Soup With a Smile

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Day eagerly sought out the bohemian life in Greenwich Village, drinking and partying with Eugene O'Neill, John Dos Passos, John Reed and Hart Crane. In his book about the New York literary scene in the 1920s, Exiles Return, Malcolm Cowley wrote that "gangsters admired Dorothy Day, because she could drink them under the table." In her own book, she remembers stumbling home early in the morning from parties and sneaking inside a cathedral to pray. Most of her friends were atheists or agnostics, and she felt that none of them would understand her growing spiritual hunger. For a woman of her time, Day led a remarkably free life, taking on a series of lovers and even having an abortion in 1919. Later she moved in with Forster Batterham, whom she called her common-law husband, and gave birth to a girl in 1927.

The birth of her daughter, Tamar, catalyzed a dramatic change in Day's life. Raised an Episcopalian, she became a Catholic at age thirty and had her daughter baptized in the church. That prompted Batterham to leave her; she also lost many of her radical friends, who viewed the Catholic Church as a bulwark of conservatism and privilege.

For several years Day floundered, wondering how she could reconcile her newfound faith with her outrage at the misery she saw on the Depression-era sidewalks of New York. The meeting with Maurin -- a French man who had heard of Day -- was one of those encounters that echo through history; together they vowed to build an organization that would challenge the church to live up to its own teaching. The first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper -- which is still published monthly and still sells for one cent -- was sold in New York's Union Square on May Day in 1933. The core beliefs haven't changed: that capitalist profit-mongering in the face of poverty is a sin; that war is evil; and that "I was a stranger and you took me in" is not a Gospel piety, but the only way to live a Christian life.

Day spent the rest of her life building the Catholic Worker movement, crisscrossing the country to open "houses of hospitality" (others would call them shelters), march with farm workers, picket with strikers and get arrested in demonstrations for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.

She came to Denver in the late 1970s and met with several Catholic nuns who were interested in the Catholic Worker. "She had deep and wonderful values," recalls Sister Anna Koop, who brought together Denver's first Catholic Worker group in 1977. "Somebody offered her a glass of wine and she said, 'I don't partake of that which makes my brother stumble.' Some people felt like she was stern, but I found her to be disciplined but incredibly caring."

Sister Anna believes that Day has had a huge impact on the church. "I think Dorothy Day is a very important person in American Catholic history. Her creation of a movement focused on solidarity with the poor is a beautiful contribution to Catholicism. She developed a philosophy and theology that considers people who are struggling as part of your family."

The Catholic Worker house opened on Welton Street on July 8, 1978, with room for about twelve residents, and its doors have never closed. Sister Anna and the other Workers live in the house along with the guests; part of the Worker tradition is that there is no hierarchy and no professional staff. Everyone in the house is among a community of equals.

"I've always said that the Catholic Worker is where the far left meets the far right," says Sister Anna. "Republicans love the idea that a lot of money isn't going into bureaucracy when they give a dollar to us."

Plumley's journey into the Catholic Worker movement began in the 1960s when he came to Denver to attend St. Thomas Seminary, intending to become a priest. The son of a Wyoming petroleum engineer, he grew up in an oil camp called Sand Draw and attended a one-room school. When he came to Denver in 1965, he had never seen a black person. As part of his training at the seminary, he began volunteering with the Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor. He vividly remembers tending to an elderly African-American man named Mr. Tolliver. His job was to give the bedridden man a shave and a haircut every week, a daunting task since the irascible Mr. Tolliver had a reputation for throwing out his nurses. But the nineteen-year-old Wyoming boy soon struck up a friendship with him.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers