An abortion, a child out of wedlock - Dorothy, a very unlikely saint...

Dorothy Day had an abortion and a child out of wedlock, but now the Vatican is considering canonising her. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to her Cork granddaughter
An abortion, a child out of wedlock - Dorothy, a very unlikely saint...

Dorothy Day and her daughter Tamar around 1926. Tamar’s daughter Kate Hennessy lives in West Cork and has written a biography on Dorothy’s life

FIVE years ago, West Cork-based American author, Kate Hennessy, wrote a biography on her pioneering social activist and journalist grandmother, Dorothy Day (1897-1980).

Now, as the Vatican looks into the case of canonising Dorothy - a radical Catholic in her day - Kate admits it would be a controversial move.

You could say Dorothy would make an unusual case for sainthood - she had an abortion and had a child outside of wedlock.

But, as Kate points out of her grandmother, when she converted to Catholicism, she “took on the church’s teachings and (as a result) all sins are forgiven”.

The abortion is something that would be “between her and her confessor. In terms of having a child outside of wedlock, my mother said no-one ever questioned that.”

Kate’s mother was Tamar, Dorothy’s only child.

Kate says: “My mother was born in 1926, went to a Catholic school and was never treated differently for being ‘illegitimate’. It didn’t occur to anyone.”

Having lived in the west of Ireland for more than eight years, Kate (who occasionally contributes to The Tablet) and whose fascinating book on Dorothy is entitled The World Will be Saved by Beauty, moved to Eyeries about six months ago with her Australian husband, Garry Jones.

Kate, 62, is proud of her grandmother, who was described by the New Yorker as “a saint for the Occupy era”.

Dorothy, after leading a Bohemian life as a young woman hanging out with the likes of playwright Eugene O’Neill, became a Catholic without abandoning her social and anarchist activism.

Kate Hennessy and her dog Ben on the beach. Kate moved to Eyeries in West Cork this year with her Australian husband, Garry Jones
Kate Hennessy and her dog Ben on the beach. Kate moved to Eyeries in West Cork this year with her Australian husband, Garry Jones

What makes her controversial is her radicalism, her civic disobedience to highlight pacifism, and her rejection of the theory of a just war.

In 1917, she was imprisoned as a member of suffragist Alice Paul’s non-violent Silent Sentinels. She was arrested on other occasions, including when she was aged 75.

Most famously, Dorothy, as part of the Catholic Worker Movement founded The Catholic Worker newspaper and remained editor of it from 1933 until her death.

She also set up the Catholic Worker Farm in upstate New York and opened a number of houses of hospitality for the poor and homeless.

In her newspaper, Dorothy advocated the Catholic economic theory of distributism. She considered this as the third way between capitalism and socialism.

In an address to the United States Congress, Pope Francis included her in a list of four exemplary Americans who “built a better future”.

Kate remembers her grandmother very well. She was 20 when Dorothy died at the age of 83 in 1980.

“Every chance my mother had, she would take us to the Catholic Worker farm,” recalls Kate, “so I grew up spending summers there, and Dorothy would come up to Vermont to visit us. She was very prominent in our lives.”

Kate is the youngest of nine children. She says that her mother and her grandmother had a close but complicated relationship.

“They were very different from each other. It was hard for my mother because her mother was quite famous. There was pressure on my mother, who was always asked if she was going to follow in her mother’s footsteps. My mother was completely different. She was very shy and quiet, loved the countryside and wanted to raise her kids on the land. She was totally a Catholic worker in the way that she lived but she had to separate herself from the movement because of my father, David Hennessy. He wasn’t interested in being part of it. It was too radical for him. He was a devout Catholic, but much more conventional.”

Tamar would go on to leave the Catholic Church.

“She grew up in a time when the Church was quite anti-science,” says Kate. “My mother absolutely loved science. She recoiled against some of the teachings of the Church such as its stance against homosexuality and its teaching that unbaptised babies go to purgatory. She would say that we’re all children of God.”

Dorothy was an imposing figure for Kate. “She was 6ft tall. I first became aware of her when she was probably in her late sixties. She was kind of heavy set and didn’t like the fact that she had gained weight. As she aged and I grew up, I got to know her as an individual. When she walked into a room, people noticed her. She had piercing blue eyes, very intense and clear. She was very beautiful, but not in a conventional sense.”

Asked why the Catholic Worker Movement was so successful, Kate says that when it started as a newspaper in the midst of the 1930s Great Depression, “the need in New York City was immense. It soon exploded into not only houses of hospitality in New York but in cities around the US (run by donations.)”

People were ready to hear the message that Dorothy wanted to get across about the Church. She wrote about its programme for social justice. “The issue of social justice would not go away for her. She was saying that it’s not just the communists or the socialists and the labour movement who have a plan for social justice. The Catholics also have.”

Kate says that it was the nuns who first started to hear Dorothy’s message.

Dorothy Day with Kate’s mother Tamar, and three of Kate’s siblings, around 1948
Dorothy Day with Kate’s mother Tamar, and three of Kate’s siblings, around 1948

“They were the ones that started to invite her around the country to speak about what she was doing. But then World War II came and my grandmother’s pacifist stance was very unpopular. There was a kind of retraction. The Church started to look at her as some kind of fringe element. That was in the 1940s and ‘’50s.

“In the late ’50s, we were living under the threat of nuclear war. That was when Dorothy started protesting in New York against the air raid shelter drills. Basically, she was saying it was absurd.

“If New York was bombed with a nuclear weapon, there was no way we could save ourselves. The drills were actually psychologically preparing us to die. She went to jail protesting about this until the air raid drills were discontinued.”

As part of her deeply held faith, Dorothy would “chastise the bishops and really hold their feet to the fire about the wealthy lives they were leading,” says Kate.

“Also, her belief in voluntary poverty was very hard for most Catholics to hear. Generally, the reaction was to dismiss her as a communist.”

Dorothy didn’t describe herself as a feminist. “She was very careful to not provoke what she felt was a gender war. A lot of the women’s movement was in your face. That wasn’t her style.

“But she was very much aware of what it was like to be a woman operating in a man’s world.

“The fact that she held onto the newspaper (which still survives today) and the movement was because she was very strong in herself. There were many times in which men tried to usurp her and tried to take over the paper. While she wouldn’t call herself a feminist, she lived a very feminist life.”

For her proposed canonisation, the Vatican has to read everything about Dorothy and interview people.

“The archdiocese of New York City had to put everything together and forward it to the Vatican,” says Kate “It took them several years to gather all her writings as she was a prolific writer. I think they ended up with 39 boxes full of her writings.”

An unlikely saint in some ways, Kate wrote of Dorothy that she was “this self-possessed girl of twenty, cool-mannered, tweed-wearing, drinking rye whisky straight with no discernible effect and smoking like a chimney at a time when women weren’t allow to smoke in public.”

Sounds like a saint for the modern age...

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