The Catholic Worker movement began in New York when Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, a French dreamer, a poet, and a bit of a philosopher (a misfit in many ways) started a newspaper called The Catholic Worker. The first issue appeared in New York on May 1, May Day, at the height of the Great Depression. In those early 1930s millions were unemployed and thousands lost their homes in the United States. Hunger and homelessness were rampant.
Dorothy Day was a journalist, a single mother and a convert to Catholicism, and probably would never have been remembered except that she had an unquenchable thirst for social justice and a desire to change a social order that left and still leaves millions of people without roofs over their heads, no food in their stomachs, no warm clothes to wear in winter, no health care and no jobs.
She also did something about it. Shortly after the first issue of the paper came out, she rented a tenement room for 6 homeless women the first CW House of Hospitality. A small group of people joined with her to publish the paper and they lived in a run-down building in New York's Chinatown. They opened a soup line - this was the time of the Great Depression they got involved with labor disputes, on the side of the unions, naturally, and with the peace movement, on the side of the anti-war protesters, of course.
Nobody knows exactly how many Catholic Worker Groups exist today. The movement has spread to approximately 160 centers in North America, with others in Europe (England, Germany and Ireland) and Australia. Each group is different from the others. Readers of our newspaper will have seen how different the Las Vegas Catholic Workers are from the Orange County group, and neither of those groups is anything like the San Diego group. Each group reacts to its own situation in the best way it can. In various locations around the country, Catholic Workers regularly go to prison for their non-violent protests against war.
San Diego Roots
The roots of the San Diego Catholic Worker go back to fall 1979 when a young woman, Julia Doughty, recognized a great need for a soup kitchen in downtown San Diego. Julia visited churches seeking cooking facilities and volunteers. She met Father James Rude, SJ when she visited Christ the King Catholic Church at 32nd and Imperial Sts. He and the parish council offered her their kitchen and published an appeal for volunteers in the church bulletin. With the assistance of a small number of people, some from Christ the King Parish, a Catholic Worker group was formed to serve a lunch in the downtown area.
The first San Diego Catholic Worker meal was served on Nov. 14, 1979 at the Episcopal Center Services located at 6th Street and Market. Seventy hungry people were fed that day. However, in October of 1981, it was announced that the Episcopal building was to be sold and the Catholic Workers would need to find another location to feed the hungry. We were referred to Father Joseph Topping, head of Saint Vincent de Paul Center. He was just as concerned about the problems of the poor and needy as Catholic Workers were. Father Topping agreed to rent a feeding site for our use until a shelter was built.
The Salvation Army warehouse at 8th and J Sts. became available for rent and it became the Catholic Worker dining room in February 1982. In the beginning the food was prepared in the kitchen of Christ the King Parish Hall and driven to the warehouse. In 1985, the group rented a building with a fully equipped kitchen and dining hall on 16th Avenue and this was considered the Catholic Worker's first "own" building where we could prepare food as well as serve our guests. In September 1987 we began preparing lunch in the kitchen at the newly constructed St Vincent de Paul/Joan Kroc Center.
We stayed there for nearly 10 years serving a hot lunch six days a week. During that time the average number of meals served every day grew from 300 to over 1,200, but by late 1997, the group was overwhelmed by the demands this service made on them and the all-volunteer organization began to explore other means of serving those in need.
For 13 years the San Diego Catholic Worker had its own House of Hospitality on Imperial Ave. It could shelter five men at a time. Some 140 men stayed there over time until the house had to be closed because it became too much of a financial burden to operate and maintain.
For some time, Catholic Workers volunteered to help female prison inmates transitioning to the outside world. In addition, we worked with the Saint Vincent de Paul in distributing clothing to the street people twice a month at the Paul Mirabile Center.
In the recent past, Catholic Workers have collaborated with a variety of programs. We worked with groups like Harvest for the Hungry in Pacific Beach to provide food for those in need; we also provided assistance in self-help neighbor-to-neighbor programs in the Linda Vista area; provided resources for HIV/AIDS testing and treatment in Tijuana; donated school supplies and other resources for schools in needy areas.
In the tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and from its earliest years, the San Diego Catholic Worker has been publishing a newspaper three or four times a year.
San Diego Catholic Worker Today
San Diego Catholic Workers continue to provide food to people in need, but on a smaller scale. Many of the people served are homeless, others are just too poor to provide for themselves or their families. Sometimes the food is distributed by members themselves, and sometimes the food is either delivered to another community group to be distributed or paid for from Catholic Worker funds.
For example, the San Diego Catholic Workers provide quality sit-down lunches to between 70 and 100 homeless and poor people and anyone else who drops in, nobody asks questions every Friday in Christ Lutheran Church on Cass St., in Pacific Beach.
We also collect and distribute toiletries and clothing as much as we can get our hands on - to people in need at the Neil Good Daycare Center for homeless people on the east side of 17th St., just south of K St., on the third Saturday every month. Some of the clothes are donated and others, such as socks and underwear, are bought new. In the rainy season ponchos are supplied.
To keep the public aware of the ongoing struggle for social justice and peace, not only here in San Diego, but throughout the entire world, we publish a the San Diego Catholic Worker newspaper, periodically. The newspaper has 3,000 regular subscribers (it's free, so please sign up for it); and another 2,000 copies are distributed through various outlets, mostly parishes. If you would like to take responsibility for having it distributed in your parish, please let us know.
We also conduct traditional Catholic Worker Friday Night Free Soup and Bread and Water Suppers followed by a talk and discussion about important current events such as war and peace, strikes and trade unions, and other religious traditions, (e.g. Islam) that have an impact on our striving for peace and justice throughout the world. These are usually held at Casa Milagre, 2428 L Street, San Diego 92102.
To keep ourselves spiritually refreshed and informed, once or twice a year we organize a day retreat that is open to the public.
The San Diego Catholic Worker supports a number of other organizations whose visions and style are consistent with those of the Catholic Worker movement. For example, some members collect and deliver fresh fruit and vegetables to various service agencies such as the Food Pantry at Catholic Charities.
A major fundraiser is held every year in October at St Mary Magdalene Church on Illion St. This dinner, silent auction and raffle is supported by a few hundred supporters who enjoy an evening of camaraderie and community.
Support for Others
Other charitable agencies that receive support from the San Diego Catholic Workers include:
Rachel's Women's Center, which provides shelter, counseling and other services for women in need.
Western Service Workers, an organization that provides many basic and invaluable services to underpaid and exploited workers many with low-paying jobs without benefits.
Casa de Los Pobres, which was founded in 1957 by Franciscan Sisters in the Colonia Altamira neighborhood of Tijuana, and provides food, clothing, medical care and education to the local poor.
Ciudad de la Misercordia, a home for destitute mentally ill people near Rosarito just south of Tijuana
NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a non-profit organization that provides education, support services, and advocacy to improve the quality of life of everyone affected by mental illness, particularly those who have little or no access to public or private mental health services.
Street Light, a newspaper that deals with issues of interest to homeless people and the community at large and published with the assistance of homeless people themselves.
Ignatian Lay Volunteer Corps, which provides men and women age 50 and over the opportunity to serve the needs of people who are poor, to work for a more just society, and to grow deeper in Christian faith by reflecting and praying in the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Who gets help?
The numbers of homeless and hungry people, many of them young children, are growing in San Diego as the supply of low-cost housing shrinks without a corresponding rise in wages. The result is that the city has an expanding population of unemployed and underemployed people, working poor, and senior citizens and children living on the streets.
Among the people helped are:
people with few or no labor skills who are just taking it one day at a time on the streets
some who may be victims of alcohol or drug addiction, but Catholic Workers ask no questions and see no distinctions believing that there are no differences between deserving and undeserving poor. Poor is poor.
Catholic Workers don't claim to be better than anybody else, but we try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ who had compassion and forgiveness for all. We are dedicated to doing what we can for poor and homeless people; and we are pacifists. No Catholic Worker ever gets paid. Ever dollar donated is spent in the service of the poor.
We who call ourselves members of the Catholic Worker movement take absolutely no credit for what we do. We are only doing our duty, and at the end of the day we know we are still only unworthy servants. It's what we are put here for.
But if any credit is due, it is to the generous support and prayers of our benefactors. Nothing could be done without them.
Our meetings are always open to everybody and begin at 6 p.m. in Sacred Heart Parish Hall in Ocean Beach on the second Monday of each month.
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