All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day

by Jim Forest

In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints….
A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.
— Pope Francis
speaking before both Houses of Congress in Washington, DC

Can you think of a word that describes a person who devoted much of her life to being with people many of us cross the street to avoid? Who for half a century did her best to make sure they didn’t go hungry or freeze on winter nights? Who went to Mass every day until her legs couldn’t take her that far, at which point Communion was brought to her? Who prayed every day for friend and enemy alike and whose prayers, some are convinced, had miraculous results? Who went to confession every week? Who was devoted to the rosary? Who lived in community with the down-and-out for nearly half-a-century? Whose main goal in life was to follow Christ and to see him in the people around her?

A saint.

Can you think of a word that describes a person who refused to pay taxes, didn’t salute the flag, never voted, went to prison time and again for protests against war and social injustice? Who spoke in a plain and often rude way about our “way of life”? Who complained that the Church wasn’t paying enough attention to its own teaching and on occasion compared some of its pastors to sharks?

A troublemaker.

And there you have Dorothy Day in two words: saint and troublemaker.

She was a person of contradictions: activist and contemplative, political radical and a theological conservative. Intending to found a newspaper, The Catholic Worker, she ended up founding a movement. The most important monuments to her are the many houses of hospitality that stretch from San Francisco to Amsterdam, places of welcome for many who have been treated as throwaways, but also centers of work for a nonviolent, sharing society. Dorothy Day continues to open doors for many, in terms of spiritual life, community building, the healing of division, service of the poor, and the renewal of churches.

“All work,” she wrote, “whether building, increasing food production, running credit unions, working in factories that produce for human needs, working in the handicrafts — all these things can come under the heading of the works of mercy, which are the opposite of the works of war.”

Many regard Dorothy Day as one of the saints of our time; at the initiative of the Archdiocese of New York, her official canonization process is now underway. The Vatican has given her the title “Servant of God Dorothy Day.”

All is Grace offers a richly illustrated biography of Dorothy Day. Jim’s earlier biography, Love is the Measure, published several years after Dorothy’s death, is now replaced by this much expanded edition that draws on her letters and journals. The book is now twice the size — 350 pages — and includes more than 250 photos, many never published before.

All is Grace was the title of a book Dorothy intended to write but never finished. One sees her use of the phrase in this passage in one of her “On Pilgrimage” columns from 1954: “Our life of grace and our life of the body goes on beautifully intermingled and harmonious. ‘All is grace,’ as the dying priest whispered to his friend in The Diary of a Country Priest. The Little Flower also said, ‘All is grace’.”

Jim Forest worked with Dorothy Day during the last twenty years of her life.

The publisher is Orbis Books.

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read “Saint Dorothy?”, a chapter from All Is Grace:

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In May 2012, All is Grace was selected as Book of the Year by the Association of Catholic Publishers.

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All is Grace won two Catholic Press Association Awards:

1st place for biography:

“Dorothy Day, the pre-eiminent twentieth century American Catholic social activist, writer, and advocate for the poor, comes to life in this magnificent biography enriched by numerous quotations from her letters and writings. Hundreds of photos put a face on the movement for social justice that lives on in this new century.”

2nd place for design and production:

“A nifty sepia-tone photograph of an older Dorothy Day in her cluttered office graces the cover of this attractive trade paperback book. Hundreds of interesting photographs are reproduced on the 344 pages of this book and they show good tone variations The type selection is excellent and the page designs evidence a lot of carefully planning when various typefaces, body text, and photographs appear on the same page.”

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Dorothy Day’s last arrest, age 74 (photo: Bob Fitch)


All Is Grace: There is much to be gained by studying the lives of great men and women. Human history is adorned by the lives of those able to see beyond themselves, to couple a vision of a better world with the energy and determination to make it happen. Dorothy Day was such a person. Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and tireless advocate for the poor and oppressed, Day gathered around her people of similar passion and showed that even the least individual can make a difference. Forest … has done an admirable job of documenting Dorothy Day’s remarkable life and career. Day’s outward journey brought her to the far corners of the Earth seeking justice and peace. But it was her inner journey, which taught her “how to see Christ in every person,” that ultimately defined her place in history. The struggle for dignity and equality continues. Day’s life demonstrates that grace abounds in the human spirit, a grace that must define humans’ ultimate destiny.
— Publisher’s Weekly, 14 March 2011

Dorothy Day was one of the most prominent and influential converts to Catholicism in the history of the Catholic community in the United States. I’m reading her excellent biography by Jim Forest, All is Grace, and plan to give copies to friends this Christmas.
— Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York

From the first page of All Is Grace you realize that Jim Forest is a skillful storyteller, brimming with enough detail to be gripping, lively enough never to drag. Alternating between the fascinating facts of Dorothy Day’s life, the world in which it unfolded and the arc of her inner life, we are treated to a story that is part history, part biography and part philosophy. And this seems fitting for a woman who sought to engage the world and all its suffering and beauty…. All Is Grace ceases to be a book just about Dorothy Day and widens to include the growing community, as well as Dorothy’s own growing family….

The gift of this book is the use made of recently published collections edited by Robert Ellsberg, The Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day’s diaries, and All the Way to Heaven, her letters. Jim Forest carefully weaves in these resources and the result is a life’s story told with much depth….

We might be amazed and inspired by what she accomplished, and rightly so. But we should be even more amazed and inspired to learn along the way that there was much sorrow, loneliness and second-guessing. All Is Grace is, at times, heart wrenching in its honesty due to the candor and diligence with which Dorothy recorded and reflected on her life and Jim Forest’s use of these writings….

This warm, engaging account matches tone with content, and like Dorothy did for many a volunteer, “you can glimpse exciting possibilities in yourself you hadn’t seen before.”
— review by Amanda Daloisio for The Catholic Worker (click here for full text of the review)

Our corner bookstore called with our copy of All Is Grace this afternoon. All else has been put aside. “They were of course all intending to be surprised, but their astonishment was beyond their expectations.” [Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice] This will be the indispensable book on Dorothy Day.
— John Williams, Seattle

All Is Grace is a substantially revised and expanded edition of Love Is the Measure, originally published 15 years ago. Founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day is one of this century’s most prophetic voices and has recently been proposed as a candidate for sainthood. The author is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship; his other books include a biography of Thomas Merton.

Drawing from Day’s recently published letters and many other sources, this expanded edition with copious photos and illustrations chronicles in rich detail the life and mission of a social reformer, peace activist and ardent campaigner for social justice. From the turn of the 20th century, it traces her family’s struggles, the evolution of her faith, her writings, her religious and literary “heroes,” her baptism at age 30 and publication of the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933 in downtown New York City. Forest catalogues the many issues taken up in the pages of the Worker: growing racial divides in the United States, Day’s widespread travels, the founding and spread of houses of hospitality, her special relationship with daughter Tamar as “a lonely single parent,” a deepening spiritual life, protests during world wars, arrests and imprisonment, trips to Rome during Vatican II, and life at Maryhouse, up to her death and funeral.

In the book’s postscript entitled “Saint Dorothy?” Forest notes that it was the Claretian religious order that took the first step in promoting recognition of Day’s sanctity. New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor, 17 years after her death, launched the actual process of canonization. Finally, in “Dorothy Day: A Personal Remembrance,” the author sheds light on lesser known qualities and daily activities of Day and the importance to her of storytelling, music, beauty, books, the Eucharist, devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, the darkness following the abortion of her first child, the sacrament of confession, her respect for Christians of other churches, her concern for repairing the schism between the Eastern and Western Christian churches and much more—offering, in effect, a compelling window into the mind, heart and soul of a woman whose life was indeed grace-filled.
— Catholic Book Club Selection, May 2011, America magazine

For many readers, All Is Grace will shed light on many corners of Dorothy’s life about which they knew little or nothing. Her abortion and early relationships with men are honestly but not sensationally sketched here. The turbulence of her daughter’s marriage and the emotional difficulties of her son-in-law David Hennessey as well as Dorothy’s abrasive personality traits, her impatience with those she considered weak in faith, along with other aspects of her character and life — the deep passion of her love for Forster so amply documented in the letters — the full portrait of Dorothy Day here will make some critics think her canonization is inappropriate. Rather, as she says in her own writing, “We are all called to be saints. Sometimes we don’t see them around us, sometimes their sanctity is obscured by the human, but they are there nonetheless.”

In Dorothy’s case, as this magnificent biography reveals, the human neither obscures nor destroys the holiness given by God and incarnated by her — in her weakness, in her courage, in her anxieties and desperation, but also in her discerning vision that we are to be the hands, heart, ears of God in the world. This beautiful biography should be the text assigned in courses where Dorothy’s life and thinking are examined. It should also be the gateway to discovering her as well as a staple for retreats, retreat house libraries, adult education classes in parishes. I believe its amazing portrait of Dorothy will draw readers to her own writings.
— Michael Plekon, Cistercian Studies Quarterly

With All Is Grace, Jim Forest has given us the real Dorothy Day, sensual, confused, hungering, intelligent, radical, and wonderfully graced.
— Ed McCartan

Forest is an accomplished writer and his fluent prose is a pleasure to read…. The accumulation of details and insights in All Is Grace that accrue from Forest’s carefully chosen and illustrative anecdotes weaves a seamless portrait of Day that mirrors her profound incarnational sensibility. Excerpts from her writings reveal the almost palpable delight she took in the physical, sensual world, qualities that infused her distinctive prose style with warmth and clarity. She loved opera (Wagner was her favorite composer) and Russian novelists, especially Dostoevski. She practiced a rigorous voluntary poverty but did not starve her senses. Once, Forest writes, “she discovered chopped onions, herbs and spices in the fruit salad.” “A sacrilege,” she wrote, “to treat food this way. Food should be treated with respect, since Our Lord left himself to us in the guise of food. His disciples knew him in the breaking of bread.”

Day often quoted Dostoevski that “beauty will save the world.” In both its text and in its luminous photographs, All is Grace offers a vivid testimony to Day’s beauty, fidelity and, in the midst of suffering and hardship, a stunning witness of perseverance and hope.
— Rachelle Linnner, Catholic News Service

It is a pleasure to hold and read All Is Grace, Jim Forest’s revised and expanded biography of Dorothy Day. She was a writer, Roman Catholic convert, co-founder of the Catholic Worker in 1933, and editor of a newspaper that served as the organ of this renowned movement for social justice.

Dorothy’s compelling story, set in the 1920s through the 1970s, is told through an array of lovely photographs and with her own writings woven into Jim Forest’s insightful reflections and careful documentation of people, places, and events. The book is a rich resource of American history formed from an insurgent perspective, an outcome of this woman’s unswerving journey of faith and her practice of Christian anarchism. But on a personal level, which was her gift to so many of us, this story is inspirational and a call to action concerning the very fate of humanity and creation. In her words, “we are urging revolutionary change,” we are made to think about how we live together and how we treat each other in today’s world.

Dorothy’s life and work show with clarity that she possessed an incredible sensitivity to and delight in the presence of God. Jim Forest brings this out beautifully. We see her celebrate the ordinary in life as wondrous; we sense her intense love of those around her, from early lovers, to friends, co-workers, and family.

Also shared are her profound experiences of grief over the human errors and tragedies of this world. All is Grace includes material from Dorothy’s journals and letters, compiled and edited recently by Robert Ellsberg in The Duty of Delight and All The Way To Heaven. Her writings over many years describe in detail her family life, the challenges of living in community, and the joys and sorrows of meeting the needs of the poor through the works of mercy. Her correspondence and interactions with both people of significance and those of humble stations reveals a person of great kindness and humility herself.

Dorothy consistently set an example for overcoming our class system and the myriad forms of oppression and exclusion by seeing others as miracles or even as the face of Christ. This is indeed a radical message set in the center of a culture of discrimination, wars, and materialism. Yet Dorothy’s mode of indoctrination is always intertwined in great stories of her extensive travels, time in prison, and adventures through retreats and speaking tours. The book captures many of these stories, conveying to the reader the joys, humor, and grim realities of Dorothy’s visits across the United States and to the far reaches of Russia, India, and Africa.

For me, the most poignant selection is the chapter titled “Pregnancy, Faith, and Baptism.” As a woman and mother, Dorothy brings to us her intrinsic human experience of a conversion precipitated through the act of giving birth. “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.” Such words, expressed in her exquisite writing style, are captivating.

The chronological arrangement of All Is Grace provides an easy, in-depth study of Dorothy’s varied life and the history of the Catholic Worker movement. She had a great interest and ability in reaching out to people and connecting with them on a personal level. This comprehensive book, which should bring enthusiasm and hope to our youth, is a fine tribute to Dorothy’s efforts to build community around the world. — Martha Hennessy

Martha Hennessy is a peace activist who lives at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York City. She is a granddaughter of Dorothy Day. Her review was written for Fellowship magazine.

Love is the Measure, Jim Forest’s first book on Dorothy Day was always my favorite biography of Dorothy. A couple of years ago, I was excited when I heard that Forest was doing a re-write of his original book. I was expecting some revisions and a few additional photos but I never expected a total revision and update warranting a new title, All is Grace.

It seems the perspective of additional years of reflection, the opening of the cause for her canonization, and the release of Dorothy’s diaries and letters all impacted a fresh look at her life and Jim Forest so aptly gave us a new view of her remarkable life. It is written with the same personal attention to the details of each important phase of her live as was his first book. Each phase of her life is told like a separate story, written so personally as if he was with her at each step. It is the perfect way to tell the story of her life. Dorothy was fond of telling stories to others, and in my several meetings with her during the summer of 1976, she was more personally interested in my view points, opinions and life experiences than she was in talking about herself….

All is Grace is without question the definitive biography of Day. A bonus being all the photos (200+) that are distributed throughout the book.

— David Mueller (on the book’s Amazon page)

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comments by various reviewers to the earlier edition, Love is the Measure:

This image is a creative work — it’s not likely there will ever be a poster campaign for a biography of Dorothy Day.

Forest finds plenty of events and nuances that other biographers have passed by… Forest provokes both laughter and tears. (The Christian Century)

Forest’s biography of Dorothy Day contains much intimate detail which is not found elsewhere….Hers was an inspiring life that is conveyed to the reader in a clear, concise and organized fashion in this readable and entertaining book. (Catholic New Times)

It is, quite simply, a good story, well told… Jim Forest has done us all a service in telling this story so well… For anyone interested in an accurate and vivid account of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, this is the book to start with. (Prism)

Only because of Jim Forest’s gift with words have I come to know Dorothy Day. (Quaker Life)

An eminently readable account of the remarkable life of the “Grand Lady”… insightful accounts of her journey, along with graphic descriptions of the political and social climate of the sixties. (Living Prayer)

All is Grace can be purchased via any local bookshop and is also available from Amazon and similar web shops.

Living With Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton (revised edition)

The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.
— Pope Francis
speaking before both Houses of Congress in Washington, DC
(Pope Francis has read the Italian translation of Living With Wisdom)

A book written with love by one who understands Merton and followed in his steps. The best introduction I can think of to Merton, his life, and work.

— Bob Lax (poet and close friend of Merton’s)

A superb introduction to the life of one of the most extraordinary monks of our time.

— Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s former secretary

This is the best short introduction to Thomas Merton ever written. Superlative!

— James Martin, SJ
associate editor of America magazine, author of My Life With the Saints

If you have to read one book about Thomas Merton, this is the one to read. It is concise, insightful, complete.

— Paul Wilkes, director, writer, co-producer of the PBS documentary, “Merton”

Living With Wisdom is the most complete, balanced, readable, wide-ranging and up-to-date biography of Thomas Merton.

— Gerald Twomey
editor of Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox

Numerous readers discovered Merton through his hefty autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Forest is one of them. In Living With Wisdom, Forest introduces the many facets of the 20th-century Trappist monk whose life included not only the physical work, worship, and contemplation of a monastic community, but prolific writing as well (a partial list of Merton’s works is two pages long). Forest lucidly chronicles Merton’s life, illuminating it with the events that shaped it and the insights that emanated from it. Although his esteem for Merton and his contributions to the peace movement are apparent, he treats Merton’s weaknesses frankly. As a result of Forest’s clarity and conciseness, his work is an excellent choice for general religion collections.

— Library Journal

The most accessible yet discerning account of Merton’s life and work

Ordinarily a revised edition of a book that is fairly well known hardly merits yet another review. However that is not the case with this expanded, updated and beautifully designed (by Roberta Savage) biography of Thomas Merton, by Jim Forest. The first version was in 1979, then a further, larger one in 1991, and now this latest edition timed for the 40th anniversary of Merton’s death, commemorated on December 10, 2008.

The revised edition is to the best of my knowledge, the largest and the richest collection of photos of Thomas Merton published in one volume. It accompanies one of the most accessible yet discerning accounts of his life and work, crafted by Jim Forest. There are other photo collections, such as the out-of-print Hidden Wholeness, and of course, the most comprehensive biographical effort is Michael Mott’s The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Yet Living with Wisdom possesses an intimacy and vision unmatched in other publications.

Jim Forest knew Thomas Merton — a number of the photos, particularly in Merton’s hermitage — were taken by Jim. And Jim is a most skillful biographer, as this and other of his efforts attest.

In fact, when you leaf through it, you immediately realize that many elements combine to produce a singular volume. The sheer number of photos, many previously unpublished, document the entire sweep of Merton’s fascinating life. Finally it is good to see the faces of Amiya Chakravarty, D.T. Suzuki and Merton’s old guru the monk Bramachari, also Jacques Maritain, Dom Jean Leclerq, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, among others whom Merton treasured.

Not only in the photos but also in Forest’s introduction there is a rare encounter with the energy, the hilarity, the restlessness of the person that Merton was. Forest’s first sight was of a monk rolling on the floor, convulsed in laughter! Likewise, I treasure Merton’s comments about his great love for beer, that he drinks as much as he can get his hands on — an admission that for me, balances everything else he says about reading the psalms, the liturgical services, his hermitage quiet as ideal for prayer and the spiritual life in general.

Somehow the photos are a visual counterpart to these accounts of Merton’s humanity. Whether smiling or concentrated on a text, this is the face of someone I wanted to know, immensely interesting, as the Dalai Lama said, “deep.” One photo is incorrectly captioned, the one on p. 218. It shows not the Trappistine nuns at Redwoods, California but the Precious Blood sisters in Eagle River, Alaska, to whom Merton gave a retreat on his way to the Far East.

The photos alone would make for a splendid book, but the core of the volume is, as indicated, Forest’s lively biographical portrait, generously interlaced with quotations from Merton’s writings. Though included in other publications, the self-assessment of his own authorship by Merton in 1967 is revealing and there is a photo of the graph he constructed himself adds greatly to the narrative.

In his new afterword, Jim Forest notes the now notorious decision by then Bishop Donald Wuerl to omit Merton’s profile in an American Catholic Catechism because, among other reasons, “the generation we are speaking to had no idea who he [Merton] was,” and because the “details of his searching at the end of his life” were uncertain. The facts, as Forest reminds us, make these charges ridiculous and embarrassing.

Most of Merton’s books remain in print over a half century after their original publications. The number of new books about him or new editions of his books and correspondence increases every year. Amply documented accounts of his commitment to monastic life and priesthood in the Catholic Church are available and have been now for years — not to mention the testimony of fellow monks such as Frs. John Eudes Bamberger, Matthew Kelty and Brother Patrick Hart, to mention only a few.

I began reading Thomas Merton when I was 13. I am now 60. To describe his shaping of my life is beyond the limits of this review, but I want to affirm his importance to me as a teacher, a critic, a prophet, and above all a man of prayer, as Evagrius Ponticus says, a “true theologian.”

To say that I grew up with Merton’s writing, pursued a vocation to religious life, later to marriage, academic work and the priesthood is to simply acknowledge the ways in which his life and work shaped my own. And in saying this, I am giving voice to the experience of thousands, in many different churches and religious traditions or outside these.

The title of this book comes from Merton himself, who in Dancing in the Waters of Life, wrote: “What more do I see than this silence, this simplicity, this ‘living together with wisdom.’ “ Readers of Merton may immediately connect the mysterious feminine figure “Proverb, ” a young woman who appeared in his dreams.

He later connected her with Sophia, the Wisdom of God, with the Mother of God, with Christ the Wisdom of God, and with every creature who is a child of God. Someone to whom I gave an anthology of Merton’s writings as a gift admitted that reading him now, many years after first doing so, she discovered that he had grown up, deepened—or perhaps she had.

For those who know Merton, for those yet to make his acquaintance, Jim Forest’s book will I think, offer the same realization. Something, it seems to me, Fr. Louis would smile at and approve.

— Michael Plekon, Cistercian Studies Quarterly

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The book’s web page on click this link:″>

Looking back on the Milwaukee 14

The Milwaukee Fourteen burning draft records 24 September 1968. (from left to right: reporter from Milwaukee Journal whose name I forget, Jerry Gardner, Bob Graf, Jim Forest, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh, Brother Basil O’Leary, Rev. John Higgenbotham, Donald Cotton, Fr. James Harney, Fr. Alfred Janicke, Fred Ogile, Michael Cullen, Fr. Tony Mullaney, Fr. Robert Cunnane and Doug Marvy)

I recently received a set of questions from Dyllan Taxman, an 8th grade student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For a history research project, Dyllan decided to look into an act of civil disobedience that I took part in back in the summer of 1968 — September 24 — when the Vietnam War was raging. A group of fourteen people broke into nine draft boards that had offices side by side in a Milwaukee office building, put the main files into burlap bags, then burned the papers with homemade napalm in a small park in front of the office building while reading aloud from the Gospel. We awaited arrest, were jailed for a month, freed on bail, then tried the following year, after which we went to prison for more than a year (for most of us it was 13 months).


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>> What made you do this?

I had been in the military myself so didn’t have to worry about the draft, but as a draft counselor (a big part of my work with the Catholic Peace Fellowship) I was painfully aware of how thousands of young people were being forced to do military service in an unjust war about which they knew little or nothing, or even opposed. Anyone who knew the conditions for a just war could see this war did not qualify.

It seemed to me that people committed to the Gospel ought to offer some sort of witness against the war and conscription (really, a kind of slavery). I had been impressed by a similar but smaller action in Catonsville, Maryland, in which the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan — both good friends — had played a major role. It seemed to offer a model.

>> How did all 14 of you meet?

Bonds of friendship. Many of us knew Michael Cullen, a founder of the Casa Maria Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Milwaukee. As I recall, the idea began to take shape when Dan Berrigan and I were staying with Mike and Nettie at Casa Maria while in Milwaukee to speak at a national conference of Franciscan teaching nuns.

>> Who would you say was the leader of the group?

There was no leader. It was very much a group effort. I was a kind of press secretary (my background is mainly in journalism) and did the first draft for the group’s statement, but that too was something we all had a hand in.

>> Were you scared?

You bet! I recall my knees shaking as Jim Harney and I walked together to the building where the draft boards had their offices.

>> Did you tell your family about this before-hand? If so, did they approve? If not, were they shocked to find out? (did they agree with it or not)

A few people in the family knew. The ones I talked with approved.

>> How long did you plan this out? Was it spontaneous or carefully planned?

There was very careful planning — several weeks of preparation.

>> What do you think is the effect, now 38 years later, of the act that you, and the rest of the 14 did that day?

I was amazed at the impact — more than I would have expected: a two-page photo in Life magazine of the action, front page coverage in newspapers across the country, reports on TV news programs nationwide, national press attention while the trial was going on, respected poets coming to Milwaukee to do public readings in our support, lectures given by various scholars, supportive mail from all sorts of people (one of the astronauts on the first moon trip sent me as photo he had taken of the earth from space). One of the “epistles” in Leonard Bernstein’s “The Mass” was a letter about visiting me in prison.

Now, 38 years later, of course it’s just one item on a long list of protest actions that occurred during the Vietnam War. What surprises me is that it hasn’t been altogether forgotten. I recently received a newly made Milwaukee 14 poster!

>> Do you think that your actions that day had an affect on the draft?

Sure. For starters it closed down conscription for a time in a major US city. In Milwaukee for several months the only people who were sent to the war were volunteers. Judging from the mail we received, I think we helped more draft-eligible people decide that they would not take part in the war. More people became conscientious objectors. The fact that about half our groups were Catholic priests (and one a Christian Brother teaching economics at Note Dame) meant that our action had particular impact on the Catholic Church. It probably was a factor in the opposition to the war that was increasingly voiced by the Catholic hierarchy.

>> Do you approve with more recent protest such as protesting the soldiers in Iraq?

I’m not quite sure what the question is here. Do you mean protesting the war in Iraq? If so, I wish there were a great deal more protest. I am puzzled that the protest that have been going on hasn’t involved far more people. I see most of the soldiers in Iraq, even though volunteers for military service, as victims of the war who were driven to volunteer because of poverty and joblessness. Many of them, even if they come home alive and without physical injuries, will spend the rest of their lives battling with deep psychological scars and a haunted conscience.

>> Do you think that your motives for this protest are/were completely understood by the public or do you think that your actions were in some way misunderstood?

There were a great many who understood. It was, after all, a very simple deed. The religious basis was clearly expressed. A major goal was to encourage more draft resistance and indeed there was more. But of course there were many people who were astonished or even scandalized to see Catholic priests and committed lay people putting their freedom on the line by such an act of civil disobedience, and couldn’t understand.

I think for most if not all of us, the trial was at least as important as the action. We hoped to make the trial not so much a trial of fourteen people accused of burning papers but hoped to put an immoral and illegal war on trial. And that’s pretty much what happened. (If you have time to go the Library Archive at Marquette, my friend Phil Runkel can show you what they have re the Milwaukee 14. Probably they have a copy of the essay Francine du Plessix Gray wrote about the trial for the New York Review of Books. (Later it was included in a book called “Trials of the Resistance” — see:

>> Do you still keep in touch with other members of the original 14?

Yes. I’m most often in touch with Bob Graf, who still lives in Milwaukee. I hope you have occasion to meet him. Thanks to Bob and Pat Graf, we had a Milwaukee 14 get-together in Milwaukee a few years ago.

>> Did you feel that during your stay in prison that you were a political prisoner?

I didn’t think much about myself in terms of such a label, but certainly we were seen as such by other prisoners, the guards, wardens, etc.

>> Did any of you end up going to Vietnam?

One of my regrets is that, for all the traveling I’ve done, I’ve never been to Vietnam. I lived in France for a time with a Vietnamese community and so am used to Vietnamese culture, food, music, etc., but I wish I might have visited Vietnam.

>> Would you do the same actions today if the same situation presented itself?

My present health being as it is — because of kidney illness I have to be at the local hospital three times a week for dialysis (an artificial kidney used to filter my blood) — major acts of civil disobedience would be quite problematic. [Postscript: In October 2007 a kidney donated by my wife was successfully transplanted.]

Also I think property destruction is not the ideal model of nonviolent protest — it’s on the borderline. I am still troubled by the cleaning woman we had to restrain when we entered the draft boards. What if we had caused her to have a heart attack? There is also the problem of secrecy. To plan actions of this type requires secrecy — and that in turn inspires distrust and suspicion. Also some of the actions that followed made me question what we had done. We stood around and took full public responsibility for what we did, welcoming the trial. Later in the draft board actions tended to become “hit and run” — actions often done anonymously. These had their value but in my view lacked the impact of actions in which those responsible said, “I did it, I’m glad, and here’s why.”

>> In the Constitution it states that when a government fails to protect your natural rights (one of which being life) you have the duty to overthrow it and form a new one. Then again, John Locke, one of the major influences on the framers of the constitution stated that you have to follow the laws and rules of the government in exchange for the protection of these rights (this is called the Social Contract). That situation seems to create a paradox in the situation you were in. What is your opinion on that?

My main text is the Gospel. The example of the saints is also important. I saw what we were attempting as being similar to what Jesus did in driving the money changers out of the temple. No one was injured or killed, but he made a protest which is recalled in each of the four Gospels. In the process he signed his own death sentence. His action surely had a great deal to do with the decision made by the religious leaders of the time that Jesus would be better dead.

>> Regarding Civil Disobedience, when do you think it is appropriate to break the law? And who should decide that? Also, when (if ever) is it considered all right to infringe on other peoples rights?

I’m not an anarchist. Laws may not be perfect but most of them exist to help us live together peacefully. Most of them are like barriers along the edge of a dangerous road with that help keep us from driving into a ravine. But when a law is socially destructive, then we are obliged, as St. Peter said, “to obey God rather than man.”

>> What do you think the impact of this act was on your life specifically?

Every choice you make has consequences in your life and the lives of the people around you. Even little choices matter. If you’re in a bad mood, it will effect each and every person in your family. If you do something helpful — even a small thing like volunteering to wash dishes — that has a positive effect on the people you live with.

Being in prison was, for me, not without blessings. It gave me time to do some extremely valuable reading. Finally I read books like “The Brothers Karamazov”, which Dorothy Day had so often urged me to read. I became a more prayer-centered person. I spent time every day reading the Gospel and thinking about it. I got to know my fellow prisoners and their stories — amazing lives. Some of them were not guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted — others were certainly guilty — but from each of them there was something to learn.

a drawing of me in prison made for his Sunday School class by my son Ben (age six at the time)
a drawing of me in prison made for his Sunday School class by my son Ben (age six at the time)

The very worst thing about prison was not seeing my son Ben for more than a year. When I think back on that, this still causes me great anguish. But I think too of soldiers who went to Vietnam and never saw their wives or children again, or came home with terrible injuries. My losses, and my son Ben’s, are hardly worth mentioning compared to that.

Thanks, Dyllan, for your probing questions.

PS There’s an autobiographical essay, “Getting from There to Here,” at this web address:

February 2, 2006

note: In the photo, I’m the guy wearing a tie standing near the left end. At the far left is a Milwaukee journalist taking notes.

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Milwaukee 14-related link:

A one minute film of the burning of draft records in Milwaukee:

A piece about a whole earth photo that reached me in prison shortly after the first moon landing:

A long essay on the trial of the Milwaukee 14:

The Milwaukee 14 Today page on Bob Graf’s web site:

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posted February 2006; updated 19 December 2016
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