A Vision on a Hill: Recalling Marycrest, an inspiring experiment in Christian community,” at

50. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 24:3 (10 1957): 8.

51. Day, , Loaves and Fishes, 197.

52. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 23:4 (11 1956): 6.

53. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 31:9 (04 1965): 5, in On Pilgrimage: The Sixties, 220.

54. Interview with Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham, May 25, 2000.

55. Willa Bickham, interviewed by Rosalie Troester, November 7, 1987, box 3, series W–9, DD–CWC.

56. Louis Murphy, interviewed by Michael Cullen, January 23, 1968, folder 9, box 2, series W–9, DD–CWC; Murphy, Justine, in Troester, , Voices, 296–98.

57. Dorothy Gauchat, interviewed by William Miller, July 29, 1976, folder 30, box 1, series W–9, DD–CWC; Dorothy Gauchat, interviewed by Rosalie Riegle Troester, January 20, 1988, folder 17, box 4, series W–9, DD–CWC.

58. Roundtable Discussion of the Catholic Worker Movement, Marquette University, November 9, 1977, folder 19, box 1, series W–9, DD–CWC.

59. Dorothy Gauchat, interviewed by Rosalie Riegle Troester; Gauchat, Dorothy, All God's Children (New York: Hawthorn, 1976); and

60. Dorothy Gauchat, interviewed by William Miller; Dorothy Gauchat, interviewed by Rosalie Riegle Troester. Also see Day, , Loaves and Fishes, 197–98; Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 18:3 (10 1951): 6; Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 22:2 (09 1955): 8; Day, , “Bill Gauchat: The Way of Peace,” Catholic Worker 41:4 (05 1975): 3; and Vishnewski, Stanley, “Gauchats Practice Hospitality,” Catholic Worker 27:6 (01 1961): 1.

61. Day, Dorothy, “Death of an Apostle,” Catholic Worker (06 1949): 1, 6.

62. Heaney, Ruth, in Troester, , Voices, 1719, 2326; Ruth Heaney, interviewed by Rosalie Riegle Troester, July 14, 1989, folder 25, box 4, series W–9, DD–CWC; Marty and Gertrude Paul, interviewed by Rosalie Riegle Troester, July 18, 1988, folder 4, box 7, series W–9, DD–CWC.

63. Marty and Gertrude Paul, interviewed by Rosalie Riegle Troester.

64. Heaney, Ruth, in Troester, , Voices, 26.

65. Woltjen, Jack, “Mo. And Penn. Farms Write,” Catholic Worker 24:3 (10 1957): 8; Woltjen, Jack, “On The Land,” Catholic Worker 26:10 (05 1960): 3. The latter article reports that they had been farming for nearly nine years and were expecting their sixth child.

66. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 21:5 (12 1954): 2; “C. W. Weddings,” Catholic Worker 31:1 (July–August 1964): 5.

67. Dick, and LeBlanc, Louis, “Community in Nova Scotia Tries ‘Back to the Land,’Catholic Worker 26:10 (05 1960): 3.

68. Pat, and Murray, Mary, “Letters from Two Families,” Catholic Worker 27:6 (01 1961): 8. Four years later they were still on the land and still hoping for a sustained community to break their isolation: Murrays, , “Appalachian Spring,” Catholic Worker 31:10 (05 1965): 8.

69. Thornton, Mary, “Monica Farm,” Catholic Worker 27:3 (10 1960): 8; and Jack, and Thornton, Mary, “The Thorntons,” Catholic Worker 30:1 (0708 1963): 5.

70. Julian Pleasants, interviewed by Rosalie Riegle Troester, December 1, 1987, folder 8, box 7, series W–9, DD–CWC.

71. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 27:6 (01 1961): 2.

72. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 21:7 (02 1955): 4.

73. Ibid., 1, 4, 6.

74. Tom Cornell, interviewed by Deane Mowrer, June 5, 1968, page 31, folder 10, box 1, series W–9, DD–CWC; and interview with Tom Cornell, May 23, 2000.

75. Apostolicam Actuositatem, paragraph 11.

76. Fisher, James T., The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933–1962, 101–29.

77. Burns, , Disturbing the Peace, 174–83; Woodcock Tender, Leslie, Catholics and Contraception: An American History (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004), 221–27.

78. Day, , “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 33:5 (02 1967): 6.

79. Occhiogrosso, Julia, “Reflections of a Catholic Worker Mom,” 24.

80. Interview with Claire Schaeffer–Duffy, January 5, 2002.

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