In The East Village, Christian Anarchy Meets Occupy Wall Street

IMG_2882Stephen Rex Brown St. Joe’s.

Soon after legendary folk singer Loudon Wainwright III finished performing for cheering protesters in Zuccotti Park yesterday afternoon, telling them that the Occupy Wall Street encampment reminded him of the 1968 “Summer of Love,” a Catholic Worker band called the Filthy Rotten System showed up.

Bud Courtney, who plays banjo in the group, said its decidedly unholy name came from the late Dorothy Day, who started the Christian-anarchist Catholic Worker Movement 78 years ago with Peter Maurin during the Great Depression. She is now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

“Dorothy observed that all of our problems come from our acceptance of the filthy rotten system,” said Mr. Courtney, 61, a former actor who served on a Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq last year and now lives at one of two Catholic Worker hospitality houses in the East Village. With the help of several bandmates as well as protesters who sang along, he belted out Woody Guthrie’s classic, “My Land is Your Land.”

Longtime Yippie activist Aron Kay, who has been visiting the Occupy Wall Street encampment daily since it sprouted up on Sept. 17, said he was aware of Catholic Worker’s history in the East Village, where its volunteers regularly provide free food, clothing and shelter (what Ms. Day would have called “acts of mercy”) for people in need. The movement now claims about 213 independent communities in the U.S. and abroad. St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality on East First Street and Maryhouse on East Third Street subsist solely on donations and are run by unpaid Catholic Worker volunteers committed to voluntary poverty.

IMG_2877Stephen Rex Brown Maryhouse

“People may not know their name here,” said Mr. Kay, 61, leaning on a cane. “But as far as I’m concerned, this [protest] is following in the tradition of the Catholic Worker – take care of the homeless; take care of the disadvantaged and the unemployed, the students, all people who are victims of the same entity: Wall Street.”

Brian Hines, 46, a Catholic Worker supporter who plays guitar for the Filthy Rotten System, said he agreed that Occupy Wall Street protesters and their diverse causes seem to embody many of The Catholic Worker movement’s values. “Dorothy thought the poor gave the rich an opportunity to do good,” he said, adding that Ms. Day would not have wanted a government intervention. “She would never say ‘New York City: Help the poor.’ But she did understand that the system was the problem.”

Mr. Hines, a former teacher of theology at Fordham University who lived at St. Joseph’s after college and is now in the textile importing business, acknowledged that the Catholic Worker movement has not been a “huge” presence at Zuccotti Park. “But we’re doing our part,” he said, noting that supporters have visited the encampment and distributed copies of the Catholic Worker newspaper, which Ms. Day and Mr. Maurin, a former Christian Brother, also founded. The paper is published seven times a year and still sells for a penny.

Mr. Courtney, a live-in volunteer at St. Joseph’s since 2007, said earlier that he had come to Zucotti Park four or five times to “walk around and talk to people,” and offered to have his band play at an inter-faith service Sunday. He believes many of the protestors are preparing for a long, cold winter. “These people are quite determined to make a statement,” he said. “They’re planning to do this now and they’re buckling down to get through the winter. They have given up their lives to be there and they want to create a working environment that can produce change.”

Some of the protesters have found their way up to the East Village. Carmen Trotta, an associate editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper who has been a volunteer and resident at St. Joseph’s since the late 1980s, estimated that “six to ten” protestors have recently come for dinner. The monastic “St. Joe’s” – a graffiti-splashed five-story walk-up near Second Avenue – hosts about 25 mostly male residents in its dormitories.

But Mr. Trotta, a founding member of Witness Against Torture (a national campaign to shut down the Guantanamo Bay facility) has not been been to the encampment himself. “I’ve been pretty busy here,” he said with a laugh. He had just prepared a donated dinner of tamales and rice for residents (including Nora Weber, 23, a Columbia University graduate and the only female volunteer at St. Joe’s) as well as guests like Tom Cornell, a Roman Catholic deacon who lives at the Peter Maurin farm in Marlboro, N.Y.

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Maryhouse, a four-story red brick building that Ms. Day purchased in the 1970s from the Third Street Music School, recently put up a female Occupy Wall Street protester from North Camden, Mass., for at least a week, said volunteer Jane Sammon.

“She was an older woman in her 50s or 60s and not so agile on her feet,” recalled Ms. Sammon, herself a robust woman of a certain age who was at Maryhouse when Ms. Day died there in 1980 at the age of 83.

Though she claims Maryhouse (which houses mostly women) is leaderless, Ms. Sammon clearly serves as its unofficial mother superior. Born “orthodox Catholic” in Cleveland, the Irish-American daughter of a steam fitter joined the Catholic Worker movement in New York in 1970 in part because of her strong opposition to the war in Vietnam. Over the years, she has been arrested during anti-war demonstrations and protests over labor and housing abuses in New York City. She has also been to Zuccotti Park and attended an Occupy Wall Street rally in Foley Square.

“The Catholic Worker has a long tradition of civil disobedience,” Ms. Sammon said in an interview at Maryhouse that was frequently interrupted by neighbors and supporters attending a Sunday lunch in the basement cafeteria, including a woman living in a shelter who wanted a shower. There were pacifist slogans on the walls and posters with images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. A banner proclaimed: “Love is Patient, Love is Kind.”

Last Friday night, Ms. Sammon greeted a much larger gathering of people who had come to Maryhouse to hear a talk by peace activist Jim Forest, who in 1968 was imprisoned for more than a year after burning draft files along with thirteen others (mostly Catholic clergy members). He once served as managing editor of the Catholic Worker newspaper and has published a new biography of Dorothy Day, whom he knew personally. When Mr. Forest, 70, concluded his reminiscences, a woman in the auditorium asked how he felt Ms. Day might respond to the goings-on in Zuccotti Park if she were alive today.

Mr. Forest didn’t hesitate in his reply: “Dorothy would be thrilled,” he said. “But she wouldn’t here,” he added, referring to Maryhouse. “She’d be down there [in Zuccotti Park].”