Dorothy Day said we are all called to be saints. So why didn’t she want us to officially name her one?

By James T. Keane, 14 December 2021
Dorothy Day awaiting arrest with other supporters of the farmworkers' union in 1973 in California. Image: Bob Fitch Photography Archive/Department of Special Collections, Stanford University/Flickr.


Dorothy Day died 41 years ago on 29 November at her beloved Maryhouse in New York City, surrounded by the poor whom she served for so many years in a life soon to be officially recognized as saintly. On Dec. 8 in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal Timothy Dolan will preside at a Mass to commemorate the advancement of Dorothy Day’s cause for canonization to Rome. Though famously reticent to describe herself as one (“Don’t call me a saint,” she once said, “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily”), a saint is how many remember Dorothy Day today, even if it takes some time for Rome to get around to it. In addition to those who can testify personally to her holiness, her decades of direct service to the poor through The Catholic Worker movement and political activism have been chronicled in many a biography (here’s a primer from America), as well as in her own writings.

From 2012 to 2017, I worked as an editor at Orbis Books, the Maryknoll-sponsored publishing house devoted to publishing books on social justice, Christian liberation, and every emerging theological movement of the past half-century. My boss at Orbis was the publisher and editor in chief, Robert Ellsberg, who had been a close friend of Dorothy and the managing editor of The Catholic Worker newspaper in the late 1970s.

In 2015, Ellsberg wrote an essay for America on why he supported the canonization of Dorothy Day. Part of Ellberg’s reasoning for supporting the cause—beyond his conviction that she was indeed a saint—came from his study of her own writings. “We are all called to be saints,” she had once written, “and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us.” Furthermore, she recognized the sad reality that many people no longer sought holiness in their lives: They, “if they were asked, would say diffidently that they do not profess to be saints, indeed they do not want to be saints. And yet the saint is the holy man, the ‘whole man,’ the integrated man. We all wish to be that.” That is some food for thought for anyone who thinks a life of Christian discipleship is a hindrance to becoming a fully integrated person.

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James T. Keane is a senior editor at America.

With thanks to America Magazine and James T. Keane, where this article originally appeared.


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