On any given day at Maryhouse, I walk in to find people at work. Work has always been at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement. Dorothy Day once wrote, “Do what comes to hand. Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.... Work as though everything depends on ourselves, and pray as though everything depends on God, as St. Ignatius says....” It all began as a newspaper first handed out for a penny a copy on May 1, 1933. This was work that flowed naturally from the founders, for Dorothy Day was a labor rights journalist and Peter Maurin an itinerant worker and philosopher. They were about words and ideas, interpreting the teachings of the Catholic Church for the working class. They understood the power of these ideas, printing them alongside stories of unemployment, evictions, and labor strikes. As they went to the roots, what grew was truly radical. It was no wonder that people began to knock on the door with requests for food, clothing and shelter. And so the work grew organically. They continued to put out the newspaper but now also made soup and gave out coffee. They took in donations and gave them away. And they wrote about all of it — the connections, the revelations, the spirituality that emerged as the Works of Mercy became the life blood of the community.
These days The Catholic Worker is published out of Maryhouse at 55 East 3rd St in the East Village of Manhattan. Before that it was written and labeled on the second floor of St. Joseph House at 36 East 1st Street. Our editorial table is made up of people from both city houses as well as the Peter Maurin Farm. Our community attempts to live out Peter’s three point program for the Catholic Worker: roundtable discussions, houses of hospitality and farming communes. Ninety years have passed since that first issue of the paper but much remains the same, a testament to the enduring power of the Works of Mercy and community. We keep our history alive and around us, not as walls that constrict but as a solid foundation.
I enter the doors of Maryhouse and walk down the wide, wooden stairs, worn from decades of use. There are volunteers cooking, serving lunch and dishwashing. Women and children come in for a meal, to take a shower, pick out clothing, toiletries and pantry items. There is chatter, music, maybe an argument — more often laughter. It is a bustling, human space. The dining room is also where we hold editorial meetings, pushing tables together to accommodate us as we read submissions, discuss world and local events, choose articles and later on copy edit together. The purpose of the newspaper is to continue the tradition of personalism in our writing, to engage issues of injustice through the lens of Catholic social teaching, the lives of the saints and nonviolence, and to announce rather than denounce, as Peter Maurin would say. Both the product and the process engage the Spiritual Works of Mercy — and where we do the work connects the Spiritual with the Corporeal in tangible and poignant ways. It is where workers try to be scholars and scholars remember to be workers.
I walk up the stairs and into the library. A small room filled with books, plants and fish tanks, it is a beautiful space where it would not be uncommon to find Pope Francis’s books next to books by Dan Brown, sharing the shelf with Gustavo Guttierez and Nora Roberts. On the table in the center of the room we sit together for more copy editing and for layout. Layout of the newspaper happens over a weekend. We are paste-up artists, cutting out the articles in columns and arranging them on boards for the printer. Two editors sit as people come and go, chatting and checking in. Sometimes we open the door and listen to the Friday night meeting — a tradition of clarification of thought that Peter Maurin instilled in the movement. Much conversation revolves around choosing art for each page. In a large metal file cabinet in a nearby office we keep our collection of art. We search the folders looking for friends whose work will bring the articles to life. Some have been with us for so many years: Fritz Eichenberg, Ade Bethune and Rita Corbin; many are newer: Sarah Fuller and Nick Schuurman. The art imbues the page with beauty, a foundational aspect of Dorothy’s philosophy that “the world will be saved by beauty.” The images help identify the connections between our modern life and the lives of the saints, the Gospel truths, the echoes of the natural world. The philosophy of the Catholic Worker is brought to life when Rita Corbin laid the Works of Mercy alongside the works of war. This piece of art has instructed us about the essential place of pacifism in our philosophy and world view for decades.
In the auditorium people gather to get The Catholic Worker ready to be mailed out. We sit together and label each copy, tying them into bundles and sorting them into postal codes. The conversation runs the gamut — from local news to intellectual debate. There is more laughter — and more arguments. The walls of the auditorium are covered in protest banners, posters and artwork. It is a visual of the varied things our community has cared about and a testament to many attempts “to create a new society within the shell of the old” as Peter Maurin said. Bread & Puppet art mingles with donated furniture, pamphlets, books and boxes of stuff that someone sometime stored on the stage to be dealt with later. We gather in the midst of our history to do the work needed for the present — all while we imagine a future in which none of this is needed.
Ours is still a tradition of manual labor. We believe that there is always work to be done, and much of that work should still be done with our hands. Some might find this silly — for the same product could be the result of much less time at a computer. But to do it our way, we find, involves community and the tactile connection of pen and paper, scissors and glue, folding and labeling. It is our work, yes, but it is also our cottage industry. As Peter wrote in one of his Easy Essays, “Labor is not a commodity to be bought and sold. Labor is a means of self-expression, the worker’s gift to the common good.” Human need remains the reason for our work and to keep as much of the process straightforward means it is accessible to the most people. And that priority trumps the efficiency-at-all-cost that is the hallmark of our capitalist society.
May 1st is the 90th anniversary of The Catholic Worker. As Peter hoped, the work continues and The Catholic Worker remains more organism than organization. We will honor May Day as we do every year: some will hand out the newspaper in Union Square, some will join in labor demonstrations. We will come together for Mass and then share a meal. We will remember and celebrate, aware of the countless blessings that have brought us this far and the precarity of any future plans. All are invited, for indeed the walls expand.
By Amanda W. Daloisio