Embracing poverty: life at the Catholic Worker

What is it like to live and work among the poorest of the poor in New York City?

From the Wall Street Journal, here’s a rare glimpse at the volunteers who live at the Catholic Worker:

Felton Davis is one of a dozen folks who live and work at Maryhouse and St. Joseph House, East Village shelters run entirely on informal donations and volunteer labor. Rooted in the New York-bred philosophy of Catholic anarchism known as the Catholic Worker movement, their aim is to live in solidarity with the “friends” they feed and house. When Mr. Davis invited me to visit, I kept waiting for approval from some sort of Maryhouse official. I didn’t realize that no one is in charge—the highest office is volunteer.

When we finally met up, Mr. Davis, a 60-year-old former postal clerk, was dressed in his usual outback-ready plaid shirt, cargo vest and jeans, culled from the donated-clothes closet. He gave a quick tour of Maryhouse. With its creaky wood floors and peeling paint, the place has good vibes. It’s housed in a former music school on East Third Street with a handsome auditorium. Downstairs, the supply closets brim with donated food, clothing and toiletries—bags of stuff appear every day on the front stoop. Meals, served in the pink and red dining room, are prepared in the sunny back kitchen with a cement floor and an old iron stove. The school’s tiny practice rooms were long ago converted to bedrooms, each wide enough for a bookshelf and a single bed.

Mr. Davis spends most afternoons watching the door and supervising the showers, but today’s agenda includes a rare trip to the Astor Place Kmart to buy socks and ladies’ underwear. In the morning, a homeless friend had declined a bath, saying, “Why should I bother showering if I have to put on dirty underwear?” Mr. Davis had no argument.

Strolling past the neighborhood’s crowded cafes and sparkling glass condos, Mr. Davis answered nosy questions about volunteer life. His possessions consist of his donated wardrobe, a wall of books and a $500 laptop. He eats all his meals at Maryhouse. His phone is the pay phone in the hall. He does email at the library. He doesn’t do restaurants or shows. This spring, he went with a pal to see Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” “That was $37.50, it was in 3-D,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “It wasn’t worth it!”

Some Maryhouse volunteers take a $20 weekly stipend (variously referred to as “ice-cream money” or “cigarette money”), but many decline. They share a monthly MetroCard pass. They once pulled newspapers from the trash, but now that everyone in the East Village reads the paper online, they share a single subscription to the New York Times.

At Kmart, it takes Mr. Davis considerable effort to select five packs of socks and underwear. When I follow behind at the register and casually blow $2.29 on a packet of nuts, it’s the end of the world: “You just spent a fortune! For what! Ten cashews?” No, he does not want to try them.

All this economizing pays off. The $400,000 operating budget, kept in a checking account at the local bank, produces nearly 1,000 meals a week for the homeless and buys food, clothing and shelter for the volunteers and nearly 70 guests, including a family of refugees from the Congo. That’s less than $4,000 per year per resident—about what I pay for my dog walker.

Read the rest.


  1. I think I might enjoy this kind of living.. Would be something I would have to get used to but I am in the process of taking personal stock of my life and making it as simple as possible.. It’s a work in progress..

  2. From the WSJ article:
    “When Mr. Davis invited me to visit, I kept waiting for approval from some sort of Maryhouse official. I didn’t realize that no one is in charge—the highest office is volunteer.”

    Now there’s a model of servant leadership!

    In the late 1970’s I took a group of college students to the Catholic Worker in NYC. We just walked in and said that we were from a college outside of Philadelphia and we like to help serve the meal. What I remember, too, was the notice at the entrance that the guests were to leave any guns at the door.

  3. Deacon Moore says:

    Wow, a story about Jesus in our midsts and so few comments. What an incredible man.

  4. Catherine says:

    Deacon Moore, I suspect that many of us think there is nothing to add — the lives described in the article say it all!

  5. Midwestlady says:

    Wait. You have a “dog walker?”

  6. IntoTheWest says:

    Oh, for God’s sake…why all the snark? Tons of urban working people have dog-walkers. So what? Besides, the author of the WSJ piece has the dog walker, not Robyn. Although he/she might, too. Is having dog walkers not in keeping with Catholic teaching? Is she improperly Catechised because she has a dog walker?

  7. IntoTheWest says:

    He’s amazing, as are the others in that and similar communities. Truly a rare and holy person.

  8. Midwestlady says:

    No. But it just struck me that someone was paying that much for a dog walker. I live in the country, and walking the dog out here–aka being outside with it–is half the reason you get a dog. It just seemed odd and somewhat extravagant to me.

  9. IntoTheWest says:

    Well, you must live in one heckuva backwater if you never heard of a dog walker. I bet you think indoor plumbing is odd and extravagant too…/eyeroll.

  10. Midwestlady says:

    We have plumbing in flyover country, West Coast guy. I wouldn’t live where I couldn’t take the time to walk my own dog.

  11. IntoTheWest says:

    City people rely on dogs for companionship just as much as those living anywhere else. They walk their dogs in the morning and in the evening, but hire dog walkers to take them out mid-day, for the obvious reasons and also to make sure they get out of small apartments and get plenty of exercise.

    You really do love to sneer at anyone who isn’t exactly like you, doesn’t think like you, worship God like you, live like you, vote like you, etc. What an odd personality for someone who prides herself on her knowledge and expression of Catholicism. Key word: pride

  12. Exactly. This story puts everything that I do pale in comparison. Nothing more to add.

  13. Me? have a dog walker? LOL!!.. I would need a lot of dog walkers considering I have 7 of them and I’d need a lot of money too…. No, I don’t have a dog walker..I was just commenting on the article saying that I could see myself living a life like this..

  14. richard kuebbing says:

    I think the word anarchism is not the right word:


    1-The theory or doctrine that all forms of government are oppressive and undesirable and should be abolished.

    2-Active resistance and terrorism against the state, as used by some anarchists.

    3-Rejection of all forms of coercive control and authority: “He was inclined to anarchism; he hated system and organization and uniformity” (Bertrand Russell).

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