Granddaughter’s Memoir Paints Complicated Portrait of Would-Be Saint Dorothy Day

One of Kate Hennessy’s favorite memories of her grandmother, Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day, is of sitting in a bedroom at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, N.Y., watching her use an old manual typewriter to answer people’s letters. “Each letter would of course provoke a story,” Hennessy recalled. “She was a fabulous storyteller with a mesmerizing voice. I could listen to her for hours, just being raised by her voice.” Watching her grandmother compose what would become famous columns for the Catholic Worker newspaper also impressed Hennessy, the youngest of Day’s nine grandchildren. “She always said to everyone, ‘Keep a journal.’ So I took her advice. I started keeping a journal, probably from when I was 12 years old. It was really a lifeline for me,” Hennessy said.

Now Hennessy has culled those memories into a book about Day, a complex woman that the Vatican has given the title “Servant of God,” the first step in formally recognizing Dorothy Day as a saint. Hennessy recalls both her mother, who died in 2008, and grandmother, who died in 1980, as women of contradictions. Day, who was born in 1897, was a convert to Catholicism who dabbled in communism, had an abortion as a young woman, and never married Tamar’s father. She loved taking to the road for speaking engagements, but also craved silence and solitude. Condemned by some American bishops in the early days of her work, she managed to turn a radical belief in welcoming strangers into a chain of “houses of hospitality” that still house and feed homeless people in 250 cities around the world.

Day herself bristled at any suggestion that she was saintly. “Don’t dare call me a saint,” she famously said.