Catholic Workers in NYC

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Aug 13 09:34:50 MDT 2000

The City: The Givers

NY Today, 08/13/00


After Tanya Theriault spent spring break of her senior year of college in
New York City, she was sure that she would not be applying to medical
school. At least not right away. She had found a job that she felt
compelled to take, even though it was grueling and carried no salary.

"I couldn't wait," Ms. Theriault said. "Finishing school became a formality."

So upon graduating from Boston College in 1997, she hopped a bus to the
Lower East Side and moved into a Catholic Worker "House of Hospitality" at
55 East Third Street, near First Avenue. Called Maryhouse, it is one of two
brick tenements used by the New York contingent of the Catholic Worker, a
67-year-old charity founded in part by Dorothy Day, whom the Roman Catholic
Church is now considering for sainthood. Like the other volunteers there,
Ms. Theriault doles out soup, bread, clothes and beds to people in need.

Not everyone she knew understood the move.

"Since she was 6 years old, she talked about being a doctor," her father,
Ronald Theriault, recalled. "She graduated in the top 15 percent of a class
of 3,000 students." Some of her other relatives worried that she was
wasting her degree on either a bout of religious mania or a showy act of
youthful self-denial.

Ms. Theriault had spent her spring break — she wanted an alternative to the
usual Florida bacchanal — at the Worker's grubby buildings, which are
incongruously located in the middle of a gentrifying area. She had observed
the group's cluttered rooms and chaotic ways, and the Friday night
discussions at which the cutting-edge topics were "Cistercian Spirituality"
and "The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire — Did Labor Legislation Make
a Difference?" She had witnessed an angry outburst or two. And she had
noted how the group's rejection of most forms of technology — an old
computer that cranks out mailing labels is one of few conveniences — meant
days filled with repetitive manual labor.

Although the place appealed to her, it also provoked a twinge of dread. She
wondered, "Could I really live this life?"

She didn't mind the tumult so much as the lack of privacy in the houses,
where volunteers live along with the destitute residents and so "have to
put the game face on" as soon as they leave their rooms. She also had
doubts about the food, which varies in quality and often suggests summer
camp, and about the lack of air-conditioning.

"It's gross, it's so gross," she said of humid summer days. "It puts people
in a bad mood."

But Ms. Theriault, whose seriousness is leavened by youthful optimism,
moved in anyway.

She ditched the trappings of her first-rate education and her life as one
of two children in a middle-class family in Rumford, Me., a mill town.
While her friends earned graduate degrees or took professional jobs, Ms.
Theriault, whose father works in a boys' home, scrubbed dented aluminum
pots and escorted homeless women to health clinics.

In so doing, Ms. Theriault joined the religiously inspired movement that
Ms. Day and Peter Maurin, an itinerant French intellectual, founded in 1933
by starting The Catholic Worker, a newspaper, and aiding the homeless.

Complete article at:

Louis Proyect
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