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placeholder November 9, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
'The great tragedy is not enough of us want to be saints'

When Pope Francis spoke the name of Dorothy Day before a Joint Session of Congress on Sept. 24, Martha Hennessy was not in the House.

Hennessy, granddaughter of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was in New York City.

Martha Hennessy, granddaughter of the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

"Some of us in the community were fasting at the Isaiah Wall, in solidarity for the pope," she said.

Security had moved them from the site near the United Nations, which the pope was scheduled to visit the next day, to a park across the street. They were reflecting on the day's Scripture readings when one member of their party received a text message: "The pope just mentioned Dorothy."

"Later that day, a reporter came to the house with a copy of the speech," she said. She read it quickly before commenting.

The company Day is among stood out for Hennessy. "It's important to note that three of the four names were Gandhian pacifists. The pope's message was to us was pretty clear," Hennessy said.

How would Dorothy Day have reacted to being in the company of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton?

"She was very humble," Hennessy said. "I'm sure she would have been somewhat embarrassed. She was a friend of Merton. They corresponded and she published some of his work.

"She admired Martin Luther King recognized the path he was on," she said, recalling that Day and King were planning to meet in June 1968, a date he did not live to keep.

To have been recognized by Pope Francis would have pleased her, Hennessy said. "He speaks of the programs Peter {Maurin} and Dorothy spoke of," Hennessy said. "That would have put a smile on her face."

Hennessy was in Berkeley Oct. 28 to speak to a gathering sponsored by the Newman Nonviolent Peacemaking Group and the Father Bill O'Donnell Social Justice Committee at Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley. Her talk drew representatives of half a dozen Catholic Worker communities in the Bay Area, as well as students, young professionals and some older people who described their visits with Day in New York in the '60s and '70s.

But the afternoon before her talk, on a sun-dappled deck of a Jesuit house at which she was a guest, Hennessy spoke about the grandmother she shared with the world.
Martha Hennessy, 60, spends part of her days in Vermont, on the farm where she and her nine siblings grew up, and where she and her husband raise more than half of the food they eat. Her neighbors are her daughter, and her family, including small children.

For the past five years — after her three children graduated from college — she has spent time at Maryhouse in New York City, the Catholic Worker house founded by Dorothy Day.

She cooks for the soup kitchen and is, she said, "learning how to wear off my rough edges living in community."

"It's very noisy on Third Street," she said. "There's silence and darkness at night in Vermont. In Manhattan, silence and darkness don't exist."
"There's such joy in the house," she said. "I'm grateful and excited to be able to participate." She said she "hadn't set foot in the house for 24 years after Granny died.

Coming back to Maryhouse — and coming back to her Catholic faith — are "a mystery to me."

"It's hard work. I don't know if I could do the work if I hadn't found my grounding again in my baptism," she said.

Hennessey, born on Staten Island in 1955, moved to Vermont when she was 2. She grew up one of nine siblings of Day's only child, daughter Tamar.

"I find a direct line from myself, my mother, my grandmother and the Blessed Mother," Hennessy said.

"I do see an incredible strength in Tamar and Dorothy," she said.
Her grandmother, Hennessy said, "had an uncanny ability to be both ordinary and extraordinary."

"She was a regular granny," Hennessy said, coming to visit in Vermont "to rest, despite nine wild grandchildren. She was flexible and tolerant."

She was also able to "watch her grandchildren make all kinds of mistakes and be supportive and loving." She recalled her grandmother's deep faith and "willingness to place it in God's hands."

They also knew when they had to share the woman Hennessy described as having "an uncanny ability to be both ordinary and extraordinary."

"Of course we understood she didn't just belong to us," Hennessy said. "She belonged to the world.

"We were uncomfortable with the praise and attention she got. In Vermont, she was available to us.

"We were able to see her in two worlds: family life and the immense activity of the Catholic Worker Movement."

As teenagers, they would visit Granny at St. Joe's House on First Street, and Tivoli Farm, spending summers with memorable views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains.
Since Day's death in 1980, there have been calls for sainthood. Hennessy said her return to the Church changed her feelings about sainthood, which she favors.

Her concerns, however, include rewriting Day's story. But because her grandmother was a prolific writer, Hennessy is confident that Dorothy Day's words will stand on their own.

"I reassure myself, her words are out there," she said.

"We are all called to be saints," Hennessy said. "We need to do the work. She loved the saints; they helped guide her. The great tragedy is not enough of us want to be saints."

Hennessey said she understands the importance of evangelization. "We need to catch courage from each other," she said.

As for the greatest legacy that Dorothy Day left her, Hennessey said, "Being aware of the presence of God the beauty and joy of that. We're all part of the mystical body. That's very comforting. It dispels fear. It frees us up to love and be happy."

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