Adam Ash

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

The everyday saints among us

From the Bowery to Guantánamo With Dorothy Day -- by Lawrence Downes

The Catholic Worker movement has now officially lasted 25 years beyond the death of its founder, Dorothy Day, and looks sturdy enough to last another 25.

There is something of a riddle in that. The harsh rules that limit the shelf lives of utopian impulses would seem to spell doom for an institution as shapeless and impractical as Day's. Lots of organizations want to lift up the poor, oppose war and reshape society, but few try to do so with no governing structure, no official means of support, no paid staff members and - since Day's death on Nov. 29, 1980 - no leader.

That oddity was on full display last month on the Lower East Side, where about 80 people - Catholic Worker members and former members, and their relatives and friends - gathered in a cramped, dingy auditorium at Maryhouse, the group's home for women on East Third Street, to celebrate a Mass in Day's memory.

The stage was closed off with white bedsheets draped on a string. Down in front, between a lectern and a Yamaha keyboard, a potted ficus and a table lamp gave the makeshift sanctuary the feeling of a living room. Pictures of Woody Guthrie, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. lined the walls. There was lots of rumpled gray hair and baggy overcoats, women in turtlenecks and men with canes, a few young couples, a child or two.

The motley gathering was at the literal center of commemorations for Day, the Greenwich Village bohemian and journalist who converted to Catholicism and founded the Catholic Worker in 1933 with a fellow radical, Peter Maurin. She spent her final years at Maryhouse, leaving behind a mountain of writings but not much else in the way of stuff or structure. Her movement has been called not an organization but an organism, an anarchic experiment whose most improbable achievement may be its own survival.

Members still dedicate themselves to voluntary poverty, nonviolence and hard work. They make soup, give away coats, visit prisoners and the sick, protest against war and publish a newspaper that sells, as it did in the 1930's, for a penny.

Through some process of spontaneous generation, Catholic Worker houses have sprung up in cities and rural areas across the country and in Canada and Europe. In keeping with Day's pacifism and cranky independence, the group has no income, so sends no taxes to the military. It is not a registered nonprofit. It has no official connection to the Catholic Church, even though Day herself is now a candidate for sainthood.

What she would have thought of that is a matter of debate. "Don't call me a saint," she once said. "I don't want to be dismissed that easily."

One member, Matt Vogel, 26, helped me sort out the Catholic Worker puzzle over coffee in the dining room at St. Joseph House. As he smoked, a man behind him with powerful forearms pummeled a mountain of ground beef into that evening's meatloaf.

Mr. Vogel said the place worked because it stayed small - about 30 people, both street people and volunteers, live in each house, sharing food and chores. Prayers and meetings are optional, and being Catholic or even Christian is not required.

I said it was remarkable that the members could live peaceably not only beside one another, but also beside the larger Catholic Church, an institution without a lot of official friendliness for radical politics these days. The Catholic Worker largely avoids the temporal fray, Mr. Vogel said, because it focuses so relentlessly on the personal and the particular.

Mr. Vogel did not seem all that radical, or terribly impressed with himself. He did not see fit to mention, for example, that the following week would find him in Cuba with about 25 other people, most from Catholic Worker houses across the country, taking part in a march from Santiago de Cuba to the gates of Guantánamo Bay to protest the treatment of the terrorism-war detainees.

The marchers arrived on Monday and plan to reach the United States Navy base and prison on Saturday, International Human Rights Day. They say they will ask to visit hunger-striking prisoners. If that request is refused, they will fast and conduct a vigil for the immediate abolition of torture by all nations.

Given the deadly urgency of the Bush administration's war on terror, the notion of going to Cuba to offer comfort to prisoners in that war seems at least quixotic. But to the Catholic Workers of the world, it comes with the job.

"We don't always take scripture literally," Mr. Vogel said, "but we do take it seriously."


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