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Peter Maurin: Impressions By One of His Fellow Workers

Summary: A sketch of Peter Maurin describing his philosophy, demeanor, and many sayings. Mentions that he lives what he preaches, practicing detachment from material goods. Notes that many Jews have come to the Catholic Worker during the recent wave of anti-Semitism in New York because they see Peter as an ally. (The Catholic Worker, May 1940, page 11)

Peter Maurin, co-founder of The Catholic Worker, has been described as an “Apostle on the Bum,” the “Modern St. Francis” and “a Catholic making a noise ‘like a communist.” Peter is an unusual and lovable character and to know him is to love him. His ragged appearance obscures the little sixty-two-year-old French peasant who has exerted such great influence on workers, students and educators, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His pungent Easy Essays, published in The Catholic Worker and later put in book form, have won wide acclaim. Essentially an agitator, Peter goes about among the unemployed on the Boweries, in flophouses and slums preaching his social message. Often he can be found among communists in Union Square or Columbus Circle. He is equally respected, and very much at home, in assembly halls and colleges.


Not only does he preach ideas, Peter Maurin lives them. His program is based on voluntary poverty and personal sacrifice, and no one personifies the idea more than he. Peter is so wound up in his concern for others, in his Catholic faith and his simple philosophy that he Is completely detached from material things. His last thought is money, and living with him in a house of hospitality is to see him happy in his frugal comfort, caring only for a bare minimum ef possessions, and these are his books. Everyone coming in contact with Peter warms to him whether he be black or white, communist or fascist, Jew or Gentile. His approach to everyone is one of extreme charity and he believes firmly in clarification of thought and setting personal example as the best means of changing people’s point of view. To a communist he may pull such a quip as, “You are a follower of Marx. How, then can you call yourself a communist?” From this point on Peter will explain the communism of the early religious orders and monasteries. Talking on interracial justice he might say: “The Negro will get nowhere trying to live up to the standards of the white people. He should do what he wants the white people to do and then the white people will look up to him.”

Back to the Land 

Peter charges modern education with turning out “yes men” for business and stock brokers who “sell stocks to people until they are stuck.” He claims the act of giving a degree should not be called commencement but rather the fatal end for modern graduates. To college professors he insists they only teach students to master subjects, and this is not enough. Students should be taught to master situations. One must laugh at Peter’s description of his attempt to start an “impression on the depression by starting a rumpus on the campus.” He found “agitation was not rampant on the campus, while everyone was preparing for business and business is the bunk.” Peter’s call for a back-to-the-land movement has resulted in six farming communes now operated by Catholic Worker groups. He believes that on the land man can be free, healthy and creative. On the land a man can best put into living practice the proper concept of private ownership, agreeing with St. Thomas that a certain amount of private ownership is necessary to human life. He believes the solution for unemployment lies on the land and puts little faith in the fact that the government or private industry can put all the idle back to work. By mutual aid, teaching each other, says Peter, and setting personal example, people can find a place for themselves on the land as functional individuals in a communal society rather than acquisitive individuals in the competitive order.

It Works

Many social workers and teachers of sociology disagree, violently with Peter’s technique. He tells them “sociology is called a social science. To me it is not a science but an art, the art of creating order out of chaos.” His call is for living sociologists, not those who merely have the training as a means of livelihood. Once, when vexed by a social worker Peter asked what she would do. The social worker gave him a long detailed plan about “surveying” the men who come for help and, by her “intelligent” approach would prove there was no need for the breadlines and that the men didn’t really have to be there. Peter pointed to piles of statistics on hand and all those that come pouring in the mails. Unfortunately, he said, they could not be eaten. Nothing can deter Peter. What usually sound like crack-pot ideas to many often materialize into realities because of Peter’s consistent agitation. He was called crazy for advocating houses of hospitality and farming communes. Now there are houses in some thirty cities as well as six farm communes. In unplanned itineraries, Peter’s ideas are carried all over the country. He has been heard by thousands of students and workers whose lives have been changed for having heard him.


Often Peter is laughed at by people not knowing who he is. His old clothes make him look no better than those down-trod-den ones he helps. Yes, he has been called “bum,” “crack-pot” and “red.” These rebukes he takes in his stride. One of Peter’s difficulties is his broken English. He never could understand why people shout at a person with an accent as though he was deaf. His difficulty was trying to put across his “points” against the good diction of others. For this reason Peter developed his speaking and writing style of terse, pungent sentences. It was his job to get the most said in the least amount of words and then get the idea across. His essays are all gems and have been aptly called, “capsules of dynamic social Catholicism.” In a public hall Peter’s voice is thunderous. For years Peter has incessantly shouted his message and all the while increased his knowledge. Constantly he pores over books and can answer almost any question on history. His mind is keen, analytical and retentive. It has been over twenty years since Peter came to the American continent. During his early years in Canada and the United States, Peter worked on all sorts of menial jobs. But wherever he was his index finger was waving wildly at some unseen point.

On Anti Semitism

During the recent wave of anti-Semitism in New York, many Jews came to The Catholic Worker. Some came for advice or assistance in forming groups to bring about tolerance between creeds, others came because of Peter’s writings on Jews in the paper. Peter believes we should have more Jews than we do in this or any country. He calls them a bulwark against Nationalism since they are the non-conformist minority which refute this doctrine. Christians are followers of Christ. Because of this, says Peter, every time a Christian sees a Jew he should be reminded of Christ and love him for being of the race that Christ was part of. Though Peter believes in trade-unions as a means in attaining the vocational group system advocated by the labor encyclicals, he deplores the philosophy, or lack of it, of most modern labor leaders. He maintains unions will accomplish nothing as long as workers themselves are capitalist-minded. Peter always points to the fact that Christ was a worker and therefore dignified labor for all time. This noble feature is degraded when labor is regarded as a commodity. Peter advocates that workers become scholars and scholars become workers. Peter Maurin is not young in years but young in spirit. Probably he and his ideas may not become widely known to this generation. But history shows us there were others of Peter’s type who were regarded as eccentric and appeared foolish to those around them. Yet these people, typified by St. Francis of Assisi, seem destined to fill the needs of their day and their real influence is felt, and moves the lives of thousands, in later years. They were “crazy in their own crazy way” and Peter, the bum, the red, the crazy one, ill-clad and making a noise like a communist will go down in history with them.

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