Martha Hennessy shares glimpses of her grandmother Dorothy Day’s life

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | January 30, 2020

Day’s dedication to social justice had strong influence, says Hennessy

DE PERE — Martha Hennessy’s first memory of her grandmother, Dorothy Day, goes back to when she was 3 years old at the family home in Vermont. Day was visiting from New York City.

“She was a great storyteller. I was sitting on her lap,” said Hennessy, the seventh of Day’s nine grandchildren. “Everyone was excited to see her. She was telling a story. I don’t remember anything she was speaking about, but I had my head on her heart.”

Martha Hennessy, a granddaughter of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement whose cause for canonization is underway, speaks to guests at a presentation Jan. 21 at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality in De Pere. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Hennessy shared personal insights about the woman she called “Granny” in her presentation “Dorothy Day: Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement,” Jan. 21 at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey. Day, a journalist and activist, established the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s with Peter Maurin. In 2000, St. John Paul II declared Day a “Servant of God,” opening up her cause for canonization.

The program, part of the Future Saints Series, was scheduled without knowledge of any possibility that Hennessy would be available. Tony Pichler, director of the Center for Spirituality, planned to do the presentation about Day, whom he describes as one of his “spiritual heroes.” He received a call from David Mueller, co-founder (along with Fr. Joe Mattern) of the Dorothy Day Canonization Support Network. Mueller asked if Hennessy could speak at St. Norbert Abbey and the date worked out.

The farm in Vermont is still home to Hennessy, who was born in Staten Island.

“(Staten Island) was where Dorothy was baptized and where I was baptized,” she explained. “Dorothy is buried there in Resurrection Cemetery. My parents moved to Vermont when I was 2 years old.

“My husband and I raise at least half of the food we consume,” she added. “(We have) grapevines and fruit trees. We keep sheep and chickens. The food that we grow is absolutely a blessing.”

Hennessy, who has three children and eight grandchildren, was an occupational therapist, mainly in the public schools. She also did work in geriatric rehabilitation.

“I do think that every major choice I have made in my life has been influenced by Dorothy,” she said.

Her grandmother often said, “Choose vocations that are supportive of humanity and help build the world,” she added.

Hennessy was away from the Catholic Church for several years. She felt caught between Day’s “intense conversion and my mother leaving the church in the early 1960s,” she said.

“I spent a good 30 years trying to understand what my baptism meant and what my inheritance was being born into this particular family. I found myself returning to the church at about age 50. It’s a long story. I hope to write it down some day for everyone. I think conversion stories are very mysterious, complex things, and I think they are very important for us to share.”

For the past 10 years, Hennessy has volunteered at Maryhouse, a Catholic Worker house in Manhattan, N.Y., which serves women. Day lived at Maryhouse the last five years of her life. St Joseph House, located three blocks away, serves men in need.

“Homelessness is burgeoning in Manhattan,” said Hennessy. “We all come (to Maryhouse) to have our rough edges worn off, so to speak. Being judgmental, stingy, having typical behavior shortcomings, you get tested every day, but it’s also a very beautiful community.

“Dorothy always spoke about how you know your vocation by the joy that it brings you,” she added.

“I’ve had moments of great joy, feeling the presence of God, being there in such a community where we are there to take care of each other.”

Hennessy warned that some detailed information often written about her grandmother is not accurate. One example is that Hennessy’s grandfather, Foster Batterham, left Day and was no longer part of her life. They stayed in touch their entire lives, said Hennessy. She recommends the works about Day edited by Robert Ellsberg.

Hennessy discussed three main points of the Catholic Worker philosophy: roundtable discussions, founding of houses of hospitality and agronomic universities. Discussions, including through the Catholic Worker newspaper “helped bring that voice to people on the street,” she said.

The houses of hospitality provided “the setting that allows you to do the hands-on work, practice the corporal works of mercy,” she explained.

Agronomic universities came from Maurin’s upbringing in Southern France. His goal was to establish farming communes where you raised what you eat.

Hennessy also spoke about Day’s Catholic faith. Her grandmother attended Mass daily, reconciliation on Saturdays, met with a spiritual director, read the daily readings from the breviary, took part in community prayer and prayed the vespers, which continue at Maryhouse today.

“She also would recite the rosary. That is something I remember from my childhood doing with her,” said Hennessy. “She always kept a changing prayer list. She would write on the back of a prayer card, this list. It consisted of those in need and was ever changing through the years.”

There was a cost of discipleship for Day, including family, said Hennessy. She wanted more children. Day’s only child was Tamar, Hennessy’s mother.

“I believe that Foster recognized something in her and responded to it,” she said. “I think he heard the voice of God through her and knew that he had to let her go to do what she needed to do.”

Hennessy had lunch at St. Norbert Abbey with a group of homeless women who were there for a retreat called “Finding Our Way.” She later visited the new Whatsoever You Do House of Hospitality in Green Bay.

“It’s the fanciest house I’ve ever seen to be used for hospitality with its chandeliers,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful old building which has been saved. I’m very happy for the community here to be opening up that house and to see what grows out of it. Very often, it’s a leap of faith. We take on these bits of work and it’s those we are serving who guide us in terms of what direction we take.”

On Jan. 22, Hennessy visited Casa Esther Catholic Worker House in Omro with Fr. Mattern, founder and president. Casa Esther financed her travel. She also met with Bishop Donald Hying of the Diocese of Madison.

Hennessy needed permission from a judge to travel to Wisconsin. She is awaiting sentencing in the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 anti-nuclear weapons case. She discussed in her presentation how her grandmother brought her to this place in her life. In recent years, Hennessy began attending Atlantic Life Community retreats, which started 40 years ago as a means to understand what can be done to protest the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

On April 4, 2018, the 50-year anniversary of the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Hennessy participated in a protest action at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia. The protest included spray painting messages over what she described as a “missile shrine.” All seven participants were found guilty in October on counts of conspiracy, depredation of governmental property, destruction of naval property and trespass.

“We are certainly being threatened with 20 years in prison,” she said. “We were stripped of any kind of defense.”

The parameters set at trial did not allow for an international law or religious faith defense, she said. Fr. Mattern has written the judge on Hennessy’s behalf.

The goal of the act was to “preach to those who were sustaining the weapon system,” said Hennessy.

The second component is going into the U.S. courts to talk about nuclear weapons, and the third component is prison ministry, while being imprisoned, she explained.

“I have gratitude to be given this chance to walk such a walk,” she said. “It’s frightful. It’s tested my faith to the utmost. It’s brought me closer to God. It’s something that I had to do.”

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