Last night, in the kitchen/dining area in Maryhouse (at a book launch for this book), I got into an absolutely fantastic conversation with a woman called Mary Lathrop about her story: raised in Manhattan in the 40s; converted at (of all things) a Billy Graham crusade; in perplexity about what to do about this awkward fact, went to her aunt who was the one person she knew who was a practicing Christian.
“I’ve been… converted?” she said.
“Well that’s WONDERFUL,” said the aunt; “you should come to my church.”
Her church was the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 90th and 5th (at this point in the story I broke in–“NO! I went to Trevor Day School!” What this meant is that she and I were both in pageants in the same sanctuary, although hers were Christmas pageants and mine were “Holiday” pageants designed to reassure parents that Trevor was not raising their children Christian despite having been historically connected to Heavenly Rest.)
The story went on. “God will use all kinds of things to get you,” she says. Her father, a doctrinaire Marxist, had her sent to a mental institution because she clearly, having become Christian, must be mentally ill; she eventually realized that highbrow mushy Episcopalianism was not going to cut it and asked (at a luncheonette on 42nd Street: apparently the 50’s version of Google) where she could receive instruction to become Catholic and was told “go to the Paulist fathers on 59th Street,” so she did and was received; ended up hanging around with Dorothy throughout the 50s; has been in & around the Catholic Worker movement ever since…
Many other ins and outs to this, many of which are public record. And I am not seeking here at all to raise issues about Catholic conversion. Those are real questions and this is not meant to answer them. If I were talking about theology with her we could talk about the things I disagree with in Catholic theology; those things are real, and they matter, very much. And I am not inviting criticism from Catholics who want to criticize the Catholic Worker movement either. It is not meant to say that Joe Hill– as in Mary’s mural, above– was a Christian martyr. I have elsewhere written that part of my own conversion was learning that the leader who was unjustly killed; framed on a false charge; who started a movement during his life; who died but did not die; was not in fact Joe Hill. And that is despite the fact that this was, quite literally, one of my childhood lullabies. His story resonates for a reason, I think– for the pattern of the story, and not just because of the human courage on behalf of a good cause that he displayed; but that too is is not the point, not what I want to talk about here.
The point is that this was a story of a girl Christ tracked down through the streets of Manhattan; her whole story kept having specific cross-street references. And I kept thinking “I want to write her story; I want to write this.”
And then it turned out that Dorothy Day already had. In Loaves and Fishes.