What Makes a Catholic worker?

John Surico

Photo: Yana Paskova

Photo: Yana Paskova

I often tell people I "grew up Catholic," or that I was raised Catholic. It’s a strange distinction I make around a part of my self-identity that I know had some role in my development though I’m not sure exactly what. Generally, I just think of myself as an agnostic who finds himself in a lot of Catholic situations—weddings, funerals, or familial obligations (I’m Italian)—who knows every word of Our Father, who eats communion bread for sustenance, and loves ‘Silent Night’ like anyone else. Baptized, communized, confirmed as a soldier of Jesus, sure, but I’m not sure I would go as far as saying that I believe in this religion, let alone belong there.

Faithless or not, I’ve long been in favor of the "Catholic life," where one strives to make do with less, so others can have more. Kurt Vonnegut, the devout humanist, liked to call himself a ‘Christ-loving atheist;’ he once said we should mount Jesus’s Beatitudes (“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth”) onto courtroom walls rather than the Ten Commandments, and described the parallels he also saw with the founding tenets of socialism.

Years ago, I’d pass the St. Joseph House on Third Street on my morning stroll, seeing the words "Catholic Worker" inscribed above the entryway. I didn’t know then, but this was one of the many ‘houses’ set up by Dorothy Day, a social activist and journalist who converted to Catholicism later in life, handing out a newspaper in Union Square with activist Peter Maurin that would birth the Catholic Worker movement. At the time, it was a radical departure from mainstream Catholicism. Day advocated for civil rights, pacifism, and the Catholic social economic system of distributism, a reaction then to the perceived injustices of Depression-era capitalism. As a faithful practitioner of civil disobedience, Day was arrested a number of times, even in the final years leading up to her death in 1980.

Today, her granddaughter Martha Hennessy continues the family tradition. When we arranged to speak by phone, she wrote in an email that she was arrested protesting the night before outside of the U.S. Mission to the UN, before adding that she had also been busy visiting her son and grandchildren a state over. She had just returned from a trip to South Korea focused on demilitarization and unification. In our conversation, we discussed what the Catholic Worker’s mission is today, and what it means to live the ‘Catholic life’ in New York City.

What's the mission of the Catholic Worker and how was it started?

We don't call ourselves an organization—we call ourselves an organism. It's very organic, and very personal. Two terms that are very important to know and understand are voluntary poverty and personalism. We started in 1933, at the height of the Depression, and there was just a huge, desperate human need with the Great Depression: unemployment, striking workers, hunger, and displacement. The Catholic Worker was born out of crisis, and certainly born out of faith. And it was in New York City, because that's where Dorothy was born, and her family returned there when she was nineteen. And what greater place than to be in the Empire State, in the heart of the empire? The immense human cost that comes with the experiment of empire, it's all right there. We're cheek by jowl with great wealth, and great poverty.


It seems especially fitting now, when so many themes seem to overlap with your grandmother's time. We have the highest homelessness in New York since the Great Depression, and, of course, war—for most of my life, we've been at war.

I don't think that the needs have changed that much since the inception of the Catholic Worker. It's a hedonistic culture, but it's also a beautiful, diverse city. You can hear just about any language spoken on the streets. Dorothy was very much attracted to the immigrant population. It's a very rich culture, despite—I'd be even so bold to say—ethnic cleansing of the different neighborhoods. My mother would talk a lot about Little Italy, and her great enjoyment of growing up there, on Mott Street. Of course, the East Village has changed significantly since I was a teenager and would go to visit Granny. It's now very, very expensive to live there.  

Of course, at the heart of it is our manifesto, the Sermon on the Mount: to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to give drink to the thirsty, visit the prisoner. And one of the best ways to visit the prisoner is to find yourself in prison.


Many Americans associate religion with the political far-right—you often hear the phrases the "religious right," or the "Christian right." If you said God's name out loud, some assume that you must be politically conservative, and might be, perhaps, more in favor of cutting back welfare, or supporting war. Why has that become the case?

Dorothy has been mentioned as a Catholic who really helped the Catholic Church here stay true to its mission. She kept reminding the Church what it truly means to be Catholic, and I think it's just an ongoing struggle. But the world is a very seductive place. Wealth and power and influence are very potent drugs, and so the Catholic Worker must stand in contrast, and as a witness, to be with the poor. As Dorothy would say, you must grow in your spirituality in a way that you can see Christ in the most disenfranchised. That's got to be a reminder, because it goes in direct contrast with America’s culture of ambition, and accumulation of material well-being. I think the more affluent materially, the more destitute we are spiritually. And so the CW is there, just to remind us that we cannot have a war economy without great human cost. It carries the solutions to our militaristic, materialistic, racist culture.


Where does the Catholic Worker find itself today? What happens at the East Village houses on a daily basis?

There are probably over 200 houses around the country, and around the world. And the definition is held loosely. There's no big boss—we've lost our charismatic leader. But we still continue to grow, in ways that might be quite different from what Dorothy and Peter had envisioned. But, you know, the hospitality work, the opposition to a war economy—the hospitality is picking up the pieces of a war economy, which invests in destruction, as opposed to human need. I'd say, in our times, we're addressing many of the same issues.

Mary House is on 3rd Street, and St. Joe's is on 1st Street—a women's house, and a men’s house. We have a core group of about 20 people, more or less living in each house. St. Joe's, probably more than half are homeless, and the other are so-called 'staff' of people who come there to work. At Mary House, we have a clothing room and showers for the women. We serve meals four days a week. We have phone access and four live-in workers. We have Bible study, Mass, and Friday night meetings. Mary House is an old music school, and we have a beautiful auditorium. We have speakers, roundtable discussions, and clarification of thought in the Peter Maurin tradition. Our last speaker spoke about Catholicism, the Pope, the environment. We have guests come and go, who are doing a lot of work in the peace movement. Some members engage with Cosecha, others with the Democratic Socialists of America. We also affiliate with the War Resistance League and Peace Action groups.


You mentioned the Pope—what's CW's relationship with the Catholic Church? Obviously Pope Francis has been outspoken on these issues, perhaps more so than any Pope in modern history.

He's the Pope we've been waiting for our whole lives! He's a Pope after Dorothy Day's own heart. He has studied her, and I'm very grateful for that. He mentioned her along with Merton, Lincoln, and MLK in his speech to Congress, in September of 2015. I was astounded.

But different houses vary differently. Some are quite connected to their parishes, others are not at all. We're sort of halfway between. I have a relation with the Archdiocese because I'm on the Dorothy Day Guild, furthering the cause. So we affiliate very strongly with Catholic social teaching. Some priests and parishes and bishops are very supportive, and others are not so. But we have mass twice a week at the houses. We have a pool of priests who administer to us. We do Bible study. We do try to live as practicing Catholics.

The Archdiocese of New York is in charge of Dorothy's canonization process, but the US Catholics' Bishop Conference is very much embedded in the war machine. And so I just try to put one foot in front of the other, being a peacemaker, dealing with the war in my own heart with regards to corrupt systems, and Holy Mother Church is at the heart of it for me, despite the human failings of the archaic hierarchy and institutions. We try to live by the Gospel’s teachings: every human life is sacred; every person is worthy of dignity, and decent treatment. And all of these skills are tested in the heart of New York City.


But people don't really think of New York as a city that places faith in the faith. I think of Senator Ted Cruz saying 'New York values' like it was a bad thing, or a derogatory term that connoted godlessness, and liberal pretension. But if you look around, that's not necessarily the case. What do you make of that idea?

An immigrant population helped build the city, and a vast majority of them were Catholic—the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, Mexicans. Where Ted Cruz sees faith is very different from our tradition, of where we see faith, where we see God working in the world. I think there's a very strong Jewish faith in the city, and we have this interfaith neighborhood event, where people take turns visiting synagogues, churches, and mosques. It's a very beautiful event. Faith is there if you see it. The definition of faith to me might be very different than to a Republican, in terms of how people interact with each other, and how people treat each other. With 9/11, people just really rose to the occasion and picked up the pieces after that. So, I don't know—I feel God in the city, even though it's pretty drunken and horrific.


Out of curiosity: what was it like growing up with your mother and your grandmother, as such strong presences in your house?

Well, I didn't have my father. My father left the family [when I was] six. And I didn't have my grandfather, because they had separated when my mother was quite young. So my mother and grandmother were really heads of the household. They were both very strong, beautiful women, their love for each other was absolutely intense, and their love for us children was very, very clear. And so I grew up understanding that Dorothy was exceptional, but she was also very normal and very down to Earth. As was my mother. They were both very practical, very clear-eyed. So it was an incredible experience—of ordinariness and yet something very, very sacred.

I was out of the church in my 20s, and 30s, and 40s. I worked as an occupational therapist. I raised my family, and I paid my war taxes. I lived conscientiously, but it's not like I was taking care of the poor at all. So, this is a lifetime experience, and conversions are mysterious things, in terms of what motivates us. Once my kids were out of college, I went back to the Church and the Worker. Doing hospitality work just means alot to me. It helps keep us focused, and humble, and loving.