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Dorothy Day's granddaughter continues mission of peace, justice, service to others

One of Martha Hennessy's first memories of her grandmother, Catholic convert and social activist Dorothy Day, is sitting on the lap of the "great story teller" and listening to the sound of her voice, her own ear close to her grandmother's heart. "I became aware of something greater than me and her, which I now interpret as my first awareness of the presence of God," said Hennessy, who lives in Perkinsville and in New York City.

Day was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and spent her adult life as an advocate for the poor and the rights of workers. In 2000 Pope John Paul II granted permission to open her cause for canonization, allowing her to be called a "Servant of God" in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Having a grandmother who is a candidate for sainthood is "surreal," Hennessy said, acknowledging that it gives her courage but also trepidation that the "Church properly represent her as a U.S. Catholic in her devotions to Christ."

Hennessy, 60, is one of Day's nine grandchildren. Her mother, Tamar, died in 2008. Hennessy, who has three children and seven grandchildren, remembers how prayer sustained her grandmother: saying the rosary, attending daily Mass and reading the lives of the saints. She also found her spiritual path living in communion with the poor.

Hennessy, a retired occupational therapist, is a member of Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Springfield. She attended Springfield High School but dropped out then earned a GED and a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy from Dominican College in Orangeburg, N.Y.

Among the lessons she learned from her grandmother was the dignity of work. "Choose a vocation that is humane and productive to society and suits your skills and ambitions," Hennessy recommended. "I always understood we were responsible for our brothers and sisters. That's why I chose occupational therapy, a helping profession."

While living with the poor and volunteering at Mary House Catholic Worker shelter in New York City's lower east side she cooks, washes dishes and answers the door and the phone.

She has visited war-torn regions to meet and speak with people and has been arrested "not enough" times, she said, for acts of civil disobedience protesting nuclear power and nuclear weapons, war and torture, the use of drones and The Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

She gives about a dozen presentations a year at colleges and parishes talking about war, the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the results seen in Syria today. Day spoke clearly against World War II.

"Let's talk about U.S. aggression from over a decade ago and the sanctions that killed a half million Iraqi children," Hennessy said in a telephone interview from New York. "The situation in Iraq is untenable. Our (U.S.) invasion, occupation and bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan and the bombing of Yemen all have played a role in the situation we have in Syria today. If we bomb Syria, more people are going to die and the situation will get worse . . . . The weapons industry is what's fueling all this."

She called for Catholics – laity and bishops – to speak out against war. "The U.S. bishops and the U.S. Catholic Church play the most important, gravest role in stopping the slaughtering that is going on," she said.

Hennessy attended the U.S. bishops' annual fall general assembly in Baltimore representing The Catholic Worker newspaper as one of its editors.

During a news briefing, she asked if the bishops would condemn the possibility of escalating war with Syria after the recent attacks in Paris. Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the bishops would approach the current situation in the Church's tradition of just-war theory, which among other criteria asks whether the damage inflicted by the aggressor is "lasting, grave and certain" and examines whether all other means to ending the aggression are "impractical or ineffective."

Archbishop Kurtz said the bishops would be in union with the pope's view and also "see war is not a solution to problems."

Hennessy reminded the bishops that two months earlier Pope Francis singled out her grandmother as one of four Americans who had made the country better in his speech to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. Besides Day, he mentioned the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Trappist Father Thomas Merton. Hennessy said three of the four names he mentioned were pacifists who favored nonviolence.

Coincidentally, when the pope was making this address, Hennessy was in the middle of a three day fast and vigil across the street from the United Nations with a group advocating their solidarity with the pope's messages about caring for the poor and the environment.

She said Day is an "exemplary example" of a life of heroic virtue. And through that example, people can look at their own predilection toward selfishness and violence.

"She talked about a revolution of the heart" and sacrificed, Hennessy said, noting that Day gave up Hennessy's grandfather, "the love of her life," because he was not Catholic. "In those days you could not be married unless you were married in the Church. He was not Catholic or interested in the institution of marriage. She gave up many things she'd have liked to have had like a husband and more children."

Hennessy called for Americans to sacrifice their standard of living, which, she said, relies on war making and exacts a "tremendous cost to the majority of the people" around the world, the environment and the planet. "The U.S. economy relies on war, which creates intense poverty and economic inequality around the globe."

"That's what we have to examine," she added. And the current Year of Mercy is a good opportunity to do just that. "The Door of Mercy will be open at St. Peter's Basilica and represent a new conversion, a new revolution of the heart, a new way of seeking reconciliation and coming back to Christ," she said, adding that Pope Francis is the "most viable leader we have now, and the Catholic Church can help lead the way to peace and reconciliation and justice and equality."

Catholics must also consider the question of military contracts, ask why money is being "poured into weapons" and promote the humane treatment of prisoners which "goes hand in hand" with the treatment of the mentally ill because "that's who is in our prisons," Hennessy said.

Article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer, and Catholic News Service

Editor's note: A reader suggested Vermont Catholic run a story on Martha Hennessy. If you have an idea for a feature or profile, please e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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