Mary at the Catholic Worker
When Mary left Toronto in the fall of 1979, she went to visit the Catholic Worker community in New York City. Both she and Philip knew about the Catholic Worker and admired its bold stand against capitalism and militarism and its work with the poor. Both of them had visited the Catholic Worker houses in New York City in the 1960s. Philip lived a few blocks from Catholic Worker storefront on Chrystie Street in New York City in 1967 and Mary stopped by St. Joseph House on First Street before going to Toronto in 1969. Philip first became aware of the Catholic Worker in 1965 when he saw the Catholic Worker newspaper in a pile of papers on the floor of the abandoned office of a civil rights group in Gainesville, Florida. The stark, black masthead of the crucified Christ standing with two laborers, one a black man and the other a white man, caught his eye. He fished the newspaper from the pile of discarded papers littering the floor and read it. Its advocacy of both community and poverty made a lasting impression on him. In 1967 he distributed the newspaper on the campus of Florida State University as part of the Young Liberal’s Free Speech campaign.
Mary became involved in the Civil Rights movement by way of her involvement with a progressive Catholic parish in Atlanta. She too was familiar with the Catholic Worker. When she left Atlanta in 1969, she stopped in New York City for two weeks. During that time she visited the Catholic Worker’s St. Joseph House on First Street and its Peter Maurin Farm near Tivoli, New York. While in New York City she learned of Catholic Worker affiliates in Canada, including Madonna House. It was at her suggestion that she and Philip visited Madonna House, near Wilmo, Ontario in 1970. Madonna House was founded by Catherine deHueck Doherty who had a long association with the New York Catholic Worker.
In 1979 the New York City Catholic Worker community occupied two buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and an 86-acre farm near the small town of Tivoli. The farm was some 90 miles to the north of Manhattan on the banks of the Hudson River. St. Joseph House is a five-story walk-up at 36 East 1st Street. The offices of the Catholic Worker newspaper are located on the second floor of St. Joseph House. The first floor houses a large kitchen and dining room. The basement is full of pantries and fresh food storage. About 30 people normally lived on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th floors of the building in 1979. The 4th floor was reserved for women. The community also owned a second, larger four-story building at 55 East 3rd Street that housed a large auditorium and apartments where 35 women and 3 men lived. The building on 3rd Street is the community’s women’s shelter and is called Maryhouse. A pantry where a supply of canned food and dry goods are kept for distribution to destitute families is located in Maryhouse. In 1979 Dorothy Day, the community’s founder, was alive and living at Maryhouse.
The program of the Catholic Worker
The Catholic Worker community was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933. The community is a informally-organized Catholic lay community that follows Peter Maurin’s program of round-table discussions “for the clarification of thought”, “works of mercy” (including running houses of hospitality) and “self-sufficient” farming communes. (See article #1.)The most famous Catholic Worker activity is the publication of the newspaper from which the community takes its name. The first issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper was published in 1933. In 1979 95,000 copies of the newspaper were mailed to a world-wide list of subscribers eight times a year. The newspaper is written by members of the Catholic Worker community under a loosely-organized editorial board whose composition may change monthly. The task of labeling, sorting, folding and bundling the newspaper is an unending task that occupies a large portion of the community’s time. Most of this activity takes place at St. Joseph House although until the mid-1980s the address labels were printed at Maryhouse using an antique addressograph machine. The newspaper is printed by a commercial printer that is not affiliated with the Catholic Worker community.
In 1979 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings of each week between 150 and 400 mostly indigent people were fed a soup meal consisting of a bowl of bean soup, two slices of day-old buttered bread and a cup of coffee. The meal is prepared and served by resident volunteers from the Catholic Worker community. Daily breakfasts of oatmeal and a supper meal made from food begged from the Hunt’s Point Market is prepared in the kitchen at St. Joseph House for the residents of the two houses. The residents of St. Joseph House eat in the dining room and prepared food is taken to Maryhouse in a shopping cart to be eaten by those living in the women’s shelter.
Most Friday nights beginning at 7:30 P.M. a speaker gives a presentation and then presides over a discussion at either in the kitchen at St. Joseph House or in the auditorium at Maryhouse. The topic of the Friday Night Meetings varies widely, ranging from theatre and readings to films and audiovisual presentations. Speakers are often members of the community but occasionally are well-known Catholic activists who draw audiences that overflow the small auditorium. The Friday night meetings evolved from daily meetings at the Catholic Worker storefront during which large crowds listened to speeches on the radical program of Peter Maurin. The speeches were often followed by Peter Maurin’s shouted rendition of what he called “Easy Essays”. The Easy Essays are free-form poems that criticize capitalism and its abuses. The Easy Essays are often reprinted in the Catholic Worker newspaper. The Easy Essays were intended to be recited and, while Peter Maurin was speaking, his listeners were often able to recite the essays along with him.
In addition to performing “the works of mercy” by offering housing and food to the poorest of the poor and “clarification of thought” through the newspaper and the Friday night meetings, the Catholic Worker embraces a “personalist” approach to Catholic spirituality. The Peter Maurin Farm and the social activism of the group are expressions of their application of Christ’s teachings to modern, capitalist society. Members of the community often engage in non-violent protest against social policies and activities that they oppose. The community was originally founded as a counterweight to the secular communist labor movement and adopted many of its methods including civil disobedience and social activism from the labor movement. The community embraces a rule of voluntary poverty. The newspaper has a nominal sales price of one cent per copy but maintains no list of paying subscribers. The community depends upon donations to meet its expenses. In 1985 each issue of the newspaper cost $14,000 to produce and mail and utilities and taxes for the three properties amounted to about $50,000 annually. When funds are short an appeal in made in the newspaper and its many readers respond as they wish.
The Catholic Worker community
Until 1968 the Catholic Worker community lived in rented quarters, first on Mott Street and then on Chrystie Street south of Houston Street, both in lower Manhattan. In 1968 the building at 36 East 1st Street was purchased, christened St. Joseph House and the community moved there. In 1973 Maryhouse was purchased with a small down payment donated by a Trappist abbot. The original farming commune, called Peter Maurin Farm, was located on Staten Island. The farm was frequently relocated and in 1964 it moved to a much larger property near the town of Tivoli. This fourth Catholic Worker farm had three large buildings and was used for conferences during the turbulent years of the Vietnam War. Although it continued its mission of providing the urban houses with fruits and vegetables, gradually the farm became another house of hospitality with 60 to 80 people in residence. By 1978 the property needed extensive repair while the number of residents was in decline. The farm near Tovoli was sold in the fall of 1978 and another, smaller property purchased near the village of Marlboro some 70 miles from Manhattan. The new farm is much smaller than that at Tivoli and was designed to house only 15 to 20 people.
The Catholic Worker is managed by a loose-knit group of volunteers whose number and composition change monthly. Most of the volunteers are young Catholics who came from all over the world to offer their services for two or three days or months and who sometimes stay for years. There are usually twenty to twenty-five volunteers in residence at any given time. Mary, like many others, intended to stay at the Catholic Worker for only a short time but stayed much longer. Mary planned to stay for three months. She finally left after five years only because her son Randy asked her to return to Toronto so he could attend school full-time.
The Catholic Worker has no management structure. It is famously said that, “No one is in charge.” After having living at the Ragnarokr leather shop for the previous ten years, Mary had little trouble adapting to the chaotic and unorganized routine of the Catholic Worker community. When Mary first met Dorothy Day, who recognized her as a recent arrival, Mary told her that “it is fun” to live there. (See article #2.) Mary quickly became an active member of the core of volunteers that kept the place running and published the community’s newspaper. She contributed sketches that are still used by the newspaper and wrote an occasional column. She attended numerous demonstrations, vigils and protests in New York City and the surrounding region with others from the Catholic Worker community. Many of these demonstrations involved civil disobedience during which members of the Catholic Worker community were arrested. Mary never courted arrest but was a member of the “support group” that witnessed the action and made the necessary arrangements to visit those who were arrested.
During Mary’s stay in New York she met Robbie Gamble and Martha Miller who both arrived at the Catholic Worker separately a few months after Mary. Robbie and Martha eventually married. After Mary returned to the Ragnarokr leather shop in Toronto in 1985, Robbie and Martha stayed in touch with her. Martha is from Hamilton, Ontario. After the couple moved to Canada in 1986, Robbie helped the Ragnarokr leather shop move from Baldwin Street to Queen Street and subsequently worked at the leather shop off and on until 1987 while Martha attended nursing school.
Mary’s life at the Catholic Worker: 1980
Mary arrived at the Catholic Worker house in the fall of 1979 and was offered a bed on the fourth floor of St. Joseph House. She immediately offered her services in the kitchen and volunteered for the tedious and never-ending task of folding the newspaper. On October 29 she joined a group of Catholic Worker volunteers at a demonstration on Wall Street at which several were arrested. On November 14 Stanley Vishnewski, one of the original Catholic Worker volunteers, died at Maryhouse. His funeral attracted hundreds of individuals, many of whom stayed at either St. Joseph House or Maryhouse. In December Mary went to Toronto to spend Christmas at the Ragnarokr leather shop and to attend the confirmation ceremony of Mary, Alice and Brendan Burdick at St. Patrick’s Church on McCaul Street.
On March 9, 1980 twelve people, including Mary, traveled to the Pentagon building in Washington, DC for an anti-war demonstration. They joined an on-going prayer vigil at the tunnel entrance to the Pentagon. They prayed and sang at the entrance for several days. Finally eight people blocked the door to the Pentagon Tour Office and were arrested. Mary and the rest of the group returned to New York on March 14. On April 25 eight people from the New York Catholic Worker, including Mary, and hundreds of other people traveled to Groton, Connecticut to protest the launching of a new US Navy Trident submarine that carried nuclear warheads.
That spring Mary set up a leather shop in her room at St. Joseph House where she taught other residents how to make sandals. She commented, “You really feel like you’ve made a break from the System when you’re wearing a pair of hand-made shoes.” (See article #3.) In June she and fifteen others went to Central Park to attend a free production of the opera Rigoletto featuring the famous Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
On July 21, 1980 registration for the military draft was re-instated by the US Government. The Catholic Worker had always opposed military service and actively opposed the military draft before it was abolished in 1972. After registration was re-instated volunteers from the Catholic Worker houses went to local post offices to talk to registrants who came to pick up the registration forms. Mary and Jennifer Imhoff both wore sandwich boards reading, “The Catholic Worker supports your decision to resist registration.” whenever they left St. Joseph House.
On November 29, 1980 Dorothy Day died at Maryhouse where she had lived for many years. Mary helped care for the thousands of people who came for her funeral Mass. Mary was still living on the fourth floor of St. Joseph House and took her turn running the kitchen and the house. In December Mary and eleven others from the house went to Washington, DC, to witness the end of the year-long vigil at the Pentagon. When she returned she wrote her first column for the newspaper, an obituary for a man named Ed Brown who died at Maryhouse.
By April 1981 Mary had moved to the 2nd floor of St. Joseph House and set up her leather shop there. When the residents organized a “Mardi Gras Cabaret” at Maryhouse on the eve of Ash Wednesday, Mary, Ruth Clements and Larry Rosania formed a chorus which they named the “St. Andrews Sisters”. The three sang hits from the 1930s while dressed in appropriate costumes put together from items they found in the clothing room. (See article #3) In May Mary began helping with the roof top garden on the roof of St. Joseph House. She solved the problem of getting water to the roof by running a hose through a window from the 5th floor kitchenette to the building’s roof. (See article #4) In May Mary flew to Houston to visit Philip Mullins and several others of the Ragnarokr family who had moved to East Texas the year before.
In August Mary’s son Bob Rauton visited at St. Joseph House for ten days. He encouraged Mary to open a house of hospitality in Atlanta. Mary commented that “the works of Mercy need to become more visible everywhere” but refused to commit herself. (See article #5.) Mary and Jennifer Imhoff became good friends when they both lived on the 4th floor of St. Joseph House. They both laughed often and loudly. Other residents commented that their laughter infected their co-workers with the “joy of life”. Mary liked nothing better than a good practical joke. In September Sharon Wilson, Jennifer Imhoff and Mary participated in a wedding at Maryhouse by decorating the groom’s car with streamers, beer cans and pink and blue netting. They taped a large Catholic Worker logo on the rear window and added the usual wedding grafitti to the car’s windows.
In December Mary’s drawings first appeared in the Catholic Worker newspaper. Her drawing of someone stirring a 20-quart pot of soup accompanied an article by Arthur Sullivan about the kitchen routine. The following month she was listed as an Associate Editor of the newspaper for the first time. The issue of the newspaper included two of her drawings, one a drawing of a woman with an Afro and another of the corner of Houston and First Avenue where the homeless keep a fire burning during the winter months.
In February 1982 Mary’s name was in the list of volunteers who did the weekly “house shopping” that included stocking the emergency food pantry. She commented that the needs of the poor had increased so much that now she spent $300 weekly rather than $200 as before. The March 1982 issue of the newspaper included her drawing labeled, “El Salvador”. Although Mary continued to submit drawings for use in the newspaper, she asked that she no longer be listed as an Associate Editor. The associate editors actually wrote the articles for the newspaper.
In January Mary and four others traveled to Davenport, Iowa for a wedding. When she returned Mary and Dan Mauk, the “gardeners”, began preparing the soil of the roof-top garden for planting. Mary never lived at the Catholic Worker farm but she gradually assumed more and more responsibility for the roof-top garden at St. Joseph House. Mary was encouraged to draw for the newspaper. In May she was invited to Newport, Rhode Island, to visit Ade Bethune and Fritz and Toni Eichenberg, who supplied the newspaper with artwork for many years. In September 1982 two drawing by Mary were used to illustrate the libretto of a musical called “Maryhouse Revisted”. One is a drawing of Jeanette Noel typing and the other is a mop sink. Jeanette Noel had the responsibility of maintaining the address stencils for the newspaper and the mop sink was an essential tool used to coup with the building’s antique pumping. The musical was performed by members of the community.
Mary maintained a small leather shop in her room on the second floor of St. Joseph House. In addition to making gifts and teaching leather work she made sandals for whoever was willing to pay the asking price of $35. She earned about fifteen dollars from each pair she made and in this way was able to travel to Toronto and Atlanta, Georgia occasionally.
In October 1982 Robbie Gamble arrived at the Catholic Worker. Mary was once again called upon to write the St. Joseph House column and she submitted a drawing of Peggy Sherer for the newspaper. Peggy Sherer was the newspaper’s editor at that time. Two other drawings by Mary were featured in the newspaper that month, one of Frank Donovan’s writing desk and another labeled, “Bird Market-Moscow”. Mary spent November at the leather shop in Toronto helping her son Randy prepared the shop for the Christmas rush. Martha Miller of Hamilton, Ontario, arrived at the New York Catholic Worker shortly after Robbie Gamble. Both Martha and Robbie wrote many articles for the newspaper beginning in December 1982. Mary and Robbie became friends and the two of them drove to the new Peter Maurin farm near Marlboro, New York on two day trip to cut Christmas trees for the New York City houses.
Mary took a part-time job in a leather shop making belts for the Lord and Taylor’s store. She enjoyed the work and it gave her some much needed cash money. Winter turned to spring. Mary traveled to Toronto in April to visit the Ragnarokr leather shop and to check on the community’s now abandoned farm in Machar Township. She wanted to use the farm buildings to house refugees from El Salvador but could never get the project underway.
In May 1983 Jeanette Noel, Sharon Wilson and Mary Mullins prepared a large cake to be served at St. Joseph House following the May Day Mass at the neighborhood Nativity Church. May Day was a major event at the Catholic Worker since it marked the anniversary of the first issue of the newspaper. As tradition required, a group from the Catholic Worker went to Times Square and distributed copies of the newspaper just as Dorothy Day had done on May 1, 1933. Mary and three others from the New York Catholic Worker attended a funeral in Pennsylvania. That spring Mary recruited Robbie Gamble into her gardening crew and she, Dan Mauk and Robbie Gamble took charge of the roof-top garden on the roof of St. Joseph House. Mary spent the month of June with her aging mother and her children in Atlanta, Georgia.
During the weekend of July 7-10, 1983 Mary along with most of the volunteers at the New York Catholic Worker and 200 others attended a national gathering at the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Newark, NJ to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Catholic Worker. During the Saturday night entertainment that followed the conference Mary sang “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and other songs for the crowd. Mary received a letter from her oldest son, Randy, who asked her to return to the leather shop in Toronto while he attended school. She also learned that her ex-husband’s contracting business in Atlanta was near bankruptcy. Three of her sons are employed by the business and she is anxious for them.
During 1983 Mary continued to live at St. Joseph House and do her part to keep the two houses operating. The needs of the poor in the surrounding neighborhood continued to grow. By the fall three or four people were assigned to do the weekly shopping for the emergency food pantry. Both Martha Miller and Robbie Gamble were placed on the list of Associate Editors for the newspaper. Mary, Robbie Gamble and Gary Donatelli continued to hang out together and shared the occasional jug of beer in the neighborhood pub.
In November Mary left New York for several months to visit her extended families in Atlanta and Toronto. Mary was in Atlanta when her mother, Nadine Manning, died. From Atlanta Mary flew to Toronto where she helped run the Ragnarokr leather shop for the Christmas rush. She also arranged for Penny Stoker, a South River merchant, to rent the house at the Ragnarokr farm in Machar Township. While Mary was in Toronto she and her son Randy were interviewed by the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper for an article about life at the Ragnarokr leather shop.
The January/February 1984 issue of the Catholic Worker newspaper included a column by both Robbie Gamble and Martha Miller and a drawing by Mary Mullins. That month the newspaper’s editor Peggy Sherer left for an extended trip to Nicaragua and Robbie Gamble was listed as co-editor for the first time. Martha Miller continued as an associate editor of the newspaper. That spring Jeanette Noel began the long process of transferring addresses of newspaper’s subscribers from the antique addressograph to a modern computer. Mary continued to submit drawings for use in the newspaper. The March/April 1984 edition included a drawing by Mary of the intersection of East 9th Street and 2nd Avenue.
Mary returned to Maryhouse in February after an absence of several months. To enliven the doldrums of mid-winter she organized a ‘cabaret’ of song and dance numbers. In May she once again agreed the write the St. Joseph House column and submitted several drawings to the newspaper. (See article #7.) In the fall she and Dan Mauk prepared the buffet for a wedding at Maryhouse and Mary participated in a vigil at a laboratory nearby. She made the drum that was used to punctuate the theme of the protest, “Remembering the Victims” of nuclear war. (See article #6.)
By August 1984 Mary had decided to return to the Ragnarokr leather shop in Toronto. She was very uncertain about the future. She had learned to love the community at the Catholic Worker and very reluctantly agreed to return to Toronto so her son, Randy, could enroll in the University of Toronto. She spent the last month in New York helping to winterize Mary Humphrey’s cottage on Staten Island. She enjoyed the peace and quiet at the Spanish Camp. She reluctantly said good-bye to her friends at the Catholic Worker. Her son Bob Rauton accompanied her from New York City to Toronto and then stayed in Toronto for several weeks to help his mother settle in. In September the Catholic Worker newspaper reported that she traveled to “Toronto for a while, spreading the vision and her enthusiasm there.” Mary moved into 33 Baldwin Street and Kathleen Walsh, Randy’s fiancée, paid for her first month’s rent. Randy and Kathleen were attending church school in preparation for their wedding. Mary picked up her work at the Ragnarokr leather shop where she had left it five years before.
Robbie and Martha stayed on at the Catholic Worker after Mary left. Robbie continued to serve as co-editor of the newspaper and Martha continued to write columns and serve as an associate editor. Martha Miller’s name disappeared from the list of associate editors in the August 1985 issue as she prepared to return to school in Hamliton, Ontario. In November Robbie gave up his job as the co-editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper and he too moved to Ontario. From 1984 until 1987 Robbie worked part-time in the Ragnarokr leather shop in Toronto, visiting New York occasionally.
In August 1986 Robbie and Martha Miller married in Toronto. Peggy Sherer, Pam Quatse and Eileen Lawter traveled to Toronto for the wedding and stayed at the newly opened Angelus Catholic Worker House at 2 Vancouver Avenue. After Robbie and Martha returned from their honeymoon Martha returned to nursing school while Robbie helped at the Ragnarokr leather shop and at the Angelus storefront at 1182 Queen Street East. By 1987 Robbie had left the leather shop for good although he and Mary kept in frequent contact.
Excerpts from the Catholic Worker newspaper
The Catholic Worker newspaper prints an unusual mix of articles that are mostly first-hand accounts of social movements that are of interest to Catholics. Most issues have “house columns” that report, in detail, on the happenings at the two houses of hospitality in New York City and the Peter Maurin farm near Marlboro. The following articles are copies of articles that appeared in the Catholic Worker newspaper and refer Mary Mullins during her stay in New York.
The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker
The following is an excerpt from the newspaper published by the New York Catholic Worker. It is a statement of their goals and methods. The aims and means of the Catholic Worker paralleled in some respects the aims and means of the community that operated the Ragnarokr leather shop. Both groups advocated a kind of social and religious value system called personalism, a decentralized society, non-violent resistance to abusive authority, a “green” revolution and a preference for manual labor.
“The Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker” (abridged) as expressed in the Catholic Worker, May 2005, Organ of the Catholic Worker Movement.
The aim of the Catholic Worker movement is to live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ. Our sources are the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, as handed down in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, with our inspiration coming from the lives of the saints, “men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses to Your unchanging love.” (Eucharistic Prayer)
This aim requires us to begin living in a different way. We recall the words of our founders, Dorothy Day, who said, “God meant things to be much easier than we have made them,” and Peter Maurin, who wanted to build a society “where it is easier for people to be good.”
When we examine our society, which is generally called capitalist (because of its method of producing and controlling wealth) and is bourgeois (because of prevailing concern for acquisition and material interests, and its emphasis on respectability and mediocrity). We find it far from God’s justice.
-In economics, private and state capitalism bring about an unjust distribution of wealth, for the profit motive guides decisions.
-In labor, human need is no longer the reason for human work.
-In politics, the state functions to control and regulate life.
-In morals, relations between people are corrupted by distorted images of the human person. -The arms race stands as a clear sign of direction and spirit of our age.
In contrast to what we see around us, as well as within ourselves, stands St. Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of the Common Good, a vision of a society where the good of each member is bound to the good of the whole in the service of God.
To this end, we advocate:
-Personalism, a philosophy which regards the freedom and dignity of each person as the basis, focus and goal of all metaphysics and morals.
-A decentralized society, in contrast to the present bigness of government, industry, education, health care and agriculture. We encourage efforts such as family farms, rural and urban land trusts, worker ownership and management of small factories, homesteading projects, food, housing and other cooperatives- any effort in which money can once more become merely a medium of exchange and human beings are no longer commodities.
-A “green revolution,” so that it is possible to rediscover the proper meaning of our labor and our true bonds with the land: a distributist communitarianism, self-sufficient through farming, crafting and appropriate technology; a radically new society, where people will rely on the fruits of their own toil and labor; associations of mutuality, and a sense of fairness to resolve conflicts.
We believe this needed personal and social transformation should be pursued by the means Jesus revealed in His sacrificial love. With Christ as our Exemplar, by prayer and communion with His Body and Blood, we strive for practices of:
-Nonviolence. Only though nonviolent action can a personalist revolution come about, one in which one evil will not simply be replaced by another.
-The Works of Mercy are at the heart of the Gospel and they are clear mandates for our response to “the least of our brothers and sisters.”
-Manual labor, in a society that rejects it as undignified and inferior.
We must be prepared to accept seeming failure with these aims, for sacrifice and suffering are part of the Christian life. Success, as the world determines it, is not the final criterion for judgment. The most important thing is the love of Jesus Christ and how to live His truth.
The entire October/November 1982 article titled St. Joseph House by Mary Mullins is reproduced.
“We’re enjoying an evening away from the house. Peggy (Sherer) pulls out her Peace Diary at the behest of Fr. Jim Consedine and turns to a page of maps, which depicts a thumbnail view of the two island of New Zealand. “There it is,” and he points to Christchurch excitedly. “That’s the town where my home is.” We listen over the din of the jukebox – which gets increasingly louder- to hear him describe kiwi birds, hedge hogs (haige-jobbs he called them), his trip around the world, and the people he works with. About ten o’clock Alan, Beth, Martha (Miller), Annette and Robbie (Gamble) stroll in. “String of Pearls” going full blast. We huddle elbow to elbow around the wooden table shouting our stories. Some of the best are playbacks that Fr. Larry Rosebaugh and Carl Kabat had told Robbie only a few weeks ago when they came by the Worker for a short visit.
One concerned Larry, who said he did a turn at trapping Louisiana years ago when he was in the seminary. Seems a neighbor came by to take a look at all the stretched skins drying on the shed and carefully scrutinized one furry hide in particular which hung next to a row of muskrats, “It looks an awful lot like my missing cat!”, he said. Larry was never sure, being a novice at his work, but up until the time he had to leave Louisiana, the cat never came back.
Then Peggy looked over at me with her demure smile, which means she is about to ask a small favor of me. She paused, then quietly stated her request. …”There’s no one else, can you write the house column for the next issue?” I spent the rest of the evening staring at the ceiling watching muses drift by.
One little Muse is Jennifer Imhoff, who is out in Spokane at the bedside of her father who is very ill. We all miss you and pray for your family, Jen. I could always count on her talents to help me out in a pinch, like writing, but it look like I have to do this one alone.
A Full Life
I came to the Worker in the fall of ’79 intending to stay for three months, adapted quickly and settled in. I liked this place immediately, immeasurably. Dorothy and Peter’s singlemost gift to me personally was to leave behind a setting, a home where I can work in and out from without fear of stepping on toes, where I can be me and let my talents surface and be present with the poor and the rich alike. Thank you, thank you. I’ve seen Lena Horne in concert twice, with Frank and Dan, and “A Chorus Line,” “42nd Street,” “Dream Girls,” and operas and live jazz, all standing room, which means reasonable prices. On any given Tuesday night, I can walk up to the Museum of Modern Art, enter free of charge and stand and stare endlessly at Van Gogh’s immaculate piece of work – humming “Starry, Starry Night” throughout the viewing. I can gather and lay out neat outfits on the tables on the first floor for the guys to come in from the street and make a selection, thanks to the clothing donors. I eat, sleep, do leather work, fall in and out of love, tend the house when it’s my turn, shop for food with Peter Scarvuzzo (who manages to spend his day off with us every Friday). Peter, a kind, loving man with a handsome graying beard, a man who seems to have time for everyone and for us every Friday, our busiest, yet most tedious day in the week. Fridays are consistently the great marathon run of runs. Early breakfast for the thirty or so people who live in this house, then a soup meal at 10 a.m. for sometimes as many as 400 people, then lunch for the house, then a run in the van to Brace and Paul Lee’s Fruit Stand to pick up the bushels of fresh produce, then another van run talking the mail bags – filled with these newspapers- to the Post Office down near the World Trade Towers, then a van run over to Clarkson Street for the large sacks of beans, then endless chopping of vegetables for the meatless Friday dinner meat at 5:00, then cleanup and preparation for the Friday Night Meeting and, in the afterflow of this catastrophic yearlong day, we either hit the hay or hit the bricks (Joe Foth’s term for taking a stroll), which brings us down the fastest. This is the only place I know where t.g.i.f. does not apply.
So many good people come by here for far too short a visit. Ed Forand says that he finds this aspect of Worker life the hardest. Good people come here, friendships are formed and then they leave… and Ed feels each devastating departure. Sometimes I do too, but all too often these visitors, leave a small legacy in their wake. Thanks to Ian Keith’s visit last spring, I now have a neighborly acquaintance with some of the men and women who hang out on The Bowery. Before he came here, believe me, that was one area I avoided. Ian stayed at the Municipal Men’s Shelter nights and worked around here during the day. We were old friends before we knew it. He heard me out about my fear of street people, so together we fathomed a way to meet the people on the street in a casual setting by bringing a potful of hot soup to the sidewalks on those chilly March mornings. We sat that pot right down on the corner of The Bowery and Houston Streets. “It’s a picnic, come and eat.” We stood around and ladled soup into plastic cups and talked and exchanged stories – some of which made me want to cry. Most of the histories were concerned with tenure on the Bowery and the uselessness of trying to escape the Web of the Bowery once you’re there. One man, a fierce-looking, scar-faced fellow, approached within inches of my gaping mouth, pointed to the soup pot and snarled, “I bet doing this makes you feel good.” I had to think fast and remember the honesty that prevails in sidewalk mentality. I pushed my chin high above his nose, cup of soup in my hand, and said, “It sure does!” He pulled back, dear man, and mumbled quietly that it made him feel good, too. We drank soup and started laughing about our honesty together.
Another concern I’ve spent time on recently is the problems faced by small businesses in our neighborhood, our City. Landlords in town are looking for higher rents (nothing new) from the small commercial storefronts and factories. Commercial rent control in unheard in Manhattan, as some landlords are raising rents too high for the storeowner to stay in business, or they have to borrow money, gentrify their shop, and raise their prices to us. And who wants that? So groups in neighborhoods around New York are joining together to effect a change in the present legislation; with some Council help, to encourage City Hal to take Intro 85 out of committee and bring it to a vote in Council, so it can be sent to Albany where it would be voted on and approved, we hope. It is not a strong bill but it would afford some protection against the inflationary rent increase. All our bodegas, flower shops, shoe repair stores, small movie houses, theaters, clothing shops, the various services that make our neighborhood a village, would be able to stay in business here and serve the poor and low income people who live in the tenements above their stores. Many of these stores invite people from the street in to warm up on a cold winter’s night. The store across the street has notes pinned behind the counter which read, E.L.-1 can tuna and a dozen eggs, B.T.-lb. of oleo, etc. Where else can a person go and get credit without “The Card” if there is not cash in the pocket? Dorothy Day wrote stories about the shopkeepers on Staten Island who extended just such credit back in the ‘20’s to their neighbors. I want to support the shopkeepers and help them maintain their gentle personalism in action.
I will close this story by relating a brief encounter I had with Dorothy Day shortly after I arrived three years ago. It was an unexpected meeting wherein she set a pace for me I use to this day almost as often as prayer.
I happened to walk into the dining room at Maryouse. Dorothy was seated at a table talking to Deane. “How did you get in?” she asked, mistaking me for Doris, her friend from Staten Island with whom she could joke. But thinking she was singling me out as a special newcomer, I answered her question with a flippant “Through a hole in the wall.” She chuckled and admitted mistaking me for someone else, then asked if I would sit down. “What is your name?” I told her. “How do you like it here?” And I, almost to the point of abusing histrionics, babbled nervously about how much I really liked it here. She smiled a wistful, knowing smile then directed her eyes at me with a look I’ll never forget, and added her collective wisdom on the subject of living at the Catholic Work, “It is fun…it is.”
The following are excerpts from a longer article titled April 1981 “36 East First” by Eric Brandt.
“Our life here on the Lower East Side if is filled with paradox – life amidst death, wealth because of poverty, joy in spite of pain. Though Dorothy is gone, we can all feel her presence and encouragement in the witness she left us. We are “wealthy” in knowledge of self and love because of the poverty around us and in which we attempt to participate. And the “joy in spite of pain” was exemplified by our Mardi Gras Cabaret which we held at Maryhouse of the evening before Ash Wednesday. Everyone shared a little bit of themselves in order that the community as a whole would be entertained. There were costumes, music, dancing and magic. The “St. Andrews Sisters” (Mary Mullins, Ruth Clements and Larry Rosania) entertained us with some old 30’s numbers, Madeline spellbound us with song, the Kit-Kat Girls gave a kick to our spirits and Alan and Kathy added a touch of the mystical by pulling a farm rabbit out of a hat. To others it might have seemed a modest display of talent but to us it was a night rich in the sharing and the joy which comprises community life.”
“Another bright patch in the crazy quilt that makes up our family is Mary Mullins. Mary has moved to expand her leather shop. She now lives on the second floor and her room is quite a busy place. Many members of the community are working on various leather projects and the sounds of the cobbling hammer can be heard throughout the house. In this day and age it seems strange to many that people would make their own shoes or fold and mail 98,000 newspapers by hand. It seems illogical. Yet it is a paradox of efficiency. The lack of mechanization demands greater participation by all of us, thus binding us closer as a community. Mary’s leather work shop and Preston’s mailing process may seem out-dated and out-modeled but these means are extremely efficient in light of the strengthened community they produce.
It is now evening and soon it will be time for Vespers. Sunday night means “High Vespers” for afterwards we’ll have coffee and divvy up the weekly responsibilities.”
The following are excerpts from a longer article in the June-July, 1983 issue titled St. Joseph House by Bill Anatalics.
“St. Joseph House has experienced some physical changes in the past month, too. The persistent ceiling leak in the kitchen was repaired, and the entire kitchen repainted in time for the May 1st celebration by Jean Pierre Boyette and others. The patio in back of the kitchen, thanks to Frank, and the roof garden, thanks to Mary Mullins and her varied horticultural skills, bloom with flowers. Some of the many plants on the roof are: herbs – parsley, lavender, rosemary, lemon balm, about 100 basil plants (one leaf is picked at a time, is frozen with olive oil and then used in a pasta dish called pesto), and dill. There is also a black willow tree which could grow to a height of 30 feet, “hens and chicks,” yellow onion, Virginia creeper, vinca, sweet Williams, zinnias, petunias, dusty millers, bachelor buttons, cosmos, parsnips, snap dragons, Johnny jump-ups, French marigolds, fragrant nicotine (member of the deadly nightshade), California poppy, dill, leaf lettuce, strawberry plants, 100 morning glory plants, pink and blue lilacs, Jerusalem artichokes, portulaca and sweet peas. Heavy clay is mixed with composed manure and vermiculite, making a very light and arable soil.
One last item involving St. Joseph House and Maryhouse. My father died in Pennsylvania on May 17 of this year after a long illness, and I’ve really never been involved in a situation before where I received so much are and concern, so much heartfelt compassion. From both houses – phone calls, offers of aid of all kinds, loaves of freshly baked bread, letters of sympathy and even a visit to the funeral Mass and burial by Mary Mullins, Greg Garcia, Sue Seghers and Gary Bonatelli. One existential philosopher called these acts of mercy “a concretizing of one’s ideality,” that is, putting one’s spiritual goals and beliefs into practice, making them real and sensible and tangible.
In my five months at the Worker, I’ve witnessed many acts of kindness of community and all sorts of spiritual vitality, but I had never looked upon the Worker as a living, caring family unit until some weeks ago. What happened then is the anatomy of a mystery, a spiritual mystery. One person’s long-term agony touched the lives of many other people in our Worker community. Their poignant, human response of mercy opened a door of understanding to me, and what I’ve discovered is that this group of people I once considered primarily idealistic, communal workers, is really a close-knit family, and their familial love touches me.”
The following are excerpts from a longer article in the September 1981 issue titled “36 East First” by Mary Mullins.
“Mom, why don’t you come to Atlanta and open a house of hospitality there?” His question threw me- this was the first opportunity in twelve years which Bob and I shared where we could speak alone with one another to exchange our experiences and thoughts- and I was at a loss how to answer him.
Bob had spent the past ten days at the Catholic Worker, sharing our life, our poverty, our quest for nonviolence and justice, our celebrations. Naturally I was anxious to know his feelings and reflections. Where could we be alone and talk? The luxury of privacy, as Kate Hennessy learned growing up at the Catholic Worker, is rare indeed at either of our New York City houses. Constant interruption is the order of the day and something is always happening so she generously offered us the use of her apartment. We lunched together in peace and quiet- a picnic of sorts on the floor over a small rug and talked for hours about ourselves, our separate histories and about the Catholic Worker.
Bob liked the idea of a place like the Worker in today’s times. All these people living under two roofs with so many unfulfilled dreams and harsh memories, yet, in the face of that burden, a pleasant word and soft smile often crossed the lips of the people he talked with.”
“I told Bob that I wasn’t able to answer his question. And I forgot to give him Ed and Murphy’s address. They live in Atlanta and are currently opening a house of hospitality called, “The Open Door.” They visited the Worker here last September and have made arrangements to return to New York with another couple to get a last look before beginning their house. Stan McGraw from St. Philip’s Cathedral in Atlanta was here for three days last summer and has been working a long time there at Emmaus House, a House of Hospitality started 14 years ago by Austin Ford. Stan called to say he might pay us another visit. Joan, my friend from grade school days, wrote and said that Father Jim Miceli had enjoyed his stay at St. Joseph House this past July and she added, “Why don’t you come to Atlanta and open a Catholic Worker here?”
The Works of Mercy, the work of social justice needs to become more visible everywhere.”
The following are excerpts from a longer article in the September 1984 issue titled “Remembering the Victims” by George Ochoa.
“From August 6 through August 9, a group of Catholic Workers and friends kept a continuous vigil outside Columbia University’s Pupin Physics Building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the site of much of the early research for the atomic bomb. We came to remember those killed thirty-nine years ago that week in the bombing of Hirshima and Nagasaki. Our group varied in size from one to twelve; in all, some thirty people took part.
Between us and the Pupin Physics Building was a small park surrounded by a high fence. The trees in the park gave us shade. The intersection of Broadway and 120th St. stretched in front of us, bordered by red and white University building, the stone spires of Union Theological Seminary, and the long finger of Broadway rising north, among the building of Harlem. In the background, the bells in the tower of Riverside Church rang out the hours.
Mary Mullins made a drum out of an old barrel and an inner tube. We beat this drum one every two seconds -137,000 times, a number which approximates the number killed initially by the atomic blasts. The drum continued to beat for three and a half days, drawing the attention of passersby, and keeping my mind from wandering. At night I noticed my heart was synchronized to the drum. One day, some kids stopped and played on it and did some break dancing, until we told them why the drum was beating. One of them explained to the others what he knew about the atomic bombings, and they became serious.
Many people stopped to look at our signs and take a leaflet. The leaflet, written by Tim, was titled “A Need for Mercy.” It explained that we did not come to judge those who worked on the bomb, or to enter the debate as to the necessity of using the bomb to end the war. We came to repent for having killed indiscriminately, and to repent of our present dependence on weapons of mass violence. We came to pray for God’s mercy, not so much to absolve us of guilt, but to renew and change us so that we can turn from evil.
The responses of passersby varied from gratitude to anger.
We ended the vigil by processing across the campus into the basement of the Pupin Physics Building, into the very room where the atom was split. The cyclotron has been moved to the Smithsonian: only a huge magnet is still there: two truncated cones of steel, one pointing down at the other, in a room full of dust and artifacts. On the morning of the prayer service, an assistant in the physics department let us into the basement. We learned that he had been in the Air Force in the Pacific in 1945; he had gone to see the two cities after they were destroyed. He remembered the devastation. The bomb should not have been used, he thought. The war could have been ended another way, he still felt the guilt. He joined us in praying for God’s mercy.”
The entire article from the June-July, 1984 issue titled St. Joseph House by Mary Mullins is transcribed here.
“The “front porch” in my room on the fourth floor was officially opened yesterday at around noon. Morning was spent scrubbing it down, and getting out the furniture. I cleaned the entire window sash, frame, and panes inside and out, plus the sill and wooden shutters. The potted plants were placed on a pine board shelf midway up the window, and the shutters pushed to the side. A white, fluffed-up bolster fit squarely on the sill (my couch); and I, white and fluffed up, fit squarely on the bolster to catch the spring.
After five years here, I finally learned to copy the porch idea from the other Manhattan Tenement Mothers who sill it spring, summer and fall. It’s a hundred-year-old custom that keeps reviving itself with each new group of immigrants who resettle in this country, and find the tenements in the Lower East Side to be their first address.
This morning, I was on the porch and found a serpent winding through my thoughts. I was stricken with sadness. There were no mothers on their porches anywhere. In the five years it took me to establish a porch, it became no longer popular. Why? It’s the new tenants. On their porch sites are gray steel protrusions called air conditioners, the great sign of gentrification.
The First Street Hanging Garden of mother’s faces always festooned the tenements while they quietly kept a neighborly knowledge of the street from their cushioned gaze: who was in love with whom; what child was acting bratty; which person was coming home with a few under their belt, again.
What happened? Where have all those window flowers gone? In their place are decorator plants hanging from the sun against a white-walled backdrop illuminated by track lights. I don’t mind the hanging plants because they behold us, too; but, air conditioners which weep condensation make we weep consternation.
My neighborhood is changing so fast. Going are the life-giving pulsations- the hustle-bustle of voices, horns and salsa rhythms, and cushioned front porch windows with ladies elbowing their way through warm afternoons.
Today, around three in the afternoon, I opened the first floor door to a shirtless young man who needed shoes. “Come in,” and I glanced up to the other side of the street. A porch was opened on the sixth floor and a beautiful woman was fit squarely on her bolster of blue and white stripes.
“Robbie,” I said excitedly, “Look, if you can leave your cooking, and see what I am writing about.” The woman smiled and waved.
If these buildings could talk, what a rich story they could tell. Imprinted under each layer of paint on their inside walls are etched the sum of their various cultures which each group brought with them in their minds and hearts and baggage. Those layers heard Yiddish, the language of the Ukraine, the thick Irish brogue, the soft tones of the East Indians, and the ambrosial sounds of Italy. The present layer of paint is taking in the cooking smells, the life, the essence of the Puerto Ricans.
With each immigrant group came the life, the smells, the colors, the music, the history of the walls – and what is important about these is that they spilled out into the streets, and festooned the neighborhood with their cultures. The shops were a natural extension of the lives upstairs. They were shops that flowed out of the needs of the people in the tenements. The bakeries, delicatessens, the notions shops, the bars, shoe repairers, dry goods and bodegas all felt familiar.
The shops are gone mostly, and these elegant facades above the, still looking beautiful after a hundred years, are quickly becoming fronts for five and six-storied stacks of apartment-sized Petri dishes. When their respective lids are finally sealed on themselves, a new culture will grow.
But, the new group that is moving in to live behind these facades bring with them no particular culture. They seem to be individuals with a collective identity which expresses itself in a need for space, security, and privacy. People set apart rather than people interrelated. They are unfamiliar, and so are the changes they bring. Something is happening where the shops no longer connect with the lives of the people. Their lives no longer spill out into the neighborhood. Their lives stay within the walls.
The serpent is wise, and prodding my words into new fields I don’t want to cross into; our future in the Lower East Side. I grimace, my porch has lost its pleasure.
Dogwood and Destruction
Last week we said goodbye to the bocci counts down the street. They were bulldozed and leveled to rubble overnight. What is so hard to understand about this change is that the courts were used. Each court under the sycamore grove was surrounded on three sides by a low cement wall which served as boundary for the bowling game, bocci, and as a gathering place for people not only on our street, but in our neighborhood. They provided fifty-odd seats for people to sit on, swap stories, rest their feet, and share their lives. The street people watched in amazement as their seats under the sycamores were destroyed.
An architect across the street planted a pink dogwood in a bed of ivy. May the architect and the latest group of newcomers be given the grace to see miracles.
Willard Johnson used to have his winter quarters near where the pink dogwood stands. There, in an empty Whirlpool refrigerator container, turned on its side, complete with quilted blanket as bed, he had lodging. Once, at dust, on a cold winter’s night, I passed by. A young couple, homeless, were inquiring of Williard if, in fact, they could stay the night in his hut.
“No,” he said sadly, “filled up tonight.”
But he held out hope for them by saying he would scout around for them the next morning at the home appliance stores on First Avenue and look for new containers.
What’s a pink dogwood in the face of this love?
The serpent moves away; I have to talk about miracles.
People in our houses are homesteading an abandoned building in the heart of the Lower East Side. The ribs of the floor beams show, exposing the full five stories of the building. It is so gutted out. The hopeful group of Catholic Workers struggle on Saturdays from dawn ‘til dusk clearing out the debris.
I went down to the site and was amazed at their industriousness. Their hopes to reach their promised land in three years of driving pipes and wallboard up the wall and floor boards over their floors, Saturday after Saturday until they have a semblance of home, gave me pause. They plan to convert their five-storied rubble into pleasant apartments, where not only they themselves will be housed, but the very-low-income, indigenous families will find their homes as well.
They showed me a finished, rambling, six-storied building on Fourth Street. It has the precious look of being hand touched by loving workers. A garden filled their adjoining empty lot.
It’s one way to stay the gentrification process. But such a chance they take. The procedure is to check around and find like-minded people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work. Trusting that money for wallboard, flooring and wiring will appear, the renovation beings. When the building is completed and passes the city housing codes, then title is given the workers. When they move in, the expenses for maintenance, repairs, and taxes will be split up and shared on a monthly basis.
If the corruption of isolation can be thrown out with the garbage each nigt, they have it made; if people can still sill porch the street, they have it made.
The moxie of these Catholic Workers and their three-year plan to renovate a gutted building stands me in awe. I call their effort a slow-moving miracle. Like the Israelites, who gathered in Goshen to start their trek to the Promised Land, little did they know it was actually only a two-week trip by camel caravan. It took the Israelites forty years, precisely because they were following the will of God, and that kind of activity takes time. My friends here are in a similar mindset. And they seem to have the same inspired gumption those earlier sojourners had.
I find myself dazzled by miracles. They are all over the place. God provides. God feeds well. We just have to be in the food line. If we meet only our own needs, then we are out of place, displaced persons, and we go around hungry most of the time and not knowing why.
We let science become our gospel message. Christ urged us to pray and fast. It was a simple directive that would keep us healthy and joyful. Not today. We have to have tomes written on cholesterols, for example, to induce an attitude of diet and nutrition in order that we might reduce. I know hundred of people today who fast and pray; and who are teaching me how to do it, too. People are teaching me how to stretch my muscles and bend my body and dance my way through a series of exercises. I see them thanking God for their bodies. I want to learn this form of prayer well.
I had six miracles that occurred here at St. Joseph House recently. I promise to cover them the next time I write a house column.
I will close with a short miracle, as follows: Alice Bach each gave of the people who live in St. Joseph House a chocolate rabbit at the Easter Vigil. Around the neck of each bunny was a verse from the Bible tied by multi-colored ribbons. Mine was from Romans 8:31. I received an Easter letter from my son, Bob, and he closed his letter with the same verse from the Bible. The Bible is large and wordy. On the same day I received the following Words from two different supporters: “If God be with us, who can be against us?”