“This has to be a scam!” I thought, staring at my screen in disbelief.
Social media is not typically a place where saints are made. My own Facebook feed has become a jumble of travel photos, impassioned political opinions and online quiz results that reveal what rom-com character friends would play based on their breakfast preferences. I repeat: Social media is not typically a place where saints are made. But that warm September day, I sat in wonder at a post that sought to do just that.
The Dorothy Day Guild in New York was looking for a team of volunteers to transcribe handwritten diary pages and letters from Dorothy’s life into typed documents. Once completed, these documents would be submitted to the Vatican along with other files to further Dorothy’s cause for canonization. As a young woman beginning a career in theology and ministry, I jumped at this epic chance. After an email exchange with the project organizer and a quick training session, I was in! This journey could change U.S. Catholic history, and my inner theology nerd could not have been more excited.
Dorothy’s life was nothing short of extraordinary, so much that since her death Dorothy has been recognized as a Servant of God, the first step toward formal sainthood.
Like all lives, Dorothy’s contained great joys. As a young woman, she lived in New York City in the height of the Roaring ’20s, involved herself in the women’s suffrage movement and other social causes, pursued her passion for journalism, fell in love, and had a beloved daughter. Also like most lives, these joys were juxtaposed with the most forsaken depths — disenchantment with the Communist movement that had intrigued her for years, failed love affairs, the scars from an abortion early in her adult life and her permanent separation from the man she loved because of her conversion to Catholicism.
At the age of 30, Dorothy found herself lost. As a single mother newly unemployed after the stock market crash of 1929, she faced the terrifying task of putting her life back together while incorporating the new faith that had torn it apart in the first place. She moved back to New York, praying fervently that God would show her where her place in the Church was and how she could continue championing social causes while standing firmly in her faith.
In a somewhat comical scene, God’s answer quite literally appeared on Dorothy’s doorstep. Peter Maurin, a French epigrammatist, approached her with an exciting idea for a new Catholic movement. Together they founded the Catholic Worker movement, which published an affordable newspaper that championed issues of justice from a distinctly Catholic perspective. This movement later included farms and houses of hospitality, where those without housing or family could go to enjoy meals and fellowship, being welcomed just as they were.
As a prophetic voice, Dorothy was certainly controversial — her unwavering commitment to pacifism cost supporters, her religious conservatism raised eyebrows, her anarchist views raised skepticism from the Catholic Church and she was even on the FBI watch list for a time (her FBI file will also be going to the Vatican, perhaps a first in the making of a saint). Throughout her life of intense social action, she kept prayer and faith at her core, attending daily Mass and often going on retreats and receiving the sacraments. Dorothy spent her life acting with the love that her Maker had first shown her.
I eagerly dove into the transcriptions from the life of such a legendary figure. Every few weeks I received a scan of original diaries or letters, typed them up according to specific Vatican guidelines and sent the finished product back to await my next assignment. Transcribing became a prayerful activity. It could not be rushed, like so many of today’s tasks. It sometimes took days to decipher Dorothy’s hasty handwriting, and more than once I surveyed friends and coworkers to help with especially difficult words. If Dorothy misspelled a word, forgot punctuation, or made any mistake, I was to keep these in my transcription. They were to reflect her exactly as she was, spelling errors and all.
Some of the diary pages were filled with mundane subjects — descriptions of car trouble, lists of finances, daily activities. Others were surprisingly funny, like her quip that she should resume the practice of going on retreat at Christmastime one year when her holiday company was particularly irritating, or when she decided to give away the pure gold Laetare Medal she had received from Notre Dame simply because “why keep it around.” My personal favorite cutting line reads, “Mass was long & boring, God forgive me. Fr. Cletus slow & prayerful. Must talk to him tomorrow.” I am not sure what became of Father Cletus, but that must have been quite the conversation!
Other documents revealed further “human” moments in Dorothy’s life. The ardent pacifist pretended not to notice a gun case sloppily disguised with knitting when visiting her adult daughter. At one point, she had to deal with the unexpected news of a priest in the Catholic Worker movement running off with his pregnant lover. When writing to a younger person in the movement, she shared her hope to open a women’s center and reflected on the proper role of the Church and State during crises, encouraging him to continue his compassionate social vision.
Still other passages laid bare the depths of Dorothy’s heart in intensely personal ways. In some vulnerable entries, Dorothy reflects on the sadness of leaving her daughter’s house after a visit or of the grief of losing loved ones. Some of the rawest letters were those to Forster Batterham, her partner of many years and the father of her daughter. Shortly after they separated, Dorothy was living in Mexico. While learning Spanish, Dorothy and her daughter taught English to the family they lived with. In a strikingly sad passage, Dorothy writes of the Mexican children asking, “What’s a Forster?” because her daughter spoke, sang and asked about her father so frequently. If her life is indicative of a saint, then being a saint is certainly not for the faint of heart.
Throughout the nearly two years of this transcription project, I developed a unique fondness for, and even a friendship with, Dorothy. In reading her words week after week, I peeked through a window into her life to which normally only close friends or family would be privy, to the point that it sometimes felt almost invasive.
I began this project assuming that I would be the one walking with Dorothy on her journey to official sainthood, but in a manner typical of God’s sense of humor, she ended up walking with me these past two years. As I began life as a young adult after college, she showed me that being a Catholic peacemaker does not mean backing down from difficult conversations in the Church or the world; rather, it necessitates quite the opposite. As I dealt with past wounds and losses, she shared her own experiences of loss and grief, showing me the paradoxical beauty of acknowledging our wounds and allowing them to shape and form us. As I began to navigate what it means to be a female minister and theologian in the Catholic Church (a task that is sometimes difficult!), she encouraged me, demonstrating how to love fearlessly amid adversity.
In short, I suppose that Dorothy helped me broaden my understanding of what a saint is.
I will not presume to know what Dorothy would be saying and doing if she were alive today. I am sure that she would surprise me, as she did over and over again in her personal writings. But I am certain of this: somehow, amid a global pandemic, she would urge us to hope; amid deep wounds of racism, she would urge us to work for justice and for peace; amid so much darkness, she would urge us to be a light of love. She would strive, as she wrote in her letters, to “make more of a heaven here.”
During her lifetime, Dorothy famously said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Perhaps against her wishes, I am praying for that very thing. Saints have the power to change the here and now. They show us that although this world is not as it should be, we can allow God to make it a bit more heavenly through us.
I am already looking forward to the huge party I will throw when Dorothy is (hopefully!) named a saint one day. And on that day, I will grin like a fool as I tell the story of that fateful Facebook post that invited me into her journey and her into mine.
Sadie Yates is from Charlottesville, Virginia and is currently pursuing an M.T.S. at Boston College.