A few feet in front of the pinewood coffin, a thick white candle was carried as the funeral procession began. "We went around to neighborhood churches," explained the candle-bearer, a cheerful bearded young man who helps run one of the two Catholic Worker shelters for the homeless in the Lower East Side. "We asked the sacristans for their old candle stubs that would be thrown out anyway. Then we melted them into this one large candle."
Poverty's light shone brightly as the funeral of Dorothy Day brought together about a thousand people whose lives she touched. Six grandchildren carried her from Maryhouse, where Miss Day died last Saturday at 83. To the world beyond these streets of enduring hardship, she was one of the Left's most persistent allies of those pushed to the margins of life. With Peter Maurin, she founded The Catholic Worker Movement in 1933.
She went directly to the scene and gave over her heart and talents to comforting the poor. She lived in the Bowery with them, sharing their food and even up to the day she dies, she slept in a small, modestly furnished room in Maryhouse. She explained her philosophy of Christian personalism as the belief that each individual is sacred, no matter the outward appearance. She wrote about it in the pages of her Catholic Worker column, "On Pilgrimage," as well as in books like "The Long Loneliness," her autobiography, and "Loaves and Fishes."
Here among the outcasts she fed, clothed, housed and raised money for, she was, as one toothless beggarwoman said, "the saint who fought the Devil for us."
The coldness of the street, dark like a dungeon even in midday, was tempered by the springish day, as though it were May, the month of the Virgin Mary, through whom Dorothy Day prayed daily.
Her devotion to Mary was such that a few years ago when a Trappist community near Rochester, N.Y., gave The Catholic Worker $100,00 as a gift, she used the money to purchase a building that came to be called Maryhouse. The fathers and brothers had done well in their bread business and wanted to cast the profits on some sacred water. Dorothy Day bought a five-story structure two blocks from Bowery Street that had been a music school for children. It was blessed and turned into a house of hospitality for vagrant women.
As the procession turned left on the way to the Nativity Catholic Church, a half block away, the drab colors of the neighborhood suddenly became a background for a startling sight. The cardinal of New York, Terence Cooke, in flowing scarlet vestments, stood outside the church door. For the past few months, it was much the opposite: Pacifists from The Catholic Worker stood outside the cardinal's church, the splendid St. Patrick's Cathedral, leafleting the faithful and pleading with the unseen cardinal to issue a statement in favor of nuclear disarmament. In her peace protests, which predate World War II, Dorothy Day was regularly arrested for civil disobedience. In the most recent issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, one of her writers said sharply about the vigil at St. Patrick's: "We want to remember the victims of the [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] bombings, and to mourn the fact that the hierarchy of our archdiocese is so silent about nuclear disarmament, when statements from the Vatican Council, recent popes and the U.S. Bishops Conference have been so clear in their condemnation of the arms race."
The cardinal shook hands with the young Catholic Worker priest, a Dominican, who was to celebrate the funeral mass. Cooke said a prayer for the dead, asking the Lord to receive "dear Dorothy." Twenty feet away, a traffic snarl brewed, with two truck drivers helping it along by shouting out of their cabs at each other.
A half-dozen cameramen caught the cardinal, in scarlet skullcap, blessing the coffin. But the kind of drama Miss Day would have relished came a moment later. John Shiel, a veteran of the peace movement and something of a lay theologian who can quote every pope back to Boniface on the subject of weapons, drove from Washington. Seeing his chance, he went up to the cardinal when the prayer ended.
"Hello, John," said His Eminence, who had often bumped up against Shiel at meetings around the country.
"Hello there, cardinal," said Shiel. "When are you going to come out against nuclear weapons?"
The cardinal gave no answer. In a moment, with the crowd cramming into the door and the cameramen shuffling away, he was gone too. He was driven off to "a previous commitment." For the requiem of this pacifist, no big guns were present.
The interior of the church is Franciscan poor. The cement-block walls are unpainted. Water marks are on the ceiling. About 30 of its asbestos squares are missing. The chalice on the altar is a large wine glass, not the gilded kind favored in other churches.
The sermon, given by the Dominican, was brief and eloquent. He quoted the Scriptures on peace. He mentioned Miss Day's autobiography and its powerful lines about being haunted by God all her life. He mentioned the new $160-billion budget of the Defense Department and the abomination it is in the lives of the poor whom Miss Day and many others in the church served.
During communion, the undertaker was taking a breather in the back of the packed church. "She was a lovely lady," he said of the deceased. "We're doing this way below cost. The Worker gives us a lot of business, and besides, Miss Day is part of the community."
The undertaker -- proud to be here and happy for some shop talk -- reported a little gem of a fact: The archdiocese was picking up the tab for opening the grave at the cemetery. If heaven has a Patron Saint of Irony, he or she would find this irresistible. It was Dorothy Day who aroused the wrath of Cardinal Spellman in the 1950s when she backed the gravediggers in their bitter strike against the archdiocese.
Some of its most passionate, battle-hardened leaders of the Left were there -- Michael Harrington, I. F. Stone, Cesar Chavez, Edward Guinan -- to join the priest and the street poor in their prayers for Dorothy Day. They had come also to affirm a thought of Dorothy Day, printed on the bottom of the mass card: "We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community."
When the body was taken to the cemetery -- in Staten Island -- some of the crowd went back to Maryhouse. On the stove was a 10-gallon kettle of pea soup, Brown bread was on the table near a basket of oranges.