After her conversion to Catholicism, Dorothy Day struggled to reconcile the activism of her young adulthood with her newfound faith. The situation came to a head in early December 1932 while on assignment for Commonweal, a Catholic weekly, covering the communists’ Hunger March on Washington, D.C. As she observed from the sidelines, she felt proud of the marchers’ courage in demanding relief for the working and unemployed poor—and frustrated that the communists’ advocacy of atheism kept her from marching with them. Why weren’t the leaders of the Catholic Church doing more to advocate for the working class, especially when so many of them were Catholic?
After writing her story, she visited the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception. “There I offered up a special prayer, a prayer which came with tears and with anguish, that some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor” (Long Loneliness, p. 166).
When she returned to New York that evening, she found a strange Frenchman on her doorstep. That man was Peter Maurin, sent to Dorothy by the editor of Commonweal. Although she didn’t warm to him immediately, it was Maurin who would educate her about the Church’s social teaching—and who would provide the radical Catholic “program” that would become the Catholic Worker.
Jim Allaire and Rosemary Broughton provide a helpful introduction to Maurin in their book, Praying with Dorothy Day:
The details of Peter Maurin’s life are sketchy, but Dorothy recounts what he told her. He was born a French peasant and became a teacher with the De La Salle Christian Brothers in France. He emigrated to Canada, worked as an itinerant laborer in the United States, taught French in Chicago, then moved to New York. Constantly studying, Peter was charged with a vision to change the social order. Saint Francis of Assisi inspired him to live a life of voluntary poverty, and Peter was determined to popularize the social doctrines of the Catholic church.
Peter’s vision was simple yet far-reaching. His program of action consisted of roundtable discussions for the clarification of thought, houses of hospitality where the works of mercy could be performed, and agronomic universities-a return to working the land, where workers could become scholars and scholars workers. He proposed to popularize this vision by publishing a newspaper for the people in the street.
When Peter met Dorothy, he introduced her to a whole new set of ideas and a historical vision of the Catholic church. Speaking in his thick French accent, he expounded on the prophets of Israel, the Fathers of the church, and the lives of the saints. Dorothy admired Peter both for the ideas he taught her and for his personal example of voluntary poverty and deep faith.
Peter also introduced her to his personalist philosophy and the French personalist writers, whose core belief is that all people share a common humanity: each of us becomes who we are meant to be by assuming personal responsibility for our brothers and sisters in need. “He stressed the need of building a new society within the shell of the old—that telling phrase from the preamble to the I.W.W. constitution, ‘a society in which it is easier for people to be good,’ he added with a touching simplicity, knowing that when people are good, they are happy” (Long Loneliness, p. 170). Peter stressed the need to perform the works of mercy at a personal sacrifice.
Peter, a visionary, hardly noticed what he ate or where he slept. Dorothy was more practical and action-oriented. Though Dorothy deeply respected Peter, he sometimes annoyed her with his zealous talking. Dorothy, who loved music, would scowl at Peter to be still while she tried to listen to a concert on the radio. Unfazed, Peter would find another listener and keep on talking. Dorothy once quipped, “When his mouth was full he would listen” (Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes, p. 20).
Nevertheless, through Peter’s influence, Dorothy deepened her appreciation of Catholicism, especially of its social teachings. When Peter suggested starting a newspaper, something the journalist Dorothy could readily agree to, she had the vehicle for expressing the vision they shared.Prating with Dorothy Day, pp. 20-21
A mere six months later, the first issue of The Catholic Worker was being distributed in Union Square. The first issue was a disappointment to Maurin, who had wanted to call it The Catholic Radical or The Catholic Agronomist; he wanted to use it as a vehicle for spreading his ideas and vision, but Day took a more journalistic approach, covering issues and activism of interest to the working class.
Over time, though, Maurin’s vision began to take hold in the pages of the paper, often through his “Easy Essays”: short, memorable, easy-to-read pieces that expounded his ideas. While Maurin never achieved the acclaim that the more prolific and charismatic Day did, she always maintained he was the real founder of the Catholic Worker.
You can read more about Peter Maurin’s life and ideas in the collection of articles below.
Summary: Outlines Peter Maurin’s three step program of social reconstruction (round table discussions, houses of hospitality, farm colonies) led by the laity working out the principles in the Popes’ encyclicals on social justice. (DDLW #266) The Catholic Worker, June-July 1933, 4.
Summary: Recalls Peter Maurin’s revolutionary vision and program for the Catholic Worker on the anniversary of his death. (DDLW #928). The Catholic Worker, May 1950, 1.The Catholic Worker, April 1962, 2.
Summary: Recounts her first meeting with Peter Maurin in 1932, his teaching style, his personal example, and his platform for the Catholic Worker: “Roundtable Discussions, Houses of Hospitality and Farming Communes–those were the three planks in Peter Maurin’s platform.” (DDLW #256). The Catholic Worker, May 1977, 1, 9.
Summary: A loving obituary for Peter Maurin giving the details of his death and burial. Speaks of his last five years of illness, the day he died, his wake and funeral. Emphasizes the ways “He was another St. Francis of modern times.” (DDLW #495). The Catholic Worker, June 1949, 1, 2.
Summary: Explains Peter Maurin’s ideal of “agronomic universities”–communal farms founded on a philosophy of work, especially manual labor. While an ideal, farm communities often suffered from too little skill and community conflicts. Lauds the new Peter Maurin farm on Staten Island and envisions deepening one’s spiritual life in work on the land. (DDLW #923). The Catholic Worker, Oct/Nov 1979, 1, 2, 7
Summary: Tells a story of Peter Maurin’s work at the Easton farm and goes on to summarize his principal teachings. Peter was a deeply religious man, a reader and constant student, who recommended books, especially the lives of the saints. He valued physical labor and wanted farming cooperatives, “clarification of thought”, and houses of hospitality. His faith was invincible, he exhorted a philosophy of poverty and the study of man’s freedom. (DDLW #914) The Catholic Worker, May 1965, pp. 1, 2, 5, 6
By Paul Magno. Reprinted from The Little Way, the paper of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Washington, DC, Spring 1996.
Summary: A chapter from her unpublished book “Peter Maurin.” Comments on P. Maurin’s thoughts on capitalism and socialism and the idea that Papal Encyclicals try to make an “acquisitive society functional.” (DDLW #151). The Catholic Worker, February 1945, 3,7.
Summary: Outlines Peter Maurin’s program for social reordering. Calls for a Green Revolution, a return to the villages. Finds his whole message embodied in personalism, which begins with oneself. Blames the C.W.’s problems in its lack of ability to limit itself. (DDLW #176). The Catholic Worker, May 1955, 2.