Blindsided by a saint at the Catholic Worker


St Joseph's HouseMy sister (now a Buddhist nun) having worked at The Catholic Worker's St Joseph House in New York City (pictured) for a while, and my New York family being the sort of devout Catholic family that put more emphasis on doing than talking, I too showed up on First Street one day, when I was about twenty, thinking that I would perhaps magnanimously volunteer for the day, or get into a long cool intense conversation with Dorothy Day, or be instantly hired as genius-writer-in-residence, or something like that.

I hadn't the faintest idea of what actually went on at St Joseph House, you see, and I was twenty, when anything might happen except pretty much exactly that which you thought might happen; which is how and why we grow up, I suppose.

In my case I found an elderly woman standing against the brick wall, looking stern and holy, and of course I immediately assumed she was Dorothy Day, as she looked grim and spiritual.

This is Saint Joseph House? I asked.


And you are Dorothy Day?

Who are you?

Brian Doyle.

Welcome to Saint Joseph. Hungry?

Not so much. I am here to help.

Excellent. We need a dishwasher today. Can you wash dishes?

Yes ma'am. I am in college and I spend a lot of time washing dishes.

Excellent. Go in and tell them you are the dishwasher today.


This I did, thinking how cool it was to be commanded in life by Dorothy Day; I mean, Dorothy Day was clearly going to be recognized as a saint eventually, and I had gotten to talk to her, so clearly some saint dust had drifted onto me, which was a good thing, because I was then twenty years old, and had done some things that a little saint dust would really help out with.

For a minute, there by the door, I thought maybe this was going to be an excellent day, saint-dust-wise, because what if I bumped into Peter Maurin, that would be a major load of saint dust, despite him being French, but then I remembered that this was 1977, and Peter had been deceased for nearly thirty years, so I went in to the kitchen.

I lasted about an hour as a dishwasher. You wouldn't believe how many dishes come through the old lunch line at St Joseph. You think of the words lunch line, and you have the vague impression of a few cheerful and colourful raggedy souls who are actually sweet and brilliant and chaff you wittily when you say something so that you always remember how cool they were even though they were wearing boxer shorts on their heads or were talking to invisible wolverines or something, but that's not what it was like at all, the lunch line, which appeared to have eight million people on it that day, and they were not overly colorful and cheerful either, as they were ravenously hungry, and probably deeply concerned with where they were going to sleep, and find medical care, and survive another week, and avoid being beaten and robbed or worse.

I made a couple of cheerful witty remarks and then I shut my mouth and did dishes as fast and thoroughly as I could and when lunch slowed down I have to confess, with a little shame, even 35 years after that day that I quit.


Back out front the same elderly woman was standing there looking like a cross between a cleaning lady and the queen of New York City, and she said what, you're done already?

Yes, ma'am. Worn out.

More dishes tomorrow if you want to help.

Back to college tomorrow, ma'am [a roaring lie].

Good luck with that.

Thank you.

Which college?

University of Notre Dame, ma'am.

Lots of dishes there?

Sweet Jesus yes, ma'am.

Do them well. That's a good prayer.

Yes, ma'am. An honor to meet you, ma'am.

Brian, was it?

Yes, ma'am.

My name's Eileen, she said, smiling. Pleasure to meet you too. Remember: doing the dishes well, that's a real good prayer.

And the thing is, despite my initial disappointment that Eileen was not Dorothy Day, I never forgot her advice, which was as fine a spiritual piece of advice as I ever got, and over the years I came to realise that I had had the great fortune to meet a lady named Eileen, who was, of course, a saint. It turns out that everyone either is a saint or can still be one; a lesson I started to learn on East First Street, many years ago. 

Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes

Topic tags: Catholic Worker, charity, Brian Doyle, St Joseph House



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Existing comments

At twenty, we are definitely going to change the world! About seven years ago I decided to volunteer at our local op shop - my children were becoming more independent, I moved to part-time work and so had more time and I thought "They'll help me as much as I help them". I was a bit older than twenty you see. I see an assortment of people - most are on struggle street, financially and emotionally. Some are doing ok financially and enjoy browsing for a bargain. I've made friends with the nearby shopkeepers, my fellow workers and our 'regulars'. One thing we all have in common: we all like to chat and laugh. Even the lady who can't find the right size jeans.
Pam | 07 November 2012

What a beautiful story about not meeting Dorothy Day. Thank you. I will post a link to it on Twitter if that is alright with you.
Caroline Jones | 07 November 2012

Thank you, Brian Doyle. Thank you for reminding us of the pleasure of a simple job, well done. Thank you, too, for portraying a saint amongst us, lest we mistake them to be consigned to the musty annals of history.
Bob GROVES | 07 November 2012

o dear yes tweet to your heart's content -- share and share alike -- that's the whole point of writing, is to connect, yes?
brian doyle | 08 November 2012

Thank you Brian, for reminding me about holiness. I want to say thank you and congratulations to you all in the U.S.for placing trust in an amazing man, Barack Obama.He will be careful to protect the poor if he can get cooperation from the conservatives wanting a return to the "Good old days"..
Catherine | 08 November 2012

Nice story!
Poli | 08 November 2012

Brian, thank you for this story of the good, simple life. The Benedictines have a saying: Laborare est orare. (To work is to pray.)
Charles Merrick | 14 November 2012

I was glad to discover that this piece was the essence of the Brian Doyle that I know. . . As per usual a lovely descriptive and holy piece of work! Carry on, friend. From the Emerald Isle, Petria
Petria Malone | 24 November 2012


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