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Granddaughter Remembers Dorothy Day As A Woman Of Paradox

One of Dorothy Day's favorite quotes comes from one of her best-loved authors, Dostoyevsky. "The world will be saved by beauty."

It's the quote her granddaughter Kate Hennessy chose for the title of her new memoir of the relationship between her mother, Tamar Hennessy, and Day, the social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Her grandmother, Hennessy said, "had this unerring eye that went straight to these things that I or other people would not find beautiful, and that would make us look more closely." 

Day would often add her own coda to the Dostoyevsky quote. "The world will be saved by beauty and what is more beautiful than love?"

"When I heard this, I thought this is a prayer, it's like sending out a prayer," Hennessy said on GLT's Sound Ideas. "We can't quite define what beauty is. But maybe it's a feeling of being transported, of having some kind of change within us that makes us observe and see the world around us in a much more sacred way."

Day and her only child enjoyed a close, but tempestuous relationship. Hennessy recalls both women as full of contradiction and paradox.

Tamar was a strong-willed woman whose sense of self-worth often depended on her mother's view of her. She was a talented craftswoman and voracious reader who felt self-conscious about not having a college degree. She raised nine children and ran a farm in Vermont single-handedly, but failed for years to separate herself from a troubled marriage with an alcoholic husband who suffered frequent bouts of depression. 

Day was a determined, often shy woman who took a belief in the social gospel and spun it into a chain of "houses of hospitality" that continue to feed and shelter the poor in cities across world. A convert to Catholicism, she had dabbled in communism, had an abortion as a young woman, and never married Tamar's father. Condemned by some American bishops in the early days of her social work, she is now being considered for Catholic sainthood.

Hennessy is the youngest of Day's nine grandchildren and many of her memories stem from when her grandmother was already old, her health failing, but her mind and memory still strong.

She would often visit Day at the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, New York, or at Mary House, a house of hospitality in Greenwich Village, where Day would retire to a small bedroom upstairs to write her columns for the Catholic Worker newspaper and answer correspondence on a dusty old manual typewriter.

"All my memories of being with her are quite simple, being in her room while she was answering correspondence from people all over the world. She was a fabulous storyteller with a mesmerizing voice and I could just listen to her for hours, being raised by her voice," Hennessy recalled.

Day and her daughter suffered several rifts over the years that threatened, but never broke the bond between mother and only child. 

The first serious conflict arose when Tamar wanted to go off to college. Day, who had written novels and non-fiction books and edited a newspaper without the benefit of a college education, dismissed higher education as "bunk," and refused to attend college. Tamar would later return to school to study nursing when her children were grown and she was middle-aged, but would never complete her degree.

At age of 16, Tamar announced she was engaged to a man many years her senior of whom her mother disapproved. Day tried to stop the marriage, but Tamar wed David Hennessy when she was 18.

"My mother wanted to get married. She had very complex reasons for wanting to get married, and I think my grandmother just felt helpless in the face of that," Hennessy said.

The most serious rupture came Tamar told her mother she was leaving the Catholic Church.

"My mother believed so strongly everyone is a child of God. She was also raised at a time when the church was very 'either you're a Catholic or you're going to hell.' It was just a relief to her to give that up," Hennessy recalled.

Tamar's exodus from the church followed that of all of her children.

"For my grandmother, the worst thing  to happen to someone was to lose their faith. I think it took them years to sort that out," Hennessy said.

Tamar insisted she hadn't lost her faith,  she had moved on to something different from what she had been raised with, Hennessy said.

"Of course my grandmother was heartbroken, but she never said anything. She really believed so strongly people had to work things out for themselves. She never reproached us or  tried to draw us back in. She just waited and prayed," Hennessy said.

One of the Day granddaughters has since returned to the church. "Others siblings are eyeing it, but not feeling very inclined," Hennessy said. "Then there's me, and I kind of waffle back and forth. So we are all on our journeys."

The Day family views her potential canonization with some bemusement, given the complexity of Day's life and personality. Hennessy said she once asked her mother about it. Tamar simply smiled and refused to give an opinion.

Day herself bristled at the suggestion during her lifetime that she was saintly. "Don't dare call me a saint," she famously said. Hennessy takes a nuanced view.

"If we continue to narrow down who she was, that does a disservice to not only to her, but to us. To simplify her, to keep her simple [and say] 'oh she was a saint and what wonderful things she did,' to me that's a tragedy. We better understand what we ourselves can do when we see her in a more full, human portrait," Hennessy said.

Is Day a saint then in the final analysis?

"It's complicated," Hennessy says. "She is foremost my grandmother, that's the most important relationship for me. The process for canonization is very much a church process and the church needs to do what it needs to do and I hope it's not going to become bogged down in proceduralism or conflict." Hennessy said.

Then she quickly adds, "I absolutely believe she's a saint, aside from the canonization. Just the way she leads us to change our perception of ourselves and the world around us, I think is so full of grace."

Hennessy will speak Friday at 11 a.m. at the Clarchek Information Commons at the lakeshore campus of Loyola University in Chicago.

Hennessy is making a number of other appearances in Chicago. She is speaking March 4 at Seminary Bookstore at 3 p.m.; March 5 at St. Nicholas Church in Evanston at 10:30 a.m.; and at Su Casa Catholic Worker the same day at 4 p.m.; March 6 at 7 p.m at Women and Children First Bookstore and March 7 at noon at the 8th Day Center for Justice. 

Clare House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Bloomington, closed last year. There are nearly 250 Catholic Worker houses in cities through the world. In his 2015 visit to the U.S., Pope Francis singled out Day as one of America's greatest contemporary figures.