On Wednesday April 19 Kate Hennessy, a writer and the youngest of Dorothy Day’s nine grandchildren, spoke about her recent biography of her grandmother, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty. Subtitled “An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother”, the biography draws on newly discovered letters and diaries, as well as a decades-long series of conversations with Hennessy’s mother Tamar, to portray the complex relationship between Day and her only daughter.
In her introductory remarks, Hennessy called her grandmother a woman of “great vision, great energy, and tremendous power.” Born in 1897, in her early twenties Day worked as a journalist for several socialist newspapers in New York City and became friends with other writers and activists like Eugene O’Neill and Mike Gold. After the birth of her daughter in 1926, Day had her daughter baptized Catholic even though neither she nor Tamar’s father was Catholic. A few months later, Day was also baptized into the Church.
According to Hennessy, Tamar’s birth was a “transformative experience of gratitude” for Day. “[Day] saw herself as a journalist” and didn’t intend to found the “houses of hospitality” she would later become famous for, said Hennessy. In 1932 Day met the French peasant and self-taught philosopher Peter Maurin. He introduced Day to the Catholic Church’s teachings on social justice. For the first time, Day saw a way to combine her activism and her writing. Together with Maurin, Day founded the Catholic Worker newspaper, which eventually grew to include the newspaper; houses of hospitality that provided food and shelter for the poor; and farming communities that encouraged a return to the land.
Hennessy described Tamar as “the first Catholic worker” and much of the biography details how the Catholic Worker movement shaped Day and her daughter’s relationship. Tamar was only seven years old when her mother founded the Catholic Worker. She learned early on to share her mother with an organization that demanded much of Day’s time and energy, Hennessy observed.
Yet in the Q&A session after her talk, Hennessy dismissed the narrative that Day was a neglectful mother. Tamar and Day “had an intensely close relationship until my grandmother’s death,” said Hennessy, describing how the two talked every day and how difficult they found their long separations. “My grandmother didn’t have an indifferent bone in her body about anything,” Hennessy said. “People need that narrative of indifference.”
Now, almost thirty years after Day’s death, the Catholic Worker movement is still strong and Day has been nominated for sainthood. In his 2015 speech to Congress, Pope Francis named Day, along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton, as examples of “great Americans.” But for Hennessy, the process of chronicling Day’s life was more personal. “An examination of her life isn’t an intellectual, academic, or theological exercise,” she said. “It’s a quest to find out who I am through her.” As for Hennessy’s relationship with a potential saint? “I’m her granddaughter. She’s my granddaughter. And that to me is sacred enough.”