Tried for Sainthood



The phrase that forms the title of this blog was fashioned by Tamar Hennessy, Dorothy Day’s only child. It expressed her displeasure in the persistent efforts by others to fast-track her mother for canonization. Dorothy too resisted all talk about sainthood throughout her lifetime, finding such a proposal quite silly.

Tamar’s private remark is one of many impressions of the complicated mother-daughter relationship described by Kate Hennessy, Tamar’s ninth and final child born to her and her misguided, alcoholic, frequently out of work husband, David Henessey.

Hennessy’s new Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty is not an attempt to demythologize the social activist who devoted her adult life to the Catholic Worker, both the newspaper that she and Peter Maurin started in 1933 in the middle of the depression and the social movement that led to the creation of urban missions for the poor and marginalized and rural self-sustaining farming communes. Yet any reader, suspicious of hagiography, will discover a very unsaintly human being. Hennessey’s Day is a self-doubting, restless, occasionally cruel, and periodically depressed woman, but she is fascinating and worth admiration neverrtheless because in her the secular and the religious are complexly intertwined. And she was a giant in 20th century American social activism.

Granddaughter Hennessy brings a unique perspective to the biography of Day. Her “intimate portrait” is an accounting of Day’s more than 50 years of social action, much of which is found in other biographies,  but it is also a revealing look at Day’s daughter and her offsprings. Kate is born in 1960 when her grandmother is 63 (she would live another 20 years) and her mother is 34. Kate thus has many opportunities to observe the loving but fraught relationship between her mother and grandmother. While Dorothy Day traveled the country spreading the gospel and generously helping to fund numerous causes like the Caesar Chavez’s United Farm workers  and the Medgar Evers Fund, her more reclusive, nature-loving  daughter sought refuge as an earth mother in a variety of rural homesteads. She was an avid gardener and craftswoman; her skills proved useful because the growing family was increasing strapped for money. The daughter seems to take her mother’s notions of voluntary poverty seriously, though there were many times that she felt cursed by her mother’s prescriptions for a life of renunciation. Prone like Dorothy to depression, Tamar alternatively embraces her role as matriarch and worries that she has failed her many children.

Kate writes vividly about the clutter and disrepair of the various places in which she was raised; her mother is a hoarder who had a gift for repurposing objects found at county fairs. She also writes openly about the fortunes and all too common misfortunes of her siblings and their children, a brother scarred by service in Viet Nam (a war against which his grandmother protested) and a sister who dies prematurely of cancer to name a few. Her own story is an honest depiction of a directionless adolescence and early adulthood moving in and out of Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker home in New York City, trying to determine whether she should embrace the ideals of her grandmother or distance herself from them. After being determined not to direct the life of her last child, Tamara final does urge Kate in her mid-20s to get married. The author  includes an appreciation to her husband but little other comment.

The one area of greatest discord between Dorothy and Tamar was religion. Though hardly a naïve believer or a woman without doubts about the power of religion and the nature of her Catholic missionary enterprise, Dorothy was a devoted Catholic, a prayerful woman, a near daily communicant, and a follower of the saintly examples of the joyful Theresa of Avila and the merciful St. Francis of Assisi. Many find her “essential” Catholicism attractive because it was mixed with a profound mistrust of the institutional church and a condemnation of clerical hypocrisy. Her brand of Catholicism is also attractive because her reading of the Psalms and the gospels was matched by her reading of Dickens and Dostoevsky, her favorite author.  Her Catholicism has as it powerful center the commandment that we should love one another and be hospitable and charitable to those in need, no matter what their need happens to be. She was hardly a pious catechism Catholic and was impatient with theological arguments.

Tamar was of a different frame of mind. She slowly and quietly came to renounce her faith. The natural world and her children were the centers of her belief and devotion. Mother and daughter agreed to disagree and Tamar’s earth-based spirituality prevented her mother from totally rejecting her daughter.  On matters of faith, Tamar followed in the footsteps of her father, Forster Batterham, a scientific man who introduced Dorothy to the wonders of the natural world, but who also could never live with Dorothy because of his atheism. According to eyewitness Kate, despite this profound difference in world view and Forster’s frequent indifference to the life of their daughter, their love for one another endured. This relationship was sturdier than Tamar’s relationship with David, the failed husband and father from whom she never sought a divorce.

The biography is a linear one, following Dorothy from her birth to a genteel mother and a ne’er-do-well father, a journalist and lover of the horseracing world, to her death. One of the more fascination periods described, especially for students of American literary culture, is that of the young Dorothy who arrives in New York City in 1917 and participates in (and is arrested for the first of many times) suffragette marches for women’s rights. Drawn to the life of bohemian radicalism in the ferment of 20’s New York, she has contact with a who’s who of thinkers and artists. She befriends (and goes to bed  but does not have sex with) playwright Eugene O’Neill who reads to her from Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven, an allegorical verse about God’s persistent  in following the resisting soul. She has a romantic relationship with Mike Gold, a Brooklyn born Jew, whose name will become  synonymous with the American Communist party. With one man she conceives and aborts a child and with another man she lives married but they quickly divorce. She engages in all-night conversations with literary critics Malcolm Cowley and Kenneth Burke, the latter married to Batterham’s sister Lily. Poet Hart Crane, critic Floyd Dell, and painter Charles DeMuth inhabit her social circle. In many ways Day is like Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk whose early life followed the arc of St. Augustine’s life, a period of sinful experimentation followed by a life of moral seriousness. In the 60’s, a turbulent decade somewhat reminiscent of the 20’s, Day sits down for conversation with the Yippie and anti-war activist Abbie Hoffman and draft card burner David Dellinger of the Chicago 10.

Kate Hennessy’s biography presents her grandmother as a woman of many contradictions. Perhaps her ability to turn these contradictions into a force for good –a gift that few have – is enough to place her among the honored members of the church,  a congregation already filled with too many plaster saints. And more than enough to have her name grace one of Lewis University’s dormitories.


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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