Monday, March 10, 2003

An Extraordinary, Difficult Childhood


Though more Catholic Workers today may be seeking to combine the ideals of the movement with parenting, the effort goes back generations. Dorothy Day’s daughter, Tamar, was the first of many children raised in the Catholic Worker movement.

“I loved the Catholic Worker. It was so exciting. I wouldn’t have missed a moment of it,” Tamar Hennessey told NCR in a phone interview from Vermont. Nonetheless, like her mother, Tamar Hennessey said it’s difficult to combine being a Catholic Worker with parenting. Hennessy said there may be some people who can do both, but usually people find they have to choose between them.

“I think you’ll hear a lot of contradictory stories. A lot of other children did have a difficult time being in the Worker,” Hennessy said. “I think Dorothy was very aware of the fact that you can’t do both well, and she was right.”

For herself, Henessey remembers growing up in the Catholic Worker as stimulating but physically grueling, especially with her mother often on the road.

“I was only 8 years old when it started. She was traveling a lot, and I was left to be taken care of by various people, and I got very ill. It was hard for both of us. She had her work, and yet at the same time she had me. She was very devoted. She was torn,” said Hennessy. “I did end up in boarding school for four years, which worked out well.”

Hennessy offered a sympathetic, nuanced account of Dorothy Day the mother.

“She loved her family so much, and in so many, many ways she kept me going. She missed understanding the material side of it. She expected a lot of going without. At the same time, she supported me a lot, and I can’t say enough good about that,” Tamar Hennessy said.

Hennessy acknowledged that Dorothy Day could be exacting. “She wanted everybody to be like saints. I mean, who can measure up to that?” asked Hennessy.

Married when she was still a teenager, Tamar Teresa Day Hennessy went on to have nine children and for many years led a hardscrabble existence living in the country. She was attracted to the Catholic Worker vision of rural families living on the land and tried to live that out with her own family, she said.

“I tried to hold on to those values. I tried to live simply. I tried to follow the Catholic faith. It did not turn out well. Right now I seem to have lapsed,” she said of her own religious faith.

Hennessy said people sometimes try to invent a rift between her and her mother that doesn’t exist. “I admired her overwhelmingly,” Hennessy said of Dorothy Day.

Other grown-up children of Catholic Workers have their own stories. Some have ended up staying in the movement; others have gone on to lead more so-called “normal” lives. Many say that the ideals they grew up with have stayed with them for a lifetime.

“The bad points were I grew up in the McCarthy era in San Francisco. We really had to keep a very low profile,” said Regina Burke, 64, a medical technician in California who remembers that when she and her sisters entered high school her parents gave them a copy of the Bible, Berlin Diary by foreign correspondent William Shirer, and the social encyclicals of the Catholic church.

“This is not the normal thing people get when they reach high school,” Burke said. “I think being raised in a family that had ideals that were not exactly popular, it brought us together more as a family. We didn’t have the problems of rebellion that a lot of families had. Even though you didn’t hear a lot about it in the ’50s, the big movie of our time was ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ We didn’t have that problem in our family because it was us against the world,” said Burke.

Burke’s parents did not run a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, but Burke said both her mother and father were much influenced by Dorothy Day and by Edith Stein, a German Jewish philosopher who became a Catholic nun and died at Auschwitz and was declared a saint. Burke’s father was active in setting up printing apprenticeship programs for convicts in prisons so they would have a skill they could draw on when they left prison; her mother was a teacher who was active in the Girl Scouts. Both were unafraid to embrace unpopular causes.

“It was an interesting way to grow up. During the ’60s we were all out in the streets for equal rights. We had some problems with people we invited to our home and then there would be problems with the neighbors. My parents weren’t very polite when the neighbors passed the petitions against the kind of people we had as guests in our home,” said Burke, remembering one friend of her parents who was of Japanese descent and others who were interracial couples.

“My mother knew Dorothy Day,” Burke said. “She was a great heroine, and that was held up to us. That and the fact that if you don’t go out and make the change, don’t expect anyone else to. You must be the change you want to see,” Burke said, paraphrasing Gandhi. A one-time lawyer who left the practice of law because she said the most honest people she met were criminals, Burke said her parents’ ideals have influenced her for a lifetime. Burke has been active in community organizing; one of her sisters is a Catholic nun who represents her religious community in the group of nongovernmental organizations that support United Nations public information efforts.

“The older we get, the more we recognize the fact that our parents were extraordinary. The most radical feminist we met was our father,” Burke said.

Confronting different values

Joachim Zwick said he was 10 or 12 when his parents started the Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker in Houston in 1980. “Absolutely it was difficult,” said Zwick, remembering his childhood. “If you didn’t have the right clothes, you weren’t cool.”

Now, as an adult, Zwick said, he doesn’t have any problems with the way he was raised at all. Friendship with the immigrants and undocumented workers whom the Houston Catholic Worker assists changed his worldview for the better, he said, mentioning how jarring it is for him today to hear “wetback” jokes that are common in Houston. Like Burke, Zwick said the most unsettling aspect of growing up in a Catholic Worker family was coming into contact with people whose values were at odds with those of his family. “The worst of it was junior high when I just didn’t understand how to respond to peer pressure and society and the cruelty of children concerning different values,” he said.

For a time, Zwick’s older sister lived and worked at the Houston Catholic Worker full time. A musician and computer consultant, Zwick said he lives simply but has not chosen to follow in his parents’ footsteps.

“I don’t know that I could do what they do given my interests and desires,” he said. “I don’t see myself at this point in my life dedicating my life to the poor. That’s where I am now. I’m not as religious as my parents are, certainly in a specific Catholic sense. They have a much stronger faith than I do, and there’s a direct connection with that and what they do.”

Tom Christopher Cornell and Deirdre Cornell are Catholic Workers following in the footsteps of their parents, Tom and Monica Cornell. “I never wanted to reject it outright. I’ve rebelled in the sense of wanting to do it differently,” said Tom Christopher Cornell, who with his parents is part of the community at the Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro, N.Y.

Middle-class ‘normal’ life

But perhaps just as typical is the experience of the Dowdy family at the Peter Maurin Farm. Ralph Dowdy, whose sons were 5 and 7 when he and his wife moved to the Peter Maurin Farm, said neither of his sons, now ages 22 and 24, has any desire to stay with the Catholic Worker.

“They don’t want voluntary poverty. They want to live a middle-class ‘normal’ American life,” Dowdy said.

“I fought with them about this,” said Dowdy. “Not to buy such expensive cars or clothes. You can have good transportation and not spend $18,000 on a car.”

Dowdy remembers his anxiety about the safety of his sons when the family first moved to the Peter Maurin Farm. “I was really paranoid about it, to be honest,” he said. For their part, Dowdy said he knows his sons faced some sensitive moments negotiating the differences between how their family lived and how their friends’ families lived.

“I know when my kids’ friends came over and realized we live in a renovated barn, [my kids] were a little embarrassed. But it didn’t seem to affect their relationship with those kids too much,” Dowdy said. “They participated in school.”

Is there advice Catholic Worker parents would give to others seeking to combine family with the movement Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded?

Ralph Dowdy said a couple should examine how solid the relationship is between them. “It’s always harder on the woman. The woman is expected to cook, to take care of the kids, to take care of the hospitality, and so often the man is off saving the world,” Dowdy said.

Start off small, advised Monica Cornell. “Be familiar with Dorothy and Peter’s legacy.”

Tamar Hennessy said no advice is necessary. “That’s the wonderful thing about the Catholic Worker. Everybody does it in their own way. They don’t need advice. They work it out.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003

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