Dorothy Day, Dan Berrigan and the Coffee Cup Mass

cup 1
drawing: Jim Forest

Question from the Dorothy Day Guild: “We are reviewing a story that I know you are familiar with — perhaps witnessed — Dan Berrigan or another priest used a coffee cup as a chalice, Dorothy buried it in the yard, and so on. Our question is—did it really happen? And were you a witness? Have others said they witnessed this? Seems to be some disagreement among people we talk to. Thanks for any light you can shine.”

Aware that my memory is not always reliable and that these events occurred half-a-century ago, I’ll do my best…

Dan Berrigan was the celebrant, as happened from time to time at St Joseph’s House. His liturgical style was simple and not entirely by the book. He might on occasion choose readings according to what he judged appropriate to the day and the historic moment rather than the church calendar and do some of the prayers with a degree of improvisation, though always preserving the core elements.

At least on one occasion he used a very plain ceramic coffee cup and a matching small plate as chalice and paten. I recall glancing at Dorothy and noting a grimace. But she made no complaint and indeed took part in communion and afterward, as far as I recall, only expressed her gratitude. But then, when nearly everyone had gone, she took the cup and plate and said it must be buried as, having held the body and blood of Christ, should not any longer be used for coffee. (I didn’t see her actually bury the cup and plate.)

Soon afterward I was at Mount Saviour Benedictine monastery near Elmira in upstate New York. After telling their famous potter, Brother Thomas, what I had witnessed, he gave me one of the chalice sets he had made for sale in the monastery shop, entrusting me to give the set to Dan, which I did soon after, at which time I told him about what Dorothy’s response to the coffee cup Mass had been. I recall Dan was very touched with the gift chalice and paten and used them on many occasions afterward, and not only at the Catholic Worker….

When did the coffee cup Mass that I happened to witness happen? I’m not sure. My best guess was late 1965 or January 1966, as Dorothy writes, in her February 1966 “On Pilgrimage” column, “I am afraid I am a traditionalist, in that I do not like to see Mass offered with a large coffee cup as a chalice.” However Dorothy makes no reference to a specific priest or Mass. The Mass that Francene Gray describes so vividly in Divine Disobedience (Knopf, 1970) occurred the day after Tom Cornell started serving his six-month sentence for draft card burning — that would put the Mass on June 27, 1968. Francene’s account makes no mention of Dan using a coffee cup as a chalice but it may be that he did.

— Jim Forest / June 29, 2016 (with some slight revision 11 July 2016)

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