Lots of kids grow up thinking their grandmothers are saints. Martha Hennessy’s actually is. Or almost is.
It depends on your definition.
According to the technical language the Vatican has perfected over the centuries, her grandmother is Servant of God, which means if the canonization process takes the next steps—through the stages of Venerable and Blessed—she’ll be formally named a saint.
Saint Dorothy Day.
Which, if you know anything about Dorothy Day, is kind of shocking.
And if you don’t know anything about Dorothy Day, Martha can tell you all about her when she visits our Lisle campus September 27 and 28.
Here’s one way to measure Dorothy Day’s significance. When Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress in 2015, he lifted up four Americans as models of humanity’s universal spiritual and moral quest: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.
Three with Illinois connections, two who converted to Catholicism, and two with records—the incarceration kind.
Day checked the box in every category.
As a child, she lived on the south side of Chicago and later attended the University of Illinois.
As a young woman, she felt drawn to the Catholic tradition and eventually wrote one of the greatest conversion narratives of all time.
As a Catholic, she became the mother of Catholic radicalism in the United States.
At first, you think she’s harmless. Dorothy Day lived a life of voluntary poverty and renounced violence. What’s so radical about that?
Then you realize: the person who refuses to shop and won’t support the nation’s wars is a unique kind of threat in modern society.
Dorothy Day cared for the homeless and unemployed. She sided with workers and migrants. She protested wars, hot and cold. She denounced capitalism. She decried racism. She committed civil disobedience. She embodied the role of Christian anarchist.
Some bishops scolded her. Some admired her. All feared her.
Day spoke her mind—in print and in churches, in universities, at marches and rallies, and in jail. In response to her critics, she quoted Jesus.
“Love your enemies.”
“Sell what you have and give to the poor.”
“All who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Day did most of her speaking in the newspaper she and fellow radical Peter Maurin founded: “The Catholic Worker,” still sold today for its original price—a penny a copy.
She spoke most eloquently in her autobiography “The Long Loneliness.”
I read it in 1985 as a graduate student. Two years later, I called a priest I didn’t know and said, “I want to be Catholic.” Like other restless souls, I was fed up with what ethicist Gibson Winter called the “suburban captivity” of Christianity. Day offered a compelling alternative. She encouraged me to explore more deeply the social teaching of the church. And she introduced me to the thinkers, writers, artists, and activists of the bohemian Catholic counterculture far from the atmosphere of parochial school and parish fish fry.
Her reference on page 202 to St. Procopius Abbey didn’t mean anything to me at the time.
Now it’s underlined with dark ink, and the page is folded over.
Martha Hennessy is coming to Benedictine, because this corner of the global Benedictine network was very special to her grandmother. Day was an Oblate, a lay devotee, of the Benedictine tradition and had a singular love for the way of St. Benedict.
See the marvelous research guide on Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement prepared by BenU’s Instruction Librarian Joan Hopkins. It includes wonderful archival photographs of “Miss Dorothy Day” at St. Procopius.
For years, Martha Hennessy has followed in the footsteps of her not-so-harmless granny, troubling the conscience of the church and reacquainting the world with the untamed Jesus.
Watch for details about her upcoming visit.
So is her grandmother a saint?
Between puffs on her trademark cigarette, Dorothy Day often quipped, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
That’s probably what all real saints say.
Dr. Peter A. Huff
Director, Center for Benedictine Values
[Photograph of “Dorothy Day with granddaughter Martha Hennessy in 1972.” from The Chester Telegraph]