Mott Street. Manhattan. 1936.
These were tough times in a tough place. One might go so far as to say that things back then were even tougher than they are now. Not that you’d know that from the way certain hysterical folks act as if the apocalypse is upon us.
Anyway, times were so tough on Mott Street that Dorothy Day knew that if she was going to dedicate her life to helping others -- and that is what the Catholic Worker movement she found was all about -- Mott Street was a good place to start.
It was always an immigrant enclave; the Irish in the 19th century, Italians when Day and her cohorts moved in.
“The neighbors at first were distrustful of the Worker,” writes Irish American author and Dorothy Day’s granddaughter Kate Hennessy, in her new book Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty.
The local Italians believed Day and her do-gooder pals were Protestant missionaries. Things didn’t get much better when the locals learned that the Catholic Workers were no fan of Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini.
As Hennessy, who lived for years in Ireland notes, many Mott Street tenements had “Mussolini statues in their windows and Mussolini photos in their homes.”
Again, many hysterical people these days make it seem as if, in the good old days, immigrants came to America, and once they went through Ellis Island, dumped all of their old-world attachments at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, and settled in America wearing cowboy hats and waving the red, white and blue.
But, of course, it wasn’t just the Italians who needed Dorothy Day’s help. It was the Irish, too.
There was a fellow Hennessy refers to as Mr. Breen, who spent his nights at “a municipal shelter on a dock at South Ferry that put up more than two thousand people a night.”
A municipal shelter? Why, that almost sounds like it is paid for by the government.
But if you listen to certain hysterical voices these days, they make it seem as if past immigrants would never ever come to America so that they and their children could get “government handouts.”
Go figure. In fact, Hennessy was recently interviewed on NPR, and show host Dave Davies said, “A lot of poor people in New York were Catholic, right? There were a lot of Italians and a lot of Irish and other folks who were Catholic. And then people show up in need, and (Dorothy Day) just starts, figures out a way to provide help.”
And for this, quite a few people are currently laboring to make the case that Hennessy’s grandmother was, in fact, a saint. Go figure.
I recently asked Hennessy, via email, what her mother would think of the current political climate in the U.S.
“Ah, well, my grandmother didn't hold much faith in politics, and she witnessed the most volatile times of the 20th century in the U.S. So, I doubt that anything would surprise her,” she replied.
“I think she would despair in terms of how people are suffering, along with the amount of conflict and divisions between us on many levels, and she would keep reminding us of the cost of war. I suspect that she also would have been at Standing Rock.”
Hennessy is referring to the American Indian reservation where protesters sought to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
“I think that would have been her kind of protest,” adds Hennessy.
Hennessy, whose Irish American father married Dorothy Day’s daughter Tamar, lived in Connemara for seven years, as well as Co. Sligo for over a year.
“I find the landscape, the culture, the mythology, and the people in Ireland speak to me, and it is hard to stay away. For me Connemara is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and Sligo has an extraordinary mythological landscape,” she says.
Ireland also brought something else important to Hennessy’s family. Back on Mott Street, an Irish immigrant named Steve Johnson, as well as his wife, showed up “in need of help,” Hennessy notes.
Dorothy Day helped them. They helped Dorothy raise Tamar.
Kindness paid back with kindness. These days, that almost seems like a radical act.