Men team up to promote Dorothy Day’s canonization

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | September 23, 2009

Dave Mueller, left, and Fr. Joe Mattern, holding a picture showing Dorothy Day with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, are pictured inside Casa Esther Catholic Worker house in Omro. Fr. Mattern, a retired priest of the Green Bay Diocese, and Mueller, who spent one summer working with Dorothy Day in New York, have teamed up to promote Day’s cause for canonization. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Both men have a special devotion to Day and the movement she co-founded in the 1930s. Her conversion to Catholicism and service to the poor in New York City are hallmarks of Day’s life which make her a worthy candidate for sainthood, said the two men.

A servant of God

Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1897. Her parents, Grace and John Day, moved to San Francisco and later to Chicago, where Dorothy was baptized in the Episcopal Church.

While attending the University of Illinois at Urbana, Day became interested in social justice issues. She dropped out of college in 1916 and moved to New York City, where she became a journalist at socialist newspapers. At the same time she drifted away from her religious upbringing.

Love affairs, a failed marriage, a suicide attempt and an abortion were all part of Day’s early years.

Before the birth of her daughter Tamar in 1926, Day began her conversion to Catholicism. She was impressed by the church’s outreach to the poor and the many examples of service to the poor found in the church, past and present.

According to the Guild for Dorothy Day, her decision to have her daughter baptized in the church was met with opposition.

“Her decision … came at great personal cost, the end of her common law marriage and the loss of many friends,” said a guild publication. “While covering the 1932 hunger march in Washington, D.C., for several Catholic magazines on Dec. 8, she visited the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and prayed for guidance on how to use her special gifts in service of the hungry and the poor.”

After returning to New York, she met Peter Maurin, an immigrant from France and a former Christian Brother. Their common interest in social justice led them to found the Catholic Worker newspaper and later the houses of hospitality that have spread across the country.

Cause for sainthood

Day spent her remaining years living out her simple, yet faithful life of service to the poor. She died at Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker house she founded in New York, on Nov. 29, 1980. In March 2000, New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor announced the official cause for Day’s beatification and canonization.

The Dorothy Day Guild was created to promote Day’s cause and to begin the search of her writings and speeches. This phase continues today and Day is referred to as a “servant of God.”

The next step would be for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to recommend to the pope that Day be considered “heroic in virtue.” She would then be declared “venerable.” The next step, beatification, requires a minor miracle attributed to Day. At that point she would be referred to as “blessed.” Mother Teresa and Damien of Molokai are among today’s “blesseds.” The final phase, which would require a second miracle, is sainthood.

Fr. Mattern and Mueller know it is a long road ahead for Day’s possible canonization, but they are doing what they can to bring attention to the cause. Both have their own stories of admiration for Day.

“I am a Catholic Worker-Dorothy Day lifer,” said Fr. Mattern. “I’ve always gotten a subscription to the Catholic Worker newspaper and I’ve been a follower of Dorothy Day all of my priestly life.”

Priest starts Catholic Worker house

His passion for the poor and the Catholic Worker movement led Fr. Mattern to establish the Diocese of Green Bay’s first and only Catholic Worker house, Casa Esther, in Omro.

“Catholic Worker in New York said just start it,” he said, explaining how Casa Esther came about. “That’s the nature of Catholic Worker. It’s low key. No fanfare. We started in the beginning of 2008.”

The house name, Esther, was chosen because it shares the mission of another local grassroots, faith-based justice group, ESTHER. The latter is part of GAMALIEL, an international network of organizations that work through faith communities to pursue social justice.

According to Fr. Mattern, Casa Esther’s mission is to serve the area’s needy in any way possible.

“We’ve been growing slowly,” he said. “Dorothy Day said, ‘Grow vegetables and give food to the needy.’ That’s exactly what we do. We’re in the third year of our community garden.”

The garden is not quite one acre, he said, and all of the produce grown goes to food pantries, churches and migrant farmers. “We have volunteers working in the garden,” he said. In addition to the garden, Casa Esther shares space with the First Presbyterian Church of Omro, where lectures and musical events take place.

Personal connection with Day

Mueller’s connection with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement is more personal.

In 1976, he spent his summer break from college volunteering at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker community in New York City. Mueller’s interest in social justice was aroused after reading the Catholic Worker newspaper. While in New York, Mueller volunteered at the newspaper and at the soup kitchen.

By chance, Mueller said he was able to meet and share “a couple of long conversations” with Dorothy Day while at Maryhouse.

“By that time, she had slowed down because of her age and was a little bit reclusive,” he said. “You didn’t know whether you’d have the opportunity to meet her, but I was in a couple of spots where she was.”

Mueller said he found Day to be engaging.

“What was fascinating about her was that she was more interested in what I thought about things,” he said. “She didn’t focus the conversation on her at all.” He especially remembers Day’s interest in his involvement in the charismatic renewal movement.

“She was fascinated with that. At the time, she had heard about it but she wanted to learn about that,” he said. “I had just read a book on healing by Francis MacNutt, which was a real popular book on healing. She was fascinated by that aspect. She said, ‘So many of the people that come to our door have mental illnesses and I was thinking, maybe we should have gatherings to pray for the healing of these people.’ Here she is, 76 years old and opening her mind to a different concept.

“She was so young at heart,” he recalled. “What I remember about her, she had these bright blue eyes. If you looked into her eyes, it looked like the eyes of a 10-year-old. They say the eyes are the window to a soul and her eyes were so alive and curious about learning new things and getting to know other people.”

The experience at Maryhouse stayed with Mueller and continued to influence the direction of his life.

Later, while living in Chicago, he helped organize a food program and an overnight shelter. “It’s still operating. It’s called the Port on the south side of Chicago,” he said. “So I’ve always tried to be involved a little bit here and there.”

His involvement has slowed now that he is married and has three children. Mueller manages two assisted living facilities for the elderly in Stevens Point and has been working in health care facilities for the elderly for two decades.

Day’s intercession during illness

Mueller also felt a connection to Day in 2005 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer.

“Luckily they caught it in a very early stage and I had to go through massive radiation,” he said. That was followed by more tests and a liver transplant. “When I got on the list for a liver transplant I only waited six weeks for an operation.”

Faced with the health crisis, he asked people to pray for him, asking for Day’s intercession.

“I knew that Dorothy Day had been approved for the (sainthood) process and I thought, ‘Well, I knew her.’ It’s just a natural for people to pray for her intercession,” he said. “I had people praying for me and asking for Dorothy’s intercession.”

While it was a liver transplant that saved his life, Mueller believes the prayers made a difference. “I realized that all of these little steps along the way had to happen; like a series of small miracles to get to where I was,” he said. “I’ve been healthy ever since.”

Fr. Mattern and Mueller were finally united in their cause when Mueller read about Casa Esther in the Catholic Worker newspaper. “I called Fr. Joe … and we kind of joined together on the effort,” said Mueller. “It took us about seven or eight months to find a place to host a monthly Mass.”

First Friday Masses

With the approval of Fr. Carr’s Place2B’s executive director, Joe Geniesse, Fr. Mattern was allowed to celebrate first Friday Masses in the facility’s chapel. “Fr. Joe recognized that Dorothy Day promoted is the work that they do here at the Place 2B,” said Mueller. “He felt there was a natural connection and affinity.”

During his homily or after Mass, Fr. Mattern has an opportunity to talk about Dorothy Day and ask for people to pray for her intercession. Both men are also considering sponsoring a play on Dorothy Day’s life at the Place 2B.

Fr. Mattern and Mueller said they want to invite others to join them in promoting Dorothy Day’s cause. First Friday Masses at Fr. Carr’s Place 2B begin at 6:30 p.m. In addition, Mueller said he offers presentations to parish groups on Dorothy Day’s life. His presentations include a viewing of a DVD.

Mueller said he sees his efforts to promote Dorothy Day’s cause as a way to thank her for the impact she’s had on his life.

“Her life and writings have influenced me for the last 38 years and I was privileged to meet her and get to know her at least a little bit,” he said. “And I felt a connection with her during my health challenges in 2005. Because of her impact on me, the best way I see for her to impact others in the future is through canonization.”

Few members of the laity attain the status of sainthood, added Mueller, and Day is someone worthy of canonization.

“I believe the American church needs a model from the laity,” he said. “Her values will always challenge our consumerism and our individualistic way of life that our culture promotes so strongly.”

Editor’s note: To learn more about Dorothy Day or to schedule a presentation by Dave Mueller, contact him at: [email protected] To learn about Casa Esther e-mail Fr. Joe Mattern at [email protected]

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