Dorothy Day did not want to be a saint. One of her most famous quotes was, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”
Day—now a candidate for sainthood–is remembered for her social activism, Catholic teachings, journalism and her tireless efforts to serve and advocate for the poor.
Enter Robert Ellsberg, the man who witnessed all of these attributes firsthand and shared his experience with Manhattan College students in a lecture on Oct. 5.
When he was just 20 years old, Day asked him to be the editor of her newspaper, The Catholic Worker. He worked with her for the last five years of her life, and would go on to edit highly praised collections of her writings. He also wrote a number of his own books highlighting modern day saints and religious figures, including Day.
Ellsberg spoke about how he was especially moved by Day’s ambition and determination, even in the final years of her life.
“You think of people getting old and slowing down, and here’s this great grandma who, until the end of her life, maintained this incredible spirit of adventure,” he said. “She believed there were tremendous possibilities still in the world.”
Sophomore Jodie Rohrer said that it was especially encouraging to hear Ellsberg’s story since she is a peace studies major.
“Hearing that Ellsberg dropped out of school at my age to pursue peace really motivated me to actually do something with my major when I graduate,” Rohrer said. “The fact that he became a famous writer and worked alongside Dorothy Day was so inspiring, and he was really good at talking to an audience of students.”
Day’s empathy for the poor seemed to stem from her experiences with them when she was a child growing up in Chicago. Ellsberg explained that she became aware of the depths of poverty in the world, and she read about saints and what they did for the poor, but wondered why nothing about the system was being changed.
This gave Day a challenge to rise to, as she saw the church as the home of the poor, but believed, as Ellsberg put it, “the church should not just patch up the poor. They should change the entire system.”
James Boyle, a Manhattan College graduate from the class of 1961, also shared his experience working alongside her on The Catholic Worker.
“Dorothy came to our campus back when there were only men here,” Boyle said.
“She managed soup kitchens and was a pacifist, which wasn’t too popular those days. Most of us were privileged – the first in our families to go to college – and since everyone was working, we did not witness poverty,” he said. “We only saw it in the papers and in certain pockets of the city.”
Day wore a simple housedress when she spoke to Boyle and his classmates, and he described her as a “strong, energetic, creative person” who challenged them to look beyond their own lives and consider what they could give back to the world.
“She wanted us to do something – not to be passive, not to concentrate only on enjoying life. She reminded us of the needy whom she fed and sheltered every day. She pushed us to do something with our lives… she planted seeds,” he said.
Recently, Boyle has contemplated ways of planting seeds in other people’s lives. Through speaking at the conference, making volunteer opportunities available to students and providing a collection of books on Day, Boyle hopes to continue her influence.
“It’s really inspiring to learn about how dedicated and selfless she was,” sophomore Samantha Cunningham said. “It’s also important to recognize that she struggled with a lot of opposition too, because what she was doing with her life wasn’t fully accepted, and it’s amazing that she continued to do it anyway.”
Another popular religious figure who has recognized her contributions is Pope Francis. In his speech to Congress last month, Pope Francis called her “a servant of God”.
Ellsberg was not surprised by his mention of her, given that they both embody the same beliefs about conquering poverty, and he also included that Day would probably be delighted with Pope Francis’s concern for the planet.
One of Ellsberg’s favorite memories of Day was her opposition to the rehearsal for nuclear war in New York City in 1955.
Day, who would never conform to the acceptance of violence, sat with a group of people in peaceful protest while the rest of the city took cover from a theoretical nuclear bomb. She was accused of hypothetical homicide, and for not participating, she served thirty days in jail.
“She thought that the contemplation and preparation for nuclear war was a ridiculous action. People thought she was irrelevant, foolish and crazy,” Ellsberg said.
But Ellsberg argued that she was everything but that.
“She could see deep inside you and she would draw out all that you were capable of,” Ellsberg said.