CathBlog - Remembering Dorothy Day's visit 40 years ago

On Saturday 14 August, an enthusiastic commemoration was held in Melbourne, Australia, of the 40th anniversary of the visit to that city of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. On a cold and windy night, one hundred people gathered at All Saints parish hall in Fitzroy, an inner city suburb with large public housing estates, next door to a site where Dorothy had stopped for a meal in August 1970.

Few people know that Dorothy Day (1896-1980), anarchist-pacifist and Catholic, who fed and housed thousands of homeless people in New York and campaigned tirelessly for peace, had a major influence on Australian Catholicism. As historian Ed Campion and others have written, Dorothy Day's impact in the southern continent dated from the 1930s when an Australian group began a newspaper called Catholic Worker which took its name from the one started by Day three years earlier in the States.

During August 1970 Dorothy, then 73, accompanied by Eileen Egan of Pax, spent three weeks in Australia as guest of two priests, Roger Pryke and John Heffey, who had met her in New York some 30 years earlier. Dorothy first stayed a week in Sydney with Roger Pryke, then parish priest of Harbord. Then she had a week in Victoria, half of which was spent at St Benedict's farming community at Gladysdale as a guest of Fr John Heffey, and the other half she spent in Melbourne at the home of Paul and Marie Ormonde.

She returned for another week at Harbord. On Sunday 23 August 1970, as part of the campaign for peace in Vietnam, she shared a platform with national Moratorium leader and well known parliamentarian Jim Cairns at Sydney Town Hall. Dorothy went on from Australia to visit Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India, and then Tanzania and England before returning to New York.

On the Sunday afternoon of her stay in Melbourne, Dorothy addressed an overflow crowd in the Public Lecture Theatre at the university on issues of war and peace, and ways of building the new society. She proposed her comprehensive vision a new social order: "Our present capitalist, industrial system is inhuman and wicked. The non-violent are trying to re-build it within the shell of the old." She advocated the traditional works of mercy, "feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, housing the homeless, nursing the sick, visiting the prisoner and burying the dead. … every war, is just exactly the opposite."

The following day, Monday 17 August, was a busy one. Dorothy did an in-depth interview with John Nicholson for the national television network, spoke to a large gathering of theological students at Corpus Christi College, Glen Waverley (hosted by Fr John Prendiville, the rector), and came for the evening meal to the open house run by Mary Doyle and Brian Noone and others at 101 King William Street Fitzroy.

This weekend's commemorative event was convened by Mary Doyle who had hosted Dorothy's visit to Fitzroy in 1970. Dorothy would have been pleased to note that the parish hall has recently been renovated by the diocese to improve its services to the Sudanese refugee community.

"I met Dorothy at an afternoon tea after her talk at the university, hosted by the Loreto Sisters at St Mary's College. Dorothy was most forthright. One, she wanted to visit and stay at our house. And two, she asked me to deal with the copious amounts of food that would be left over after the afternoon tea. Could I please ensure that it was delivered to those who need it?", Mary told the gathering last Saturday evening.

"Dorothy knew of us from a letter four of us had written to her earlier that year, Brian Noone, Chris Tucker, Graham Marshall and myself. We described all the people who were living together with us in our open house. Dorothy said, 'It sounds exactly like some of our houses of hospitality'", she continued.

"She dined with us in the house next door which has since been demolished, around 19 of us. We had a most enjoyable evening with her, lots of laughs. I note in the diary that we had Australian songs out of tune. The homeless men were very impressed with Dorothy," she said.

Among those attending the Fitzroy 40th commemoration were key figures from the lay and radical movements of the city, the parish priest Father Thinh Nguyen and former parish priests Luigi Dastegno, Len Thomas,  and Brian Cosgriff, draft resisters to the Vietnam War, John Wollin and Merv Langford, as well as former deputy prime minister of Australia, Brian Howe. An apology was received from Bishop Joe Grech of Bendigo, who had visited the open house as a seminarian.

Dorothy, a radical in lifestyle and politics, was nonetheless a traditionalist in her religious practices. Confirming this aspect of Dorothy, Mary Doyle told the following story: "At about five o'clock on that Monday evening forty years ago, when Dorothy and Eileen were walking along King William Street here, coming from the car into our house, we ran into Father Gavan Fitzpatrick, the parish priest of the time, the same one who later decided to demolish the two houses next door. Dorothy and Eileen asked Gavan could they receive Communion. He held a little service for them straight away.

"Forty years later many of us who have critical views of the Catholic Church may not share all of Dorothy's practices. However, in my view, our sharing of food and drink, bread and wine, this evening is a form of communion that is different from Dorothy's but true to the spirit of things," she said.

The walls of the hall were decorated from photographs, newspaper cuttings and Catholic Worker memorabilia, and there was a short illustrated presentation on Dorothy's work and related Australian developments. Pointing to Dorothy's remarkable record in tackling the issues of her day, Doyle proposed a toast to Dorothy: citing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well the problems of global warming, she urged those present to continue their commitment to the works of peace and justice.

Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.

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