Dorothy Day would be a saint for a ‘polarised’ world

Dorothy Day would be a saint for a ‘polarised’ world

While US Catholics currently claim 13 official American saints, experts at Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Libraries are doing their part to aid efforts to determine whether that number may soon grow to include Dorothy Day.

Day co-founded the Catholic Worker movement in New York city in the 1930s following her conversion to Catholicism. Day’s model for integrating service, piety, and activism lives on today in more than 200 Catholic Worker communities around the globe.

On the occasion of her November 8 birthday, Crux caught up with Marquette’s team for their perspective on a key part of Day’s canonisation cause’s current phase – an in-depth digitisation and review of Day’s unpublished writings. Members of Day’s Catholic Worker movement also spoke about her potential canonisation and her challenging witness for a polarised US Catholic Church.

Phil Runkel, archivist for Marquette’s Dorothy Day – Catholic Worker Collection in Milwaukee has been gathering and organising Day’s papers and other related materials for more than four decades.

His life’s work has built a collection of thousands of primary documents that started with a single shipment in March of 1962 from Day herself, who chose Marquette because, according to Runkel, no one else had asked yet.


Marquette’s director of libraries had made the initial request for manuscript materials in 1957. William Ready had met Day on a number of occasions and had become increasingly convinced that he was in the presence of a saint. In Runkel’s view, Day’s willingness to send her materials to Ready was also due to the efforts of Marquette’s long-serving journalism dean, Jeremiah  O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan had welcomed Day to campus to speak in the 1930s and had penned a glowing letter to her after the lecture. Some of O’Sullivan’s students were responsible for starting Milwaukee’s first Catholic Worker community.

Today, Marquette’s expansive collection includes Day’s diaries, appointment calendars, article and book manuscripts, and correspondence with individuals such as Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Thomas Merton and Eileen Egan. Runkel has worked particularly hard to recover materials from Day’s early life, a task made difficult by the substantial fire that occurred at Day’s Staten Island house in the early 1930s.

Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”

Interest in the Dorothy Day – Catholic Worker Collection has been high in recent years as Day’s official canonisation cause has picked up steam following her designation as a Servant of God at the turn of the century. In 2015, Pope Francis highlighted Dorothy Day’s witness in his address to Congress during his apostolic voyage to the US, naming her alongside Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Thomas Merton.

A year later, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York announced that Day’s process was moving into the canonical inquiry phase, featuring a theological review of her published writings and a historical commission tasked with examining her unpublished materials.

As a result of the latter, Marquette’s Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Amy Cooper Cary, has been coordinating with the Dorothy Day Guild, an organisation of the Archdiocese of New York that focuses on Day’s cause. In what Cary describes as a “true collaborative effort” between Milwaukee and New York, an ambitious project to digitise and transcribe thousands upon thousands of pages of Day’s unpublished writings has unfolded over the past two years.

This digitisation process involves, in Cary’s words, a “whole flotilla of people” including Runkel, Marquette students, and the Guild’s many transcribers. At the conclusion of the project – Cary hopes to see it wrapped up by mid-2020 – the resulting materials will be shipped to the Vatican as an important part of Day’s ongoing canonisation cause. In addition, the digitised files will be made available to the public as an extension of Marquette’s special collections.


Conversations about Day’s canonisation cause frequently turn to Day’s famous line: “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Some marshal the line in support of their critiques of the movement to canonise Day; others believe it paradoxically strengthens her cause.

Curiously, according to Runkel, researchers have yet to locate this oft-cited remark. Runkel suspects that Day said it when she received an award at DePaul University in the 1970s, and that it may have appeared in a local community newspaper, but he has yet to find it.

Kate Marshall, founder of the House of Hagar Catholic Worker community in Wheeling, West Virginia, says that for her, Day’s famous line is not so much a referendum on official canonisation, but that “part of what she meant is to not dismiss who God will use so easily, because what is not so easy to swallow is that the answer is us!”

Walker refers to himself as ‘agnostic’ about Day’s official sainthood”

Turning to the current climate of polarisation in society, Marshall believes that she “cannot think of a more needed time for Day’s canonisation”. For Marshall, Day’s life “teaches us that when we live out the Corporal Works of Mercy, suddenly many of the labels that make us question each other and divide us – clean, dirty, holy, unholy, left, right-fall away as more meaningful God questions surface: are you hungry? Is your soul thirsting? Can I visit you?”

Ted Walker, a former co-managing editor of the New York edition of the Catholic Worker newspaper, has a different perspective on Day’s potential canonisation and its ramifications for US Catholics.

Walker refers to himself as “agnostic” about Day’s official sainthood, noting that he tries to keep before him Dorothy’s dynamic tension of practicing a fervent devotion to the Church while at the same time constantly challenging the Church to do as the Church preaches.

This does not mean that Walker is entirely closed to the idea of canonisation; he explains that “if I believe in the movement of Dorothy’s canonisation, I do so because of the folks at Marquette and the folks in NYC who are actively guiding this process”.


Walker is also emphatic about the potency of Day’s witness for a suffering Church today: “I believe Dorothy is a model not only for how to be Christian in addressing the myriad problems and suffering in the US, but also how to be a lay Catholic within the Church, which has its own myriad of suffering and problems.”

Identifying as both a seminarian and a Catholic Worker, Nic Cochran sees Day’s potential canonisation as a welcome validation of Day’s life as one of “authentic witness to the Gospel”. He sees her as the “patroness of tension” capable of being a “bridge between two worlds that are often separated in American Catholicism: liturgy and social justice”.

For Cochran, “Dorothy was neither/both a traditionalist or a progressive Catholic, and that’s precisely why she is a saint”.

Day’s canonisation process is still far from the finish line, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t influencing lives today.

Nick Mayrand is a Journalism Intern at