David O’Brien, writing in Commonweal called her,“ the most significant, interesting and influential person in the history of modern Catholicism”. Pope Francis, in his speech before the US Congress, said “Her social activism, her passion for justice and the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints”. Her name is Dorothy Day, and on April 3 Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, brought her story to Charlestown in the Gallagher Lecture.
Mr Ellsberg met Dorothy Day when he was 19 years old, having gone to New York after his sophomore year in college “to learn something about life apart from a book”. He had planned to stay only a few months but ended up spending 5 years. It turned out to be the last five years of Dorothy Day’s life.
Ellsberg told us that photographs tend to make her look severe, but that she had an almost girlish laugh and a sense of fun. She wore thrift store clothes and prayed to St Joseph to help her with the bills. But she had an appreciation of fine things as well. And she asked everyone she met which book of her favorite writer, Dostoevsky, was their favorite.
Her early life was marked by an abortion and the birth of her daughter, whose father she deeply loved but could never marry. She was a convert to Catholicism, baptized on the same day as her baby. She wanted to join her activism to her faith and found no role models. In this she was finally helped by her friend, Peter Maurin.
In 1933 she started the Catholic Worker newspaper to promote Catholic social teaching. She then opened a house at the Catholic Worker office to provide food, shelter and support for those in need. But she was not only interested in “band aids”. She spent a lifetime as an activist in opposition to war and injustices of all kinds. She marched for civil rights with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers and many others. For this she was arrested a number of times, the last time at age 75.
According to Mr. Ellsberg, Dorothy Day’s radical activism was rooted in disciplined faith practices. She went to Mass and read the breviary every day. And she loved to read the lives of the saints. She felt they could inspire and challenge us in our own call to holiness.
Mr. Ellsberg said that Dorothy Day shows us a new way to be faithful Christians in our time. He spoke of the similarity in her message with that of Pope Francis – both calling for mercy, peace and justice; both seeing the face of Christ in the poor and marginalized.
For Mr. Ellsberg, Dorothy Day embodies a message and a vision that can help awaken people to the radical message of Jesus and the gospel. In February, 2002, Cardinal John O’Connor formally requested that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome consider her canonization. Upon the
Congregation’s approval, Dorothy was officially named a “Servant of God.” Robert Ellsberg is a promoter of her cause for sainthood.
Many thanks to the 2016 Gallagher Lecture Committee
– Kathy Devaney, Chair Gallagher Lecture Committee
Starting in 2007, the Gallagher Lecture has brought distinguished Catholic speakers to our community, lecturing on topics that are timely and relevant to the way we live our lives.
Former speakers have included, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and Vatican correspondent, John Allen, speaking about Pope Francis.