by Fr. Bob Wild.
In this article, we continue the exploration of the friendship between Dorothy Day and Catherine Doherty through their letters.
New York City
February 10, 1942
Dear D.D.: It is a long time since I have written to you or seen you. But daily, in fact, several times a day, I have talked to the Lord about you in my own funny way, and I have found you in his heart, too, and I know that you have been praying for me.
Nothing has changed since the first day I met you. You mean just as much to me now as you did then, and I need you and your wonderful example and friendship and advice now, just as much as I did then. Will you in your great charity give me a little bit of it now?
Could we meet and have lunch at Scraffts or Child’s some day soon? …. Write to me or call me up and let us meet soon.
Child’s Restaurant was a little bit of heaven for Catherine, when both her apostolate (Friendship House) and Dorothy’s (The Catholic Worker) were in New York City. Dorothy, too, looked back with nostalgia at those early intimate meetings.
I want to be seeing you soon. Can’t we run off by ourselves, meet halfway the way my sister and I do, so we will both be free of our respective families for a few hours? You know, I often think with joy of that first visit we had together in that nice large apartment of yours in Toronto. We really had time to talk and space to talk in.
You and I need a lot of space, and when we get to heaven, we’ll put in our bid for mansions where we can stretch. I always think of you with love and sympathy in that one room filled with books and people, bulging with talk. Not enough room. God bless you and pray for me.
On the occasion of Dorothy’s death in 1980, Catherine’s thoughts again went to those precious intimate moments they shared together:
"When I moved to Harlem, Dorothy Day and I became even closer. There were only about five miles between her house and my Harlem house. So occasionally when we both had enough money, let’s say about a dollar, we would go to Child’s where you could get three coffee refills (for the price of one cup), and we used to enjoy each cup and just talk.
Talk about God. Talk about the apostolate. Talk about all the things that were dear to our hearts.
"But we were both very lonely because, believe it or not, there were just the two of us in all of Canada and America, and we did feel lonely and no question about it.
"Periodically we would have a good cry in our coffee cups. We really cried, I mean honest, big tears. We would sit there, and the waitress would look at us. Dorothy and I would hold hands, and we would cry. We had had it! But we would always rally. And I think rallying is a sign of perseverance."
(Restoration, February 1981)
Dorothy Day titled her autobiography The Long Loneliness, and at the heart of Catherine’s spirituality was her desire to assuage the loneliness of Christ. I think one of their strong bonds was their loneliness, caused by their being pioneers in an area of Catholic life that was little understood or appreciated, even in the Church.
They met in the loneliness of Christ.
Following is an excerpt from the most beautiful and touching letter Catherine ever wrote to Dorothy.
November 26, 1945
It has been now over a month that a great desire to write to you has come to my heart. I have been making, as you know "pilgrimages" into my distant and not so distant yesterdays, stopping now here, now there, to render thanks to the Lord of Life, for this special grace or that, for this wonderful gift or sorrow, and for that infinite moment of joy….
Amongst the memories of my yesterdays is one that I reached into today. Long ago and far away I arose in search of the Lord, for there was a mighty hunger in my soul for him.
Only I was confused by the many roads and crossroads that stretched out before me in a maze that bewildered me. When suddenly, out of nowhere, you came, and hand in hand, we walked together. You knew the way out of the maze; you most certainly did.
As we were walking along the road one eventide—or was it many?—a Stranger joined us, a strange Stranger who spoke beautifully and convincingly about the Lord. We went to sup with him, and in the breaking of the bread we knew him as Christ the Lord. At times it seems to me that the road was just your soul, and at other times it comes to me that it was your words that brought the Stranger to our side.
He materialized, as it were, out of them, at least for me. He spoke, if I remember correctly, across the divide of years with your voice. One thing I know is that we both knew him at the breaking of the bread.
Was it in the little strange church full of Italians where we both went to Communion, and after which we had that enormous breakfast in some beanery on Canal Street during which it seemed the Lord was still with us?
I have never forgotten these far away days, DD, when you and I and a few others started on the lonely hard road of the lay apostolate. We were very young then, and so full of zeal and hunger and love. Praise be to the Lord that none of these virtues have left us—except youth.
But as I make my strange pilgrimages into my yesterdays, both distant and near, I find myself sorrowful that you and I do not exchange the speech of men while we are still in the land of men.
For a friendship like ours, methinks, is a great and holy gift of God. And though you and I know that we are very close in prayer and meet daily at his Table, nevertheless, I think we should renew that inner closeness and express it again, as it were, in the halting simple words of human love and understanding."
Dorothy and Catherine were both busy women. They frequently had to apologize to one another for the delay in answering a letter or for not writing more frequently. However, various events—such as the deaths of mutual friends, visits to one another’s apostolates—did occur that sparked a spurt of letters.
In November 1978, Catherine went with Fr. Emile Brière to visit Dorothy for the last time. She was living at Mary House on East 3rd Street. Here are some of Catherine and Dorothy’s reflections on this last meeting.
Catherine: "Well, this was quite a red letter day as far as I was concerned. It was the fact that I met Dorothy Day. She had her 81st birthday. She looks so thin, so thin. Life is sort of ebbing out of her. Only her eyes are still sparkly.
For me this was a red letter day. To me there was really nobody there, only Dorothy. I looked at her, and I sort of took her in with my whole heart, my mind, my eyes, my body, my everything.
And I said to myself, ‘Catherine, you are meeting a saint. Don’t you ever forget it, the saint of New York.’"
Fr. Brière: "Dorothy kept saying to me—I was sitting very close to her—she said to me over and over again, looking at Catherine sitting across from her, ‘Isn’t she beautiful. She is radiant. Look how she radiates. See how beautiful she is.’ She told me this quite a number of times."
As I (Fr. Wild) delve more deeply into their relationship, it strikes me that if Catherine and Dorothy hadn’t been so united in Christ in the lay apostolate and in zeal for the kingdom of God, most probably their differences of character and approach to life would not have drawn them together in any kind of friendship.
Their friendship is a profound example of how Christ can draw and bind together people of very diverse temperaments and backgrounds, and unite them by the power of his Holy Spirit.
In one undated letter Dorothy wrote to Catherine, "It is good to urge each other on to virtue, but remember, we are comrades stumbling along, not saints drifting along in ecstasies."
Both of their causes for canonization are now in process. What a glorious and historically significant sight it will be when Catherine’s and Dorothy’s huge beautiful portraits shine in the brilliant Roman sunshine on the façade of St. Peter’s! And how even more glorious if they shine there together!
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