When Catholic Giants Walked the Land: Remembering Merton, Day, O'Connor and Percy. (Column)

Article excerpt

About 50 pounds ago, in 1949, I was teaching in a Catholic grammar school in New York s Spanish Harlem. It was an immense parish that had a dozen Redemptorist priests, about 45,000 parishioners, and a Congressman named Vito Marcantonio who used to give the students rulers with his name on them. (He also supplied an orange, a few cuts of bread, a hard-boiled egg and a mug of milk to the often hungry kids in the poor neighborhood.)

It was just 11 years since Thomas Merton had become a Catholic and only eight since he entered Gethsemani Abbey to become a Trappist monk. Just a year before, in 1948, he had released his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, his most famous book, which became a huge bestseller. (I still have a duplicate copy of the first edition--at least a second-class relic.)

Merton had gone to Columbia University on Morningside Heights, a brisk shake of the leg across 125th Street. He had volunteered at Friendship House, a shelter at 135th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, just 11 blocks from where I lived. I had heard that his picture was in the Columbia yearbook. He had already published three books of poems and a biography of a Trappist nun and I wanted to see what he looked like.

I never did get into the library, but I did visit Corpus Christi Church where he had been baptized. I breathed some of the same air.

Before entering the Trappists, Merton taught at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York. A few years later, a high school classmate of mine occupied the same room where the famous monk once studied and slept. It was a shrine--a third-class relic.

Merton wrote prolifically for the next 20 years. He died in an electrical accident in Thailand in 1968 at only 53, leaving behind an enormous pile of well-chosen words.

That same year, I took the subway down to Mott Street to visit the Catholic Worker and to catch a glimpse of Dorothy Day, the journalist and pacifist, co-founder with Peter Maurin of The Catholic Worker newspaper, which the forward-thinking brothers who taught me in high school used to put on our desks.

Dorothy Day centered her life on Christian personalism, stressing the value and dignity of the human person. She's now up for canonization although she often protested that such a promotion would trivialize her.

Day was there, standing in the doorway, talking to a rather nervous priest from New York's chancery office (often referred to as the "Powerhouse") where Cardinal Francis Spellman reigned for nearly 30 years. It was the year that the cemetery workers of the archdiocese went out on strike. They then earned about $80 a week. Some had 10 children. Members of the Catholic Worker community picketed outside the cardinal's Madison Avenue mansion, chanting, "The priests in your own rectory are against you!"

Spellman wanted to ferret out the offending clerics and appoint them lighthouse chaplains. Day told the priest that she had not sent the picketers there. But the poor guy was visibly nervous. Whole unions had withdrawn their support from the working area parishes and workers' sons ,had left the seminary. Meanwhile, Spellman had ordered his seminarians to dig graves or to hang up their cassocks.

Dorothy Day was then in her early 50s and had been a Catholic for 22 years. She seemed so calm, even as grubby, homeless and smelly men stood close by and listened.

Years later, I moved to Chicago and close to the Episcopal church where she had been baptized as a young girl, not far from Webster Avenue where she lived until entering college. I met her again when I worked at DePaul University in Chicago and they presented her with their highest award, the St. Vincent de Paul Medal. (The university gave her a generous check together with the medal but she couldn't cash the check since she had no bank account.) Day had visited Chicago at an earlier time and had taken a spill, breaking her arm. …