In 1933, during the worst of the Great Depression, a young journalist named Dorothy Day founded a movement to serve the poor in America. Dorothy was an unlikely role model. As a young woman she had several love affairs, plus an abortion, and she gave birth to a child out of wedlock. Following the birth of her daughter she converted to Catholicism and, together with Peter Maurin, founded the Catholic Worker Movement.
Today the Catholic Worker Movement has houses of hospitality in 185 cities around the world. Their ethos is simple: they provide food, shelter, clothing, and sometimes work to people in need. They do it without much administration, without asking questions, and without much structure. And they do it because of their faith.
Like the more formally-established religious communities in the Church, Catholic Worker communities emphasize both prayer and service. Members generally live lives of voluntary poverty, and may or may not live collectively. Although not political in a partisan sense, Catholic Worker communities also campaign for non-violence. They have been known for activity in support of labor unions, human rights, cooperatives, and the development of a nonviolent culture. During periods of military conscription, Catholic Workers have been conscientious objectors to military service. Many of those active in the Catholic Worker Movement have been jailed for acts of protest against racism, unfair labor practices, social injustice and war.
Most Catholic Worker communities have refused to apply for federal tax exempt status, seeing such official recognition as binding the community to the state and limiting the movement’s freedom. Similarly, while Catholic Workers identify themselves as Catholics, and base their activities on the Gospels and Catholic social teaching, they operate autonomously from the formal structures of the Church.
Dorothy Day, the movement’s founder, died in 1980 The Vatican has begun proceedings that might lead to the declaration that she was saint.