In her footsteps: meet Dorothy Day's granddaughter

She is a Catholic activist in her own right, and recently visited Iowa State to speak.


Martha Hennessy is a soft-spoken woman, but her actions certainly are not.

She spoke on Monday in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union, giving a speech titled “Inspiration for the 21st Century Radical” in which she discussed her life within the Catholic Worker movement.

Hennessy’s grandmother, Dorothy Day, was a cofounder for the newspaper the Catholic Worker. Day helped create this paper in 1933. The newspaper focused on “the dignity of every person,” just as the movement continues to do today.

There are currently 185 Catholic Worker Communities in the world. These communities contain Catholic Worker houses, which strive to help the community, the poor, and according to the Catholic Worker movement website, “resist war and social injustice.”

As a strong participant in the Catholic Worker movement, Hennessy volunteers her time to helping those in need as well as protesting issues she feels most strongly about.

“The beauty of the model [of the Catholic Worker movement] is in its tolerance and it’s diversity,” said Hennessy, who currently volunteers most of her time to Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker house, in New York.

Aside from her work with aiding the poor, Hennessy has also given much of her time to protesting. Though there are multiple issues that Hennessy stands behind, she focused on the issue of torture and the Guantanamo Bay prison camps in her speech. Hennessy has served time in jail for her participation in nonviolent protests.

Hennessy’s life may be focused on her faith now, but that’s not how it always has been. “I was caught up in the human errors and inadequacies of the church … I have been out of the Catholic Church for most of my adult life.” Hennessy returned to the church and the Catholic Worker movement in 2004. “It brought awareness and awakening to my life.”

A class from Ames High was in attendance, as well as many students currently enrolled in several of the religious studies courses here at Iowa State.

“I thought it was very interesting,” said Sarah Langel, freshman in kinesiology and health, “I never really realized the work that [the Catholic Worker’s] do.”

Also in attendance was Alice McGary, a worker at the Mustard Seed Community Farm, a type of Catholic Worker house that grows food for local food pantries in Ames. “I resonate with all of the basic beliefs of the movement,” McGary said, who herself has been involved with the movement for 14 years.

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23 responses to “In her footsteps: meet Dorothy Day's granddaughter”

  1. I can’t say I’m overly impressed.

    What’s the alternative to Guatanamo, the death penalty, or letting them loose to kill more Americans? Geeze

    Futhermore, those guys get treated pretty well as prisoners.

    In a perfect world we wouldn’t need jails, but we also wouldn’t have crime. The reality is, crime is real, some people want to kill us, and the goverment has an obligation to keep us safe (hopefully without using the death penalty or toture).

  2. I’ll be honest with you; I had no idea that Dorothy Day had a grand-daughter much less that the grand-daughter was still alive and that she follows in her famous mentor and ancestor’s footsteps.

    To those Catholics out in blog-land who do not know anything about Dorothy herself, the posting does mention the Catholic Worker Movement — which some of her devout Catholic contemporaries thought was dangerously close to Communism. You might also try these ideas:

    –At least one and possibly three abortions before she converted to Catholicism.

    –The ONLY prominent Roman Catholic voice of that time to publicly speak out an “anti-war” message during during the wildly popular World War II.

    –Currently on-track to be canonized a saint in our church.

    AND she has a grand-daughter following in her footsteps ? Unbelievable!

  3. What I find fascinating about Dorothy Day — and inspiring — is that she could not be easily pigeon-holed. She was both anti-war and pro-life, expressing great solidarity with the poor. She was also deeply obedient and faithful to the teachings of the Church, with a profound love of the Eucharist and a fervent devotion to the Blessed Mother.

    She was neither liberal, nor conservative: she was simply Catholic.

  4. This is a very challenging subject for me. I’ve read about Dorothy Day and I’m very impressed by her radical brand of Catholicsim that I know I don’t have the courage to emulate. But, topics that collide head on with politics are extemely sensitive for me, because I see the battle lines beind drawn. Like the saying goes, when you mix religion with politics you get politics. I think that’s what Klaire, above, is saying as well.

    From what I know of Dorothy Day, I would agree with Deacon Greg that she was Catholic, not liberal or conservative. But these days who can walk that fine line?

  5. “I arrived at the Worker shortly after Cardinal Spellman had sent McIntyre down to read the riot act. What was apparently bugging Spellman was that the paper was called the Catholic Worker. What he was angling for, and didn’t get, was for [Dorothy] to drop the word ‘Catholic.’ He believed [the name] was an attempt to indicate that this was a Catholic position, and he didn’t want anybody else speaking for the church. This was the famous occasion when McIntyre said to her, ‘What would you do if the cardinal told you to shut down the Catholic Worker?’

    She said, ‘If our dear, sweet cardinal, who is the vicar of Christ in New York City, told me to shut down the Catholic Worker, I would close it down immediately.’ She was dead serious. That’s what drove me crazy. Dorothy really did go around referring to Spellman as ‘our dear, sweet cardinal’ and ‘the vicar of Christ.'” -Michael Harrington

  6. “She was neither liberal, nor conservative: she was simply Catholic.”

    Exactly right. Kind of like Mark Shea. Can’t be pigeonholed. and the older I get the more I am convinced that mature Catholicism cannot hold allegience to any political “side” because Catholicism seeks truth in Christ in all things. Ideologies do not.

  7. “Kind of like Mark Shea.”

    From what I have read of his blog, he appears very sincere.

    But he’s no Dorothy Day.

  8. During the Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia in 1976, Dorothy Day gave a presentation. I have always regretted that I did not attend it. Instead I went to Grace Kelly’s presentation. (Grace Kelly was brought up in Philadelphia and we all were besotted by the princess, whose talk was on the Christian Family.)

    A few years before I took a group of students to the Catholic Worker in New York. We served the guests. It was interesting to us that there was a pile of guns at the door. Dorothy said that no guns could be brought into the building.

  9. My favorite Dorothy Day story — which I recounted once in a homily for Corpus Christi — told of a Mass that was celebrated at the Catholic Worker in the 1970s. A young priest, trying to be hip, used a coffee cup for a chalice. After the mass, Dorothy picked up the cup, went outside, knelt down, dug a hole, kissed the cup, and buried it in the earth. It could never be used for coffee again, and she didn’t want anyone mistaking it for just another piece of china.

  10. ” … dangerously close to Communism.”

    Clearly those folks haven’t read the Acts of the Apostles.

    Our parish was pleased to sponsor this talk. I was unable to attend, but I had a nice chat with Martha Hennessy before the committee whisked her off to dinner.

    I admire radical Catholics, the ones who exemplify the root of that word, radix, in that they are eager and single-minded at getting to the root of the Gospel. I wish I were more like them. And the Catholic Church would be better off with more Catholics like Dorothy.

  11. crazylikeknoxes

    One quote from Dorothy Day has always impressed me:

    “I try to be loyal to the Church – to its teachings, its ideals. I love the Church with all my heart and soul. I never go inside a Church without thanking God almighty for giving me a home. The Church is my home and I don’t want to be homeless.” (Coles, Dorothy Day, A Radical Devotion, p. 82)

  12. At age 75 Dorothy Day went to jail during a non-violent protest in support of the United Farm Workers in California. Being a pacifist she was no stranger to protests, something that caused her many enemies in the Church during World War II and the Vietnam era. In the 1950s she refused to take shelter during air raid drills and would sit outside on park benches. She was jailed three times, once for a month.

    She distrusted the political system and, according to one source I read, refused to vote.

    Now, I wonder how she would have responded to the protest on Wall Street happening today in New York. I read that some Catholic Workers from the Catholic Worker House nearby are participating.

  13. Written several years ago in the Washington Post by Colman McCarthy:

    After (Dorothy) Day died Nov. 29, 1980, no Catholic bishop attended her Requiem Mass. Years later, when she was not around to rebuke churchmen for their just-war theories, it was safe to call on the Vatican to create Saint Dorothy. One promoter for sainthood was Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, in front of whose St. Patrick’s Cathedral Day and fellow Catholic Workers had often protested the Vietnam War that the cardinal, as the U.S. church’s military vicar, backed.
    If Day ever is canonized, it might be as the patron saint of holy irony.

  14. Max Sand #15

    And Cardinal O’Connor was a navy chaplain in Korea and Vietnam. He wrote a book called
    “A Chaplain Looks at Vietnam” in 1968. Twenty years later he said that he regretted having published it.

  15. Deacon Greg, if we had more Americans who were “simply Catholic” enough to give their whole lives to the service of the poor, the Church in this country would look a lot different than it does right now.

    BTW, I think Atlanta may be unique in having a Catholic Worker House run by Protestants: the Open Door Community, which ministers to the homeless and to prisoners. Not long ago, the Georgia Bulletin did a story on a young Catholic from an affluent background who is now taking the year before he starts college to live out his faith at Open Door and other CW communities. I think of him as our youngest deacon:

  16. With all respect to the goodness of Dorothy Day and/or to her Granddaughter, it all boils down to this:

    The greatest witness to the Catholic Faith is when Catholics live like real Catholics.

    We all could be the “Catholic Worker”, and change the world. All we have to do is really LIVE Catholic, in every aspect of our lives. (I admit, harder said than done, but that’s why there are saints).

  17. If Cardinal John O’Connor was for her, I would support her as well. He said this as part of his letter to open the Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Dorothy Day

    “It has also been noted that Dorothy Day often seemed friendly to political groups hostile to the Church, for example, communists, socialists, and anarchists. It is necessary to divide her political stances in two spheres: pre-and post- conversion. After her conversion, she was neither a member of such political groupings nor did she approve of their tactics or any denial of private property. Yet, it must be said, she often held opinions in common with them. What they held in common was a common respect for the poor and a desire for economic equity. In no sense did she approve of any form of atheism, agnosticism, or religious indifference. Moreover, her complete commitment to pacifism in imitation of Christ often separated her from these political ideologies. She rejected all military force; she rejected aid to force in any way in a most idealistic manner. So much were her “politics” based on an ideology of nonviolence that they may be said to be apolitical. Like so many saints of days gone by, she was an idealist in a non-ideal world. It was her contention that men and women should begin to live on earth the life they would one day lead in heaven, a life of peace and harmony. Much of what she spoke of in terms of social justice anticipated the teachings of Pope John Paul II and lends support to her cause.”

    So it appears that along the way, the Catholic Church won out in the internal battle she had going on within. I doubt anyone could put it better than the great Cardinal from NY…

  18. \\What’s the alternative to Guatanamo, the death penalty, or letting them loose to kill more Americans? Geeze\\

    Those held in American prisons for any reason should be subjected to trial.

    And an alternative to capital punishment is life in prison without parole. Haven’t you heard?

    I’m against capital punishment as part of my pro-life ethic. Jesus DID give the qualifications for the executioners in John 8.

  19. I have the book, “The Duty of Delight” The Diaries of Dorothy Day edited by Robert Ellsberg and after reading it through, find myself picking it up from time to time to any random part and am always moved by her down to earthness. She makes it possible for all of us to live a Christian life. Peg

  20. Dorothy Day had a daughter, Tamar. Ms. Hennessy is Dorothy Day’s grandchild.

    Francis Cardinal Spellman, when asked why he did not shut down the Catholic Worker movement and Dorothy Day, stated, “She might be a saint!” (The American Pope).

    Dorothy Day, even though a pacifist and a progressive in her secular life, was a traditional Catholic (as noted in other posts) in her spiritual life.

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