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The Brink

Dorothy Day Through the Eyes of Her Granddaughters: An Interview with Kate and Martha Hennessy

In terms of Dorothy’s theology, I think that there is an inclination now where they want to write about piety. They don’t want to write about “Don’t pay your war taxes.”

In 2000, the radical journalist, social activist, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day (8th November 1897 – 29th November 1980), was granted the title Servant of God by the Catholic Church. In 2021, her cause for canonization was sent for consideration by the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. However, understandings of the legacy of Dorothy have been far from linear; she has been perceived simultaneously as a troublemaker, Communist, neglectful mother, pious Catholic, exemplar of conversion, and model of Catholic social action. Her cause for canonization has also proved contentious. On the one hand, she has been viewed as a surprising candidate for sainthood. She had an abortion, was a single mother, was a frequent critic of the Church hierarchy, and was arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions for her activism. On the other, her life has been used to exemplify a deep a commitment to the Catholic faith and championing of the radicalism of the Gospel message of social justice and the works of mercy. Even with the Catholic Worker movement, which continues Dorothy’s work of hospitality for the marginalized and acts of resistance against injustice and violence, the value of her canonization has been debated. Some fear that this would sanitise and deradicalize her legacy, whilst others argue that this legitimises her form of Catholic socio-political witness.

In this interview, Anna Blackman, Lecturer in Catholic Religious Education at the University of Glasgow, speaks with two of Dorothy Day’s granddaughters, Martha and Kate Hennessy. The interview focuses on their personal relationship and memories of their grandmother, questioning how accurate popular portrayals of Dorothy are, and what the impact of her canonization might be both for the Church and for her legacy. Martha, a retired occupational therapist, continues Dorothy’s work through her peace activism and volunteering at Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York. She has been arrested and imprisoned for her resistance against the use of torture in Iraq and Guantanamo, the use of starvation and drones as weapons of war, and the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. Kate, the youngest of Dorothy’s grandchildren, has followed in her grandmother’s footsteps as a writer. She has written extensively about her grandmother and the Catholic Worker movement, most notably in Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother (Scribner: 2017), which won a Christopher Award and was selected by the Chicago Tribune as the best spiritual writing of 2017.

Anna Blackman: What was it like to have Dorothy Day as your grandmother? What are some of the most poignant memories that you have of her?

Martha Hennessy: She was very gentle, very unassuming. I don’t ever remember her chastising me too badly or proselytising to me or any of that. She was just a regular granny. She was always reading, listening to music, a great storyteller. My earliest memory of granny, we called her granny, was sitting on her lap. I think I was probably around three years old, listening to her tell stories. We were always enthralled with her. I was sitting in her lap, with my ear against her chest and I felt the closeness of her heart. I could hear her voice resonating. Years later, I was thinking back on that, and I think I was experiencing feeling the presence of God. This power, this love, this presence, whatever it was.

When I was 16, my sister Mary and I were visiting her at St. Joseph’s house in New York. She had us sweeping and mopping the floor, and she looked at me and said, “You have to take smaller sweeps”. I was just gung ho. Granny was saying, “Slow down, go take smaller strokes”. And then she said to me, “Martha, you need to be more like Mary”. And of course, Mary was contemplative, and I was a busy Martha.

She sent me a postcard from Rome when I was eight; it was a picture of Fra Angelico’s music Angel. And she’d written “Tack this on the wall so you’ll remember to say your prayers”. The postcard survived a house fire […]There were all these little seeds that she had planted in my lifetime, that laid dormant for a really long time. I really appreciate that about her.

Kate Hennessy: One of the memories of that early time when we were at Tivoli Farm is as a little kid, noisy, rushing into a room and our mother said “Shhh, be quiet, Granny’s writing”. And I stopped and I said “What?” And there granny was at her typewriter, writing one of her columns or one of her books, and I thought, “She’s a writer?” I was just amazed that someone could be a writer. That was a seed, like you spoke of Martha. That was the first seed because I knew exactly that I wanted to be a writer.

Another memory at Tivoli was during the Vietnam War. There were a lot of peace conferences […] I was, again, running through the dining room and I heard her voice. She was giving a talk. And I stopped in my tracks. I had no idea what she was talking about. I didn’t know what war was, I had no idea what was going on, but I was so taken by her voice. That’s been one thing that really has grounded me through the years. There are about 30 to 40 recordings of her in the archives. That voice of course raised me, just always hearing her talk.

The last four years of her life she lived at Mary House, the house for women on East Third Street. I was sixteen and I started to spend time with her in her room and she, of course, was failing. She’d had her heart attack, and she really was changing dramatically. Before that she was tall, she had an amazing presence. She’d walk into the room, and everyone would stop. It was quite something. But then she started to diminish. I remember sitting in the room and there would be me in one corner, Stanley Vishnewski in another corner, our mother in the third corner and then Dorothy on her bed. I remember Dorothy going through her correspondence and reading letters from all over the world. I was so struck by how many people she was in correspondence with and how many people were aware of what she was doing and who she was.

Anna: It sounds like you had these early experiences of the regular granny, and then you became more aware of who she was. When did your perceptions start to shift from regular granny to …

Kate: Super Granny.

Martha: The time spent at Tivoli Farm for me. Seeing her in her world made me understand that she had this work that she was doing that was touching so many people and just to see people react to her […] But she belonged to the world. We understood that fairly early on. Our mother conveyed that to us because she had to give her up in many ways.

Anna: As you say, Dorothy belongs to the world; part of that is that people have reflected on her story and written about her legacy. How accurate do you think these reflections are? What do popular understandings of Dorothy get wrong or misunderstand?

Kate: In 2000, when Cardinal O’Connor first started talking about the possible canonization process, he wanted to hear from our mother because there was this big worry in everyone’s mind that Dorothy was a neglectful mother. And our mother just said, “This is not true. I do not want people to keep believing this and I’m just tired of people pushing that story. I want people to know that Dorothy was heroic in how she cared for family”. She was heroic. I mean, not only us grandchildren and our mother, but also her siblings and her nieces and nephews. You know, she really always made an effort to make sure that she was either in correspondence or she was visiting.

Martha: As I was growing up if someone would hear that I was a grandchild of Dorothy I would get one of two reactions. “Who was she?” or “Oh my God. That’s unbelievable”. So that was interesting. Those two different reactions. Also, she was construed as very severe because she had such a serious face and that wasn’t fair either. With so many of the photographs her light-heartedness, her humour and her joy, it’s kind of downplayed.

Kate: Yeah. And her sense of humour. Life tickled her in many ways, and that’s definitely lost. It’s really hard. It’s always been hard. […] What she proposed, what she created, is so different. It really is unique. And I don’t fault people for that because how can you know, because she spoke a different language, she said that we have to live differently. Unless you have experienced the Catholic Worker, you don’t know what she’s on about. I think that’s the big problem with elevating her and not the Worker, because I think without the Worker, you cannot experience what she was trying to teach us.

Martha: And separating her from the messiness of who the community was. There is a situation of the Church trying to separate her from her movement. That really upsets me and concerns me. How dare you, you know, create a plaster saint and not pay attention to the work that she did in New York City all those decades. In terms of Dorothy’s theology, I think that there is an inclination now where they want to write about piety. They don’t want to write about “Don’t pay your war taxes”.  “Do the charity, but don’t talk about the warmaking”. I think that would be an objection that I have with how she’s represented. The two went hand in hand.

Anna: I know Dorothy’s canonization has been quite debated within the Catholic Worker movement. There’s also a debate within the Church about her canonization and her radicalism. How do you feel about the canonization process?

Martha: A lot of people don’t understand that Dorothy firmly remained in the Church and that her admonishment of what was needed to be admonished was not a confrontation with the Church or its teachings. She walked a very tricky line with Catholic social teaching, the works of mercy, the US culture in New York City, and what the Church was saying, and that certainly appeared in her relationships with the different bishops and cardinals […] This whole question of “No, she went up against the Church” versus “No, she was an obedient daughter of the Church”, it’s just much more subtle and much more ingenious on her part in terms of where she stood.

Kate: I think the biggest danger of the canonization process is that people want to put her into a container that they can understand, rather than trying to meet her, with what she was saying, what she was writing. Isn’t that going to whitewash her with her very strong message? Yes, it is. I don’t think we can avoid that. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not go there.

Martha: This canonization process […] they’re going to commercialise her. They want to airbrush the radicalness out of her. She was marginalised in her lifetime, and then she was glorified. And that’s pretty extreme. But it’s been a leap of faith for me to just believe that what’s important is important and will survive. For me, canonization means that the US Catholic Church really has to listen to her for change.

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