Biography of Peter Maurin
This essay by Jim Forest on Peter Maurin was written for The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History published by the Liturgical Press.
Aristode Pierre Maurin, later known as Peter Maurin, was co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement and is chiefly responsible for the movement’s visionary qualities.
He was born into a peasant family in Oultet, a village in the Languedoc region of southern France, on May 9, 1877. At sixteen he entered the Christian Brothers, a teaching order which stressed simplicity of life, piety, and service to the poor. In 1898-99, his community life was interrupted by obligatory military service, in the course of which Maurin perceived a tension between religious and political duties. In 1902, when the French government closed many religious schools, Maurin left the order and became active in Le Sillon, a Catholic lay movement which advocated Christian democracy and supported cooperatives and unions. In 1908, disenchanted with the movement’s increasingly political character, Maurin resigned from Le Sellon.
In 1909, he emigrated to Canada, where there was no military conscription. For two years he homesteaded in Saskatchewan. After the effort failed, he took whatever work he could find, first in Canada, then in the United States: digging ditches, quarrying stone, harvesting wheat, cutting lumber, and laying track. He worked in brickyards, steel mills and coal mines. At times he traded French lessons for his necessities. He was jailed for vagrancy and for riding the rails. He never married. In 1932, he was handyman at a Catholic boys’ camp in upstate New York, receiving meals, use of the chaplain’s library, and living space in the barn.
Through his years of reflection and hard labor, Maurin came to embrace poverty as a gift from God. His unencumbered life offered time for study and prayer, out of which a vision had taken form of a social order instilled with basic values of the Gospel “in which it would be easier for men to be good.”
As often as his work allowed, he made his way to New York City, staying in Bowery flop houses. His days were spent either at the Public Library or expounding his ideas to anyone who showed interest. After all, he reasoned, “the way to reach the man on the street is meet the man on the street.” He was a born teacher, lively, insightful and good humored, and found willing listeners, among them George Shuster, editor of Commonweal magazine, who gave him the address of Dorothy Day, a Catholic convert supporting herself as a freelance journalist. Maurin introduced himself to her in December 1932.
To many Maurin would have seemed just one more street-corner prophet. Day quickly came to regard him as an answer to her prayers, someone who could help her discover what she was supposed to do.
Maurin saw Dorothy Day as a new St. Catherine of Siena, the medieval reformer and peace negotiator. Maurin believed Day could “move mountains, and have influence on governments, temporal and spiritual.” But first she needed a truly Catholic education. Maurin wanted her to look at history in a new way which centered not on the rise and fall of nations but on the lives of the saints. She had to understand that sanctity was what really mattered and that any program of social change must emphasize sanctity and community.
Maurin proposed that Day start a newspaper to publicize Catholic social teaching and promote steps to bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Day responded positively, though unsure how she would ever find the money for such a venture. “In the history of the saints,” Maurin assured her, “capital is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”
The name Maurin proposed for the paper was The Catholic Radical. The radical — from the Latin word radix meaning root — is someone who doesn’t settle for cosmetic solutions, he said, but goes to the root of personal and social problems. Day felt that the name should refer to the class of the readers she hoped the paper would have and so named it The Catholic Worker. “Man proposes and woman disposes,” Maurin responded meekly.
However when the first issue of was ready for distribution May 1, 1933, Maurin was disappointed and asked that his name not be included among the list of editors. He found the paper short on ideas, principles and a strategy for a new social order. Apart from his own blank verse “Easy Essays” and a few quotations from the Bible and papal encyclicals, the rest of the paper struck him as just one more journal of radical protest.
A radical even among radicals, Maurin thought protest would do little to bring about real change. “Strikes don’t strike me,” he said, arguing that the old order would die from neglect, not censure. What was needed first of all was a vision of a future society, and with this a program of constructive steps with which to begin realizing bits of the vision in one’s own life. The Catholic Worker, Maurin said, should not just one more group of complainers. It should work for what he called “the green revolution.”
He saw no point in struggling for better hours or more pay in places where the work was dehumanizing. It was time, he said, “to fire the bosses.” But where, he was asked, could they go? How would they live? “There is no unemployment on the land,” Maurin replied. The Catholic Worker should stand for a decentralized society stressing cooperation rather than duress, with artisans and craftsmen in worker-owned small factories, and agricultural communities. Coming together in agricultural communities, worker and scholar could both sweat, think and pray together and in the process develop “a worker– scholar synthesis.”
Maurin was often accused of being a utopian romantic longing to return to travel backward rather than forward in time. But Day gradually became more open to his critique of assembly-line civilization and came to share his view that improved, unionized industrialism wasn’t enough, that community was better than mass society.
In his Catholic Worker essays, Maurin repeatedly advocated renewal of the ancient Christian practice of hospitality:
People who are in need and are not afraid to beg give to people not in need the occasion to do good for goodness’ sake. Modern society calls the beggar bum and panhandler and gives him the bum’s rush. But the Greeks used to say that people in need are ambassadors of the gods. Although you may be called bums and panhandlers you are in fact the ambassadors of God. As God’s ambassadors you should be given food, clothing and shelter by those who are able to give it.
Every home, Maurin said, should have its “Christ Room” and every parish a house of hospitality ready to receive the “ambassadors of God.” Within a year of its founding, the Catholic Worker movement was known as much for its houses of hospitality as for its newspaper.
A strong believer in education through dialogue, Maurin advocated “round table discussions for the clarification of thought.” Friday night meetings quickly became a tradition of the Catholic Worker community.
Catholic Workers also took up his call to start farming communes, which Maurin preferred to call “agronomic universities.” In 1938 Maurin moved to Mary Farm, a ten-acre property the Catholic Worker community bought in Easton, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately there were always a surplus of people who preferred a discussion of theology or politics to work on the fields or the repair of a hinge. “It seemed,” Day noted, “that the more people there were around, the less got done.” Small matters took on divisive significance. Maurin alone seemed to look after basic chores. In 1944 part of the farm was sold, another part given away to a cantankerous group that regarded themselves as “the true Catholic Workers.”
Other “farms” were set up, but were more rural houses of hospitality than agricultural communities.
From the founding of the Catholic Worker movement in 1933 until 1944, Peter often travelled, speaking in church halls and on street corners to anyone who cared to listen. In 1944, following what appeared to be a minor stroke, Maurin slowly began losing his memory. His last five years were lived quietly and humbly at the Catholic Worker’s Maryfarm Retreat Center near Newburgh. His death in 1949 was reported by The New York Times and the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Time magazine noted that Maurin was buried in a “castoff suit and consigned to a donated grave,” appropriate arrangements for a man who “had slept in no bed of his own and worn no suit that someone had not given away.”
After his death, a Catholic Worker farm located on Staten Island was named in his honor. Today the Peter Maurin Farm continues in Marlborough, New York.