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An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother

The life and work of a controversial American Catholic, now a candidate for sainthood, as told by her granddaughter.

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a writer and journalist who founded a radical Christian movement committed to working for justice, eradicating poverty, and helping the needy. Described by The New Yorker as “a saint for the occupy era,” Day dedicated her life to an understanding of service—and a vision of Christ—that both challenged and embraced church doctrine, blending elements of communism, anarchism, and pacifism with an unpretentious Catholic faith. 

Day was a living contradiction. She converted to Catholicism after a youth she described as a “disorderly life” and that included lovers, an abortion, and a child born out of wedlock. Though devoted to the people she served, she could be difficult and demanding with Tamar, her only child, whose life was lived in her famous mother’s shadow.  Hennessy draws on letters, diaries, manuscripts, Day’s published works, and her own relationship with her mother and grandmother to locate Day within these contradictory selves: loving and domineering, humble and proud, vivacious and judgmental. The World Will Be Saved by Beauty offers a detailed portrait of this complicated woman, unprecedented in its intimacy, and explores the effects of her powerful legacy on her daughter and grandchildren. 

A heroine for the religious and nonreligious alike, Dorothy Day was named a “great American” by Pope Francis and has been recognized as a Servant of God by the Catholic Church, the first step towards canonization. In a world preoccupied with materialism and the accumulation of wealth, she is a model for constructive action. Hennessy’s work brings this most modern of modern Catholics into the twenty-first century, presenting a loving, intimate account of an undersung champion of social justice.

Photographs by Vivian Cherry 
Text by Dorothy Day
Edited with an introduction by Kate Hennessy

Compelling and prophetic, Dorothy Day is one of the most enduring icons of American Catholicism. In the depths of the Great Depression and guided by the Works of Mercy, Day, a journalist at the time, published a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, and co-founded a movement dedicated to the poorest of the poor, while living with them and sharing their poverty. 

In 1955, Vivian Cherry, a documentary photographer known for her disturbing and insightful work portraying social issues, was given unprecedented access to the Catholic Worker house of hospitality in New York City, its two farms, and to Day herself. While much has been written about Day, the portrait that emerges from Cherry’s intimate lens is unrivaled. From the image of the line of men waiting for soup outside St. Joseph’s on Chrystie Street to pictures of Day and others at work and in prayer, Cherry’s photographs offer a uniquely personal and poetic glimpse into the life of the movement and its founder. 

In this beautiful new book, more than sixty photographs—many published here for the first time—are accompanied by excerpts of Day’s writings gleaned from her column “On Pilgrimage” and other articles published in the Catholic Worker between 1933 and 1980. The result is a powerful visual and textual memoir capturing the life and times of one of the most significant and influential North American Catholics of the twentieth century. The aptly paired images and words bring new life to Day’s political and personal passions and reflect with clarity and simplicity the essential work and philosophies of the Catholic Worker, which continue to thrive today. The Introduction and additional commentary by Day’s granddaughter Kate Hennessy provides rich contextual information about the two women and what she sees as their collaboration in this book. 

In 2000, twenty years after her death, Archbishop of New York John J. O’Connor of New York City opened the cause for Dorothy Day’s canonization, and the Vatican conferred on her the title of Servant of God. The Catholic Worker continues to flourish, with more than 200 affiliated houses in the United States and overseas. The miracle of this enduring appeal lies in Day’s unique paradigm of vision, conscience, and a life of sacrifice that is one not of martyrdom but of joy, richness, and generosity—vividly portrayed through these photographs and excerpts.


“This book is a magic lantern that brings Dorothy Day to life in all her miraculous humanity. Vivian Cherry’s photographs and Kate Hennessy’s moving text capture Day, with striking intimacy, in all the roles that defined her: as a woman of prayer and protest, companion of the poor, doting grandmother, and leader of the Catholic Worker family. Together with selections from Day’s own writings, they transport us into a world in which seemingly ordinary people have tried, with extraordinary faith, to live as if the gospel were true.”

—Robert Ellsberg, editor of Dorothy Day: Selected Writings    

“Dorothy Day had a keen sense of the power of the image, and of the power of her image, and this means that Vivian Cherry’s photographs are part of an extensive collection of photographs of Day and the Catholic Worker. But the strongest of these photographs show her as she isn’t seen often enough: sitting with guests around a table, passing time with grandchildren, paying bills, taking out the mail, selling the paper alongside a Sabrett’s hot-dog vendor. The photograph of her smiling—beaming, really—shows that delight was not a duty for her: It was a strong, natural, everyday feeling.”

—Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach