On Labor Day, we publish Dorothy Day’s story of the death of her mentor and friend Peter Maurin. When she first met him, Day wrote, “my impression was of a short, broad-shouldered workingman with a high, broad head covered with greying hair. His face was weatherbeaten, he had warm grey eyes and a wide, pleasant mouth. The collar of his shirt was dirty, but he had tried to dress up by wearing a tie and a suit which looked as though he had slept in it. (As I found out afterward, indeed he had.)”
Earlier in this article she describes him as “the poor man of his day.” She explained: “He was another St. Francis of modern times. He was used to poverty as a peasant is used to rough living, poor food, hard bed, or no bed at all, dirt, fatigue, and hard and unrespected work. He was a man with a mission, a vision, an apostolate, but he had put off from him honors, prestige, recognition. He was truly humble of heart, and loving. Never a word of detraction passed his lips and as St. James said, the man who governs his tongue is a perfect man. He was impersonal in his love in that he loved all, saw all others around him as God saw them. In other words he saw Christ in them.”
He died on May 15, 1949, at Maryfarm in Newburgh, New York. He was buried in a donated suit in a donated grave in St. John’s Cemetery, Brooklyn. Such was Maurin’s influence that his obituary appeared in both The Industrial Worker, a leftwing newspaper then on the subversive list, and the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which featured the story on the front page.
Peter is no longer suffering, no longer groaning within himself and saying with St. Paul, “Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” No, we are sure that he welcomed Sister Death with joy, and that underneath him he felt the Everlasting Arms.
For the last five years of his life he was this way, suffering, silent, dragging himself around, watched by us all for fear he would get lost, as he did once for three days; he was shouted at loudly by visitors as though he were deaf, talked to with condescension as one talks to a child to whom language must be simplified even to the point of absurdity. That was one of the hardest things we had to bear, we who loved him and worked with him for so long — to see others treat him as though he were simple minded.
The fact was he had been stripped of all — he had stripped himself throughout life. He had put off the old man, to put on the new. He had done all that he could to denude himself of the world, and I mean the world in the evil sense, not in the sense that “God looked at it and found it good.” He loved people, he saw in them what God meant them to be. He saw the world as God meant it to be, and he loved it.
He had stripped himself, but there remained work for God to do. We are to be pruned as the vine is pruned so that it can bear fruit, and this we cannot do ourselves. God did it for him. He took from him his mind, the one thing he had left, the one thing perhaps he took delight in. He could no longer think. He could no longer discuss with others, give others in a brilliant overflow of talk, his keen analysis of what was going on in the world.
His Face Lit Up
While returning from the funeral of Larry Heaney, I received a telephone call about his death. Just before I had left, I had told him [Maurin] of Larry’s sudden death, and he said yes, to my question as to whether he remembered Larry. He had loved him much, had sent him his quotations listed as cult, culture and cultivation over the years, and rejoiced in his total acceptance of his teaching, and when I said to him, “Now you will have someone waiting for you in heaven,” his face lit up in a radiant smile. He had not smiled for months; there had only been a look of endurance, even of pain, on his face.
Maurin had been to Mass that Sunday morning, something he couldn’t always do, and had sat outside all afternoon and joined the rest of the community for dinner.
John Filliger had looked in again at Peter at nine Sunday night and found him sleeping rather restlessly on his side instead of on his back as he usually did. Eileen McCarthy had given him, as she did every night, a glass of wine. It makes me happy to think how everyone was caring for him. And honored to do so, Jane always said, when she spoke of Peter’s needs. He was surrounded by loving care. At eleven that night, Peter began coughing, and it went on for some minutes. Then he tried to rise, and fell over on his pillow, breathing heavily. Hans put on the light and called Father Faley and Jane. Michael, Eileen and others came too, and there were prayers for the dying about the bedside. He died immediately, there was no struggle, no pain.
He was laid out at Newburgh the first night, in the conference room where he had sat so often, trying to understand the discussions and lectures. Flowers were all about him from shrubs in our garden and from our neighbors. He wore for shroud a suit which had been sent in for the poor. There was no rouge on his grey face which looked like granite, strong, contemplative, set toward eternity. There was a requiem mass in our chapel sung by Michael and Alan and the rest.
The next day he was sent to the Catholic Worker house on Mott Street on the lower east side of Manhattan.
All that day and night people came from all over the city, from the neighborhood, from different parts of the country and filled the little store and knelt before the coffin. Whenever we were sitting in the room, we saw them quietly, almost secretly pressing their rosary beads to Peter’s hands. Some bent down and kissed him.
The neighbors, three of them, sent tremendous floral pieces, made up of carnations, gardenias and all around the coffin were the branches of flowering shrubs they had sent down from the farm. The sweet smells filled the room, and it was hot and fresh outside, clear weather, which was lucky, since the house overflowed all through that day and night. Priests came, from different orders, and led in the rosary. And all that night we sat with him.
Peter Heard Us in Heaven
The funeral was at nine at Transfiguration Church down on Mott street. Everyone sang the requiem Mass together, the organist, the priests, the seminarians, the parishioners, and all the crowd at Mott street and at Maryfarm, Newburgh, and Ade Bethune, and Jane O’Donnell and Serena and Stanley Vishnewsky and the group from Easton, Victor and Jon and Chris — you could almost hear their individual voices, and it was a loud and triumphant singing, with a note of joy, because we were sure Peter heard us in heaven, were sure that angels and saints joined in.
Peter was buried in St. John’s Cemetery, Queens, in a grave given us by Fr. Pierre Conway, the Dominican. Peter was another St. John, a voice crying in the wilderness, and a voice too, saying, “My little children, love one another.” As the body was carried out of the church those great and triumphant words rang out, the In Paradisum. “May the angels lead thee into paradise; may the martyrs receive thee at thy coming, and lead thee into the holy city of Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and mayest thou have eternal rest with Lazarus, who once was poor.”
This is taken from “The Story of Three Deaths,” published in the June 1949 issue of The Catholic Worker. You can find the whole text here, and are urged to read it. She wrote an essay on Peter Maurin’s death on the fifth anniversary. For her insights into death and dying, see here. For more about Dorothy Day, and the cause of her canonization, see the Dorothy Day Guild.