Granddaughter gives new perspective on Dorothy Day

| Bridget Ryder | March 3, 2017 | 0 Comments

Kate Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, talks about the book she wrote about Day during a presentation at the University of St. Thomas Feb. 27. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In new biography, Kate Hennessy details Catholic convert and activist as mother, grandmother

For Kate Hennessy, the story of Dorothy Day is not the story of a social activist, an influential Catholic American or even a potential saint. It is, rather, the deeply personal story of her grandmother, whom she knew and loved.

Hennessy brought that story to the Twin Cities Feb. 27-28 as part of her book tour for her January release of “Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty” (Scribner, 384 pages). During two-plus days of book readings at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Hennessy met with students, faculty, the public and members of the movement her grandmother co-founded in 1933, The Catholic Worker.

Although Day has already been widely written about, the biography sheds new light on the Catholic convert’s life and person.

“She is known for changing the American Catholic Church and for her canonization [cause], but these are not the most important things to me. The most important thing to me besides that she is my grandmother is her great work, the Catholic Worker,” Hennessy said at a breakfast with St. Thomas students Feb. 27. “I believed that my mother’s story needed to be told and that my grandmother’s story as a mother needed to be told, and if I didn’t write it, it would be lost.”


An ‘intimate portrait’

Hennessy, 57, is the youngest of Day’s nine grandchildren through her only child, Tamar Teresa Batterham Hennessy. During Hennessy’s childhood, Day regularly visited the farm in Vermont where she grew up, and Hennessy also spent summers at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York, where Day often spoke at peace movement conferences in the 1960s and ’70s. In her teens, Hennessy grew even closer to her grandmother during Day’s last years at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York City. Day died in 1980, and Cardinal John O’Connor opened her cause for canonization in 2000. The process continues to move forward. Hennessy’s book, however, grew out of years of conversations with her own mother, the 27 years between the death of Day and Tamar’s death in 2008.

“I’d say, ‘You’ve got to write this,’” Hennessy explained during a public reading Feb. 28. “‘I can’t,’ my mother would say. Then I’d say, ‘I’ll write it,’ and my mother would tell me, ‘No, you can’t.’”

The back and forth went on intermittently for years. But a year after her mother’s death, Hennessy became convinced she needed to write her mother’s and grandmother’s stories.

“This is actually an intimate portrait of my grandmother and mother as it concerns my mother,” Hennessy said.

It also incorporates Catholic Worker history, since Tamar grew up within and loved the movement her mother co-founded with Peter Maurin. Hennessy said the original draft was twice as thick as the published book, fattened by stories of the Catholic Worker as the extended family of both her mother and grandmother. She is considering publishing those sections as a blog. Still, Hennessy’s book uncovers some new history of the Catholic Worker. It also tells more of the story of Tamar’s father, Forster Batterham, a figure Hennessy said had been lost in the abundance of Day’s own writing.

Hennessy hopes the biography will make Day human in a new way.

“Just don’t put Dorothy Day on a pedestal and then walk away,” she said at the Feb. 28 evening reading.

For Hennessy, it is what Day achieved as the mother of a natural family and in her perseverance, despite a deep sense of failure, that proves her heroism. The book also recounts Tamar’s own heroism as both the daughter of a woman everyone considered a mother and the mother of a large family in a difficult marriage. In a closeness that persevered despite misjudgments, misunderstandings and hurts, Hennessy considers the relationship between her mother and grandmother “one of the most powerful relationships I have ever witnessed.”

“They had some difficult times, some fierce times, but they never gave up. That wasn’t an option,” she said Feb. 28. “The extrapolation of that is the Catholic Worker. It never gives up on people. They knew when they were taking many people in it was for life. Love is not easy — what it asks of us. This is something we have to live. As my mother would say, we all have to live our disasters, and one of those disasters is love.”

Local ties

The University of St. Thomas has a long history with both Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. During her life, Day spoke at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, said Anne Klejment, a history professor at St. Thomas. In one of her 1960 columns for The Catholic Worker newspaper, Day mentions Jim Shannon, former auxiliary bishop and president of the university, lending her his car. Klejment, who has dedicated her academic work largely to Day, won the 1997 Pax Christi Award for her book “American Catholic Pacifism: The Influence of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.” She also organized Hennessy’s visit and is a member of the Dorothy Day Canonization Support Network.

St. Thomas’ Center for Catholic Studies, too, has a strong association with Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. Michael Naughton, director of the Center for Catholic Studies, began the collection process for Day’s canonization for the Claretian Fathers while in graduate school. In 1999, Naughton, along with two other St. Thomas professors, started a Catholic Worker House on St. Paul’s west side that became the catalyst for the Center for Catholic Studies’ Latino Leadership Program.

Today, around 240 Catholic Worker communities worldwide commit themselves to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken, its website states. There are seven Catholic Worker communities in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Karen Loome, a student in the Catholic Studies master’s program, is the co-founder of one of Stillwater’s two Catholic Worker communities with her husband, Tom. She is doing an independent study on Dorothy Day with Klejment. Loome attended the Feb. 28 reading.

“It flushes out the story of Dorothy Day in a new way,” she said of Hennessy’s book. “With Kate’s book, there’s more color.”

Loome, 58, said Day has influenced how she has lived most of her adult life.

“I don’t think I’d even know how to be Catholic without the Catholic Worker Movement. At least not the kind of Catholic I’d want to be,” she said.

Klejment hopes that through Hennessy’s visit, Day will inspire a new generation.

“I think it’s important for students to see Catholicism as not only a way we worship, but also the way we can live, and Dorothy Day put them together,” Klejment said.

Hennessy’s book is available at the University of St. Thomas book store and other major book sellers.





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