Descendant of cofounder of Catholic Worker movement speaks at local Catholic Worker House, other places
By Jeannine M. Pitas
DUBUQUE — “Whenever I enter a Catholic Worker house, anywhere, I immediately know where I am,” said Kate Hennessy, author of the 2017 book “Dorothy Day: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother.” Speaking to a small gathering at Hope House Catholic Worker in Dubuque Feb. 4 as part of a four-day tour of the Dubuque area, Hennessy, who is indeed the daughter of Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day’s daughter Tamar, was eager to share a story that, despite the plethora of books and documentaries on the Catholic Worker Movement, was still waiting to be told.
“People say that even a brief meeting with my grandmother could be life-changing. Once you meet Dorothy Day, they’d tell me, you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what hit you.”
At the same time, Hennessy is eager to counteract the celebrity mentality around Dorothy Day. “People don’t get that the Catholic Worker is a community. I even ran across that publishing the book – all the editors wanted to hear about was Dorothy Day. This made it hard to tell the story – I had to fight to keep my mother and the other workers in it,” she said.
“My mother and I spent a lot of time talking about my grandmother. My mother was not a writer, while I am; therefore, when she died, it fell to me to tell this story that no one else could tell – that of the strong, enduring relationship between a mother and a daughter.” Hennessy said that she is eager to refute a commonly-held – and incorrect – belief that Day was not a good mother.
“Some people are all too eager to say that Day was an indifferent mother. There was not a bone of indifference in her body. Of course she made mistakes, as all parents do. People criticize her because looking for perfection is one way of dismissing her.”
Hennessy stated that when Day’s cause of canonization was opened, Cardinal John O’Connor, then archbishop of New York, contacted Tamar with questions about Day as a mother. Tamar responded with a letter saying that Day had a heroic sense of family and was completely devoted to her daughter while leading the Catholic Worker Movement.
“After the death of my mother, I wanted people to know this aspect of my grandmother. This history of the Catholic Worker, and of the 20th century more broadly, is the history of my family. I wanted people to see the Catholic Worker from Tamar’s viewpoint, learning what it was like to grow up in voluntary poverty and pacifism. I wanted to show how this affected us personally – such as when my brother was drafted to fight in Vietnam and chose to go. My grandmother supported him, visiting him at Ft. Benning during his basic training, exchanging letters when he was overseas, and greeting him when he came back.”
When some audience members asked about Day’s more controversial political beliefs, as well as her visits to Cuba and the USSR, Hennessy responded by stating that one can only understand Dorothy Day by not thinking in black and white terms. “Dorothy herself did not think this way. Everything was nuanced, and she was always questioning. In Cuba she asked Fidel Castro to release priests from prison. In the USSR, she visited a writers’ group and broke up the meeting by asking about the nation’s most maligned critic, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. She was fearless.”
This refusal to think in black and white terms was what allowed her to be devoted to her grandson who fought in Vietnam, and it also allowed her to stay close to Tamar despite their differing views on the Catholic Church. “My mother would often say to my grandmother, ‘You don’t understand. You weren’t raised Catholic.’” Hennessy explained that while Day never voiced disapproval of her daughter’s desire to leave the church, she wrote in her diary that she was heartbroken over it, and she always prayed for her daughter and grandchildren.
“My mother, on the other hand, was also her father’s daughter.”
“She had a more scientific mentality and saw the church as too paternalistic. There was also the issue that my father’s first love had been a young man, and he always believed he was going to hell. My mother knew this. She felt that the institutional church was telling her to reject certain people, when she believed that we are all children of God.”
Throughout the talk, Hennessy returned to the lasting impact of the Catholic Worker Movement.
“When people ask if I am involved with the Worker, I don’t know how to answer,” said Hennessy. “It is not my vocation – I have my own life. But the Catholic Worker profoundly affects each person it touches, grabbing hold in some form or another. It never lets go.”
For JoJo Claycomb, who has resided at Hope House in Dubuque for four months, hearing this story left a deep impression. “I can relate to the complexity and tension of a tight-knit family,” he said. “Hearing this story brought a tear to my eye.”
Aside from Hope House, Hennessy also spoke at several other locations in the Dubuque area, including: Feb. 3 at Sinsinawa Mound in Wisconsin, motherhouse of the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters; Feb. 5 at Mount Carmel, Dubuque, motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and Feb. 6 at Loras College, also in Dubuque.
The book, “Dorothy Day: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother” by Kate Hennessy, is available for purchase at River Lights Bookstore in Dubuque.
Cover photo: (left to right): Tom Johnson, one of the Catholic workers at Hope House, a Catholic Worker House in Dubuque, poses with Kate Hennessy, an author who wrote a book on her grandmother. (Photo by Jeannine Pitas/The Witness)
Editor’s Note: The Vatican approved the start of the canonization process for Dorothy Day in 2000, naming her a “servant of God.” In 2016, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York opened a new phase in the canonization effort, the canonical “inquiry of life,” during which the archdiocese began interviewing eyewitnesses who knew Day and collecting other evidence that will eventually be presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints at the Vatican.