Places that Matter

St. Joseph Hospitality House

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St. Joseph Hospitality House
Marina Gan
Marina Gan
Where Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper
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From her apartment in the Lower East Side, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper and two "houses of hospitality" in 1936. Five years later, thirty-two houses of hospitality in twenty-seven cities, providing food, clothing, and fellowship to the urban poor. Day was an activist committed to social reform throughout her life - from radical journalism in her twenties to acts of civil disobedience committed while she was in her seventies. Today, St. Joseph's and Maryhouse (55 East 3rd Street) continue the long tradition of social activism for which the Lower East Side is renowned.

St. Joseph House is proud of its reputation in the East Village/Lower East Side, as the home of the “big bowl,” owing to the generous portion sizes and “good fresh ingredients” which warm the stomachs of the hundreds of visitors who flock to its soup kitchen daily for a free lunchtime meal.  “We aren’t stingy,” admits fulltime volunteer Joanne Kennedy, our meals are “not like a school lunch.” Guests can even partake in a daily vegetarian option. 

According to Kennery, if you were to ask its neighbors what they know about St. Joseph House, however, they might describe it as “that crazy anarchist group that is always outside protesting with signs and making noise”—a description which its supporters don’t wholly disagree with. Further, the idiosyncratic graffiti-plastered exterior at 36 E. 1st Street does little to refute this notion.
 
St. Joseph House was established in 1967 by Day, an influential and provocative Catholic reformer, who purchased the property to create a storefront soup kitchen and a homeless shelter—as well as a space for publishing her popular monthly Catholic Worker newspaper.  Day, who died in 1980 and is currently under consideration for Catholic sainthood, was a Bohemian rabble-rouser who had a way with words.  “We need to change the system,” she wrote in 1956, “We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists of conspiring to teach to do, but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”
 
The Catholic Worker is a social movement founded in 1932—the height of the Great Depression—by Day, a journalist, and philosopher Peter Maurin. They hoped to encourage solidarity with the poor through works of non-violence, justice, and mercy as an alternative to both capitalism and communism. The movement also promoted social responsibility and labor reform. For Day, the Worker took the place of joining some already established religious order. However, she did, personally, follow the Counsels of Perfection, including poverty, in the sense of owning no personal property. We know from her autobiography and her essays that she lived in her own houses of hospitality side by side with the homeless, ate the same soup that she served them, and wore the same discarded clothes that she offered them.
 
Catholic Worker houses promote “reliance on community life as a source of development and support,” while cultivating a space where the boundaries between worker and guest are blurred or altogether indistinguishable. In the early days, the Catholic Worker life revolved around houses of hospitality, working on the land, roundtable discussions and the “newspaper.” Today there are over 185 Catholic Worker communities across the United States, Canada, and Europe.
 
St. Joseph House is one of two Catholic Workers in Manhattan. The other, Maryhouse for Women, is located at 55 East 3rd Street.  As a shelter, St. Joe’s caters specifically to males, providing dormitory style hospitality, clothing, and food for twenty-five to thirty short-term visitors and seven to eight long-term guests at any given time. The building, which was constructed around 1910, is actually comprised of three tenement houses which were later combined and used as a music school. When the music school moved, the property was left abandoned. Lore has it, when Dorothy Day bought the abandoned tenement for $60,000 in 1968, she was surprised to find that it was already inhabited. Jimmy Turner, a homeless man who had been squatting in the building, ended up staying on at the Catholic Worker and was christened St. Joseph House’s “first resident.” He remained a well-known fixture around the house up until his recent death.
 
Over the years, the building’s tenement style configuration has provided utilitarian challenges, however, it has not been significantly renovated or modernized. Instead, shared living rooms and dining rooms simply became makeshift family-style bedrooms—fair game for a weary head in need of a night’s sleep. Several of St. Joe’s fifty-nine regular volunteers also live in these spaces, while others commute in for the day or even once a week.  According to volunteer Ted Walker, “we try to have open hospitality so that anybody who is hungry or needs something can come in and we try to do our best to provide.” 
 
This fluid model of hospitality mirrors St. Joe’s easygoing “business” model. It has never sought any formal aid or tax-exempt government status, and, although inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, the Catholic Worker does not actually have any formal connections with the Catholic Church. Instead, the community practices “precarious poverty.” They don’t save or put away excess money, choosing instead to share or give it away, keeping only enough for rent and food for three or four months at a time.  They also operate on a consensus model of decision-making. “It frees us to do and decide to do what we want to do, how we want to do it” Walker maintains.
 
Today, it may seem surprising that a community dedicated to living in poverty without defined leadership could survive anywhere in Manhattan.  Indeed, St. Joseph House has proven “amazing in its non-changingness,” a phenomenon which volunteers good-humoredly attribute to the appeal of a way of life “so old that it looks new,” as co-founder Peter Maurin put it. While day-to-day operations at St. Joseph House may not have changed much over the years, its surroundings and demographics have.  In Catholic Worker Daze, Bill Gifford, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement, recounts his experience visiting the Lower East Side and St. Joseph House during rougher times in the mid 1970s:
 
“I have seen people asleep on the sidewalk and staggering drunkenly in the street between the cars asking for money.  I have seen obvious prostitutes and obvious drug addicts, high on something.  I saw (and heard) groups of people loudly arguing with and shouting at each other.  And I know that what I have seen is nothing compared to what there is…St. Joseph House and Maryhouse are small oases in this vast desert of human misery.
 
As the Lower East Side becomes increasingly gentrified, not everyone at St. Joe’s feels comfortable being surrounded by so much wealth—“a moral conundrum” which will likely continue to inspire debate internally. Volunteers have also noticed a change over time in the demographics of those who choose to get involved with the community.  “We used to attract college-dropouts and revolutionaries,” Kennedy reminisces, “now the core group of volunteer members is comprised mostly of older men and women—people who have grown with the movement.”  
 
Although the youthful political intensity of the 1960s may have waned, political activism is still a vital part of St. Joseph’s mission. Members have been influential in organizing protests against U.S. military offences at Guantanamo Bay, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Occupy Wall Street Movement, in particular, served as a catalyst which helped revitalize political fervor among the New York Catholic Workers.  St. Joseph House even served as the genesis of the musical act Filthy Rotten System, a gritty folk rock protest band with a small cult following and an evolving membership of mostly older gentlemen affiliated with the Catholic Worker.  According to Bud Courtney, the resident gravel-voiced banjo player, their unconventional name actually pays homage to Dorothy Day herself, as “Dorothy observed that all of our problems come from our acceptance of the filthy rotten system.”

Sources:
 
Helen Deines, "The Catholic worker movement: Communities of personal hospitality and justice," Social Work and Christianity 35, no. 4 (2008): 429.
 
Betty Gifford and Bill Gifford, Catholic Worker Daze. (Place of Publication Not Identified: Xlibris, 2008), 35.
 
Joanne Kennedy, interview by Amy Karwoski, October 15, 2015.
 
Brian Terrell, "Dorothy Day's 'filthy, Rotten System' Likely Wasn't Hers at All," National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2012, http://ncronline.org/news/people/dorothy-days-filthy-rotten-system-likely-wasnt-hers-all.
 
Mary Reinholz, "In The East Village, Christian Anarchy Meets Occupy Wall Street," The Local East Village,October 31, 2011, http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/10/31/in-the-east-village-chrisitian-anarchy-meets-occupy-wall-street/.
 
Local Faith Communities, Documentary Film, directed by Anthony Donovan (2010; New York City), digital online.