Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. Before converting to Catholicism in 1927 she had been a radical, an anarchist, and a Communist activist, and she carried aspects of this past life into her Catholicism.
The Catholic Worker began as a newspaper, her Catholic answer to the Communist Daily Worker that was widely distributed at the time. Her aim with this publication was to publicize and promote Catholic social teaching and its preferential option for the poor. With the evangelical zeal of the recent convert, she wanted to spread the word that the Catholic Church was on the side of the poor.
But she also understood, as St. James said, that faith without works is as lifeless as a body without breath — that writing about Catholic social teaching would mean nothing if it weren’t supported by action. And so the small offices of the Catholic Worker newspaper were opened up to all those in need. A bowl of hot soup, a bit of bread, or a warm place to spend the night — whatever the need, they did their best to provide, to turn no one away.
From that humble beginning the movement grew and spread — across the country and around the globe. True to its founder’s anarchist roots, the Catholic Worker tends to eschew any hierarchical structure or government endorsements. Most houses refuse to even register for 501c3 tax-exempt status. By remaining thus “in the world but not of the world” they can be more free to analyze and criticize the social, political, and economic structures that stand against the creation of a more just society.
Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker movement on the Catholic concept of the Spiritual and Temporal Works of Mercy. The Spiritual Works of Mercy focus on prayer, education, and evangelisation, while the Temporal Works focus on the actual doing. Within the Catholic Worker, the two must go hand in hand. Dorothy Day would write and publish and preach about the social teachings of the Catholic Church, and then go out and do it. And she called upon us all to go and do likewise.