Kate Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day — who founded the Catholic Worker Movement and is being considered for canonization by the Catholic Church — will be reading from her book, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty this week in Iowa City.
“It was the most difficult task I have ever given myself, not only because I was still grieving the death of my mother, Tamar (Dorothy’s only child), but also because it is a difficult story with a great deal of suffering,” Hennessy said of writing the book, which she started writing in 2009. “But, I felt I had to do it for the simple reason that if I didn’t, the story of my mother would never be told, and it was my mother’s birth that led my grandmother to her conversion to Catholicism.”
Dorothy Day — born in 1897 — was a prominent Catholic, writer, social activist, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. She died in 1980, yet her teachings are carried out by Catholic Worker House organizations around the country. Pope Francis called Day one of four Americans to emulate during his 2015 address to the U.S. Congress. Catholic Studies scholars generally consider Day to be one of the most important and influential American Catholics in history.
“The cause for my grandmother’s canonization began back in 2000, so as I worked on the book, I was aware that all of what I wrote would most likely be examined by the Vatican, but this was not foremost in my mind,” Hennessy said. “What was essential to me was to write an honest and authentic story showing my grandmother in all her humanity regardless of the possible canonization. It is a portrait not of a plaster saint, but of a complicated, paradoxical person, which I believe can only add to the discussion and process.”
Hennessy said she is not personally invested in the canonization process, but truly values the personal relationship she had with her grandmother. “Do I believe she is a saint? Yes, unequivocally. But canonization is largely a bureaucratic process, and an expensive one, and I pray that all her complexities and contradictions, and particularly what she asks of us, isn’t loss in this process.”
Hennessy, who divides her time between Vermont and Ireland, has spent a fair amount of time on book tour sharing stories of her grandmother and mother. Those in Iowa City who attend her presentations can expect to hear stories from Hennessy, as well as her opinions on why she feels we need Dorothy Day’s teachings today. Hennessy will read from the book, answer questions and will be signing books.
“What has been particularly encouraging for me is meeting so many people around the United States who are doing wonderful things in their communities,” she said. “This is work that doesn’t make it in the news, and so this has given me great hope. Also, I continue to be delighted and surprised by how many people my grandmother has influenced and inspired. In Eastern Iowa there is a particularly strong network of Catholic Workers, whom I’m very much looking forward to meeting.”
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Emily Sinnwell, a member of the Iowa City Catholic Worker House community, is equally excited to have Hennessy in Iowa.
“Dorothy Day has been a role model for me since I was 14 years old. She is a woman who lived out her faith in a way I aspire to do,” she said. “I’ve read Kate Hennessy’s book twice. After I heard her speak last year in Chicago, I knew we had to bring her to Iowa so other people could hear her too. I hope her speaking tour inspires more people to live like Dorothy did — to serve the poor and speak out against injustice, but also to pray and connect with their spiritual side, whatever that may mean for them as individuals.”
Hennessy maintains there is much we can learn from Day nearly four decades after her death. “There are two basic elements that I hope readers will take away and the first is that this complex portrait of Dorothy Day will perhaps will lead them to think more deeply of their own faith, family, work, and lives,” said Hennessy. “And secondly, to recognize that at its heart, regardless of my grandmother’s fabulous and fascinating life, this is a story of the love between a mother and a daughter, and a granddaughter, full of pain and forgiveness, and isn’t this something that we all can, perhaps, derive strength from?”
Sinnwell agrees. “Kate’s book is a good reminder that not even saints are perfect,” she said. “They are flawed human beings just like the rest of us, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, Dorothy Day helps us know what it means to be human. It’s the little things in life, the small acts of kindness that matter most. I think Kate’s stories about her grandmother are going to speak to the longing all of us have in our hearts for a meaningful life.”
Hennessy’s visit to Iowa City — co-sponsored by the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, Newman Catholic Student Center, and Tau Omega Catholic Service Fraternity — will be followed by visits to Davenport, Waterloo, Ames and Ankeny. The events are free and open to the public.
Kate Hennessy will be speaking at the several locations around Iowa.
l Wednesday: noon to 1 p.m. at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
l Wednesday: 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa
104 East Jefferson St., Iowa City
l Thursday: 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Christ the King Chapel, Saint Ambrose University, 518 West Locust St., Davenport
l Friday: 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Edward Catholic Church, 1423 Kimball Ave., Waterloo
l Sept. 29: 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center, 2210 Lincoln Way, Ames
l Sept. 30: 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart Catholic Church, 510 East First St., Ankeny