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Dorothy Day, a light for justice

Dorothy Day (1897-1980), who is currently being considered for canonization at the urging of the Archdiocese of New York, had close contacts with the Marists in the early days surrounding her conversion to Catholicism in the late 1920s. 

Dorothy Day

Father James McKenna, SM, associate novice master at the Marist novitiate on Staten Island, NY, was her confessor. In Dorothy Day's autobiography, The Long Loneliness, she recalls her first meeting with Marist priest, Fr. James McKenna, SM, who was at first her confessor and became a supportive friend.

In May [1929] when I was spending a weekend on the island [Staten Island, NY], I spoke to the priest [Fr. McKenna, in Confession] about getting work in a camp [not long after her conversion had disrupted her life and world]

"Our [Marist] Novitiate in Prince's Bay is closed for the summer and there are only three priests and three brothers, so why don’t you come cook for us…. We have a whole wing off the kitchen, chapel included, that you can have for yourself…" 

Dorothy Day and daughterIt was my first contact with Fr. McKenna and we became good friends at once.  He was easy to talk with, a gentle, understanding soul who helped me along little by little, never judging or condemning my former comrades….He had never seen any Communists or anarchists before, and they had never been so close to a priest.  He brought candy and cigarettes to them.  He loved Tamar [Day's young daughter b/1926] and she was devoted to him.

In the talk presented here, given at the profession ceremony of the 1968 Marist novitiate class, she adds:

I am very much a member of the family of the Marist Fathers and Brothers…. much of my education came from them.  We [Dorothy and Fr. McKenna] became very good friends and he used to bring me things to read and so began my education as a Catholic actually… Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, especially.

In his classic biography of Dorothy Day, author William D. Miller, explains further:

…she left the Marist novitiate with genuine sorrow.  Father McKenna, she was sure, had driven away the demons that had caused her depression…. After that, her sadness left, "thanks, I firmly believe, to that good man's prayers, and the power of the Sacrament."

"I am very much a member of the family with the Marist Fathers and I am very happy that they consider me as a member of their family."

- Dorothy Day
Marist Profession Ceremony
Rhinebeck, NY • 1968

When Dorothy Day opened the door on her commitment to Catholicism, she crossed a threshold that forced her into some difficult losses.  At 30, facing the end of her realtionship with the man she loved over her conversion, she embraced life with her beloved infant daughter, Tamar, and began to rebuild. When she met Fr. McKenna who was even ready to show hospitality to her former Communist and "anarchistic" friends, she found a kindred spirit.

Fr. McKenna treated Dorothy and her daughter to practical hospitality, compassion, and tender care, free from judgments. These shared attributes of spirit were found in Dorothy Day's life-lived and are now material examples for her possible canonization.  Little wonder Dorothy saw herself as part of the Marist family… these shared values are key to the very Statement of Identity for the Society of Mary U.S. Province

Listen to Dorothy Day's address at the 1968 Marist Profession Ceremony in Rhinebeck, NY (11 minutes).

Should you wish to learn more about her life, and to inquire into and support Dorothy Day's canonization, you can do so at http://dorothydayguild.org/.

For an interview with Dorothy Day by the Christopher movement visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZOOWZTaFNA.

For a reflection by Fr. James Martin, SJ, on Dorothy Day, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIknaD0qtOU.




Father James McKenna
Fr. James McKenna, SM


"...the light
of faith
is concretely
placed at
the service
of justice...
and peace. "

- Pope Francis
Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei
June 2013

Dorothy Day 1934Dorothy Day

"When people come and
talk about our Worker,
poor and destitute,
I think to myself
how poor we all are
in many ways,
how destitute we all are,
how sick we all are,
how many chores
we need to do
to carry out the works
of mercy to those
immediately around us."

Dorothy Day
Marist Profession Ceremony
Rhinebeck, NY • 1968