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Roxane B. Salonen, Published November 08 2013

Spirit of Dorothy Day: Local shelter celebrates 30 years of service

Moorhead -- The large, brown house seems to want obscurity, hidden as it is behind the shadow of a large tree, tucked among other residences.

And yet, flanked by two universities and situated on Moorhead’s busy Eighth Street, the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality can’t help but be noticed.

Indeed, during its 30 years of operation, the house has proven it’s no ordinary residence. Many know what the house does for the hungry and homeless here. But we know less, perhaps, about the people behind its mission.

Just who is Dorothy Day, the woman who gave this house its name?

A feisty, faithful woman

She wore many hats – all likely drudged up from a box of used clothing, given her commitment to poverty and simplicity. A member of many Communist affiliate organizations, though not a party member, Dorothy Day was a pacifist, journalist, single mother, and from age 30, a dedicated Christian.

Some have described her as cranky and assertive. Others claim she had a great sense of humor. No one denies her passionate nature.

The Rev. William Mehrkens, founder of the Moorhead house, knows something about her soul.

“The spirit of Dorothy Day is very easy. She had a great love for very poor people,” says Mehrkens, now 90 and living in a retirement home in Bemidji, Minn.

Born on Nov. 8, 1897, Day grew up in Chicago and started the Catholic Worker movement with a French peasant, Peter Maurin, in 1933, the year her first homeless shelter opened in New York City. She peacefully picketed on behalf of the poor and was arrested several times for civil disobedience, including at age 80 just three years before her death.

Now, her life is being reviewed by the Vatican for possible canonization to sainthood.

Today, 227 Catholic Worker communities exist. Scott Mathern-Jacobson, board member of the local house, worked for 12 years in various Catholic Worker communities throughout the country before returning with his family to his hometown of Moorhead several years ago.

“I’ve been to the house where Dorothy Day lived in in New York and have had the pleasure of knowing several people who knew her personally,” he says. “She is a complicated person, and I think sometimes it can be easy to only see a part of what she was about.”

The local house, he says, encompasses her spirit of hospitality and feeding the hungry.

“People who’ve stayed there as guests say they felt appreciated and not judged,” Mathern-Jacobson said. “I think that’s the spirit of Dorothy Day.”

A pressing problem

In the early 1980s, homelessness was on the rise in the Fargo-Moorhead area, so Mehrkens, a priest at the Newman Center on the campus of Minnesota State University Moorhead, began sheltering homeless guests in the center’s basement at night.

Mehrkens has always had a soft spot for the “anawim,” the poor and powerless.

“If we don’t take care of the poorest of the poor, there’s something greatly lacking in what we are doing,” Mehrkens says, noting that ignoring such people shirks the Gospel message.

Though he never met Day, he did hear Maurin speak while at seminary and was impressed with his vision. “He was a character, and his example was part of my interest in following up later,” he says.

Howard Fulks of Fargo and his wife, then-girlfriend, Kathy Lamb, were among the students who helped keep order at the Newman Center evenings with the homeless.

“The police would drop them off there after finding them sleeping on the streets,” Howard says.

Kathy says she didn’t worry about safety because Mehrkens was just a door away, and no one could enter if intoxicated.

“We had little beds for them, mats we’d stack the next day,” Kathy says, noting that breakfast comprised leftover rolls from Hornbacher’s, fruit and coffee.

But the situation wasn’t ideal, and the house on Eighth Street was partly founded in response to the city’s insistence on a more legally sound solution.

Mehrkens later married the couple in the small chapel a few steps up from where the homeless had slept.

Now a kindergarten teacher at St. Joseph Elementary School in Moorhead, Kathy says the spirit of Dorothy Day is with her each morning when her class prays for those who don’t have warm places to sleep. “Through my work, I can pass that message on.”

Choosing simplicity

Kathy’s older sister, Shawn, was inspired by Merhkens while studying at MSUM several years earlier. When she transferred to St. Catherine University in the Twin Cities, she chose Day as a topic for a presentation on Christian role models.

“As I read her books, I realized some of the people she served weren’t very easy to love,” she says. “But that wasn’t part of the deal. You serve anyway because that’s what Christ asks us to do.”

By the time she met Mike Hagstrom, a youth minister in Detroit Lakes, Minn., the spirit of simplicity Day had woken within her was entrenched, and equally appealing to her future husband, who’d also learned of Day.

One of their first dates took place on Nov. 6, 1983, at the opening of the house, where they quietly talked and swung on the porch swing out front, ending up on the evening news.

Inspired by Day’s message, when the couple became engaged, they planned scaled-down nuptials, buying a simple wedding gown and a tie to go with a plain suit of Mike’s.

“We had just one couple standing with us as best man and maid of honor, and they wore their normal dress clothes,” he says. “We wanted the focus to be on faith and simplicity.”

Now a religion teacher at Shanley High School in Fargo, Mike heard rumors a while back that Day had once visited the school. He did some digging to discover that in October 1951 – the year of its inaugural graduating class and Roger Maris’ senior year there – Day had spoken to a crowd of nearly 450 in the Shanley gymnasium on poverty, charity and her lay apostolate.

“I’ve always tried to introduce my students to Dorothy Day,” he says. “She’s a great example of working for right relationship in society and at the same time, serving the least through works of mercy.”

Being present with them

As a young seminarian in the late 1980s, Larry Delaney, now pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Moorhead, worked a year at the Dorothy Day house as a staff member.

He says he was attracted by an attitude that comes from the heart of Dorothy Day. “It was less about working for the poor and more about being present with them, addressing the dignity of the human person.”

Dorothy Day, he notes, encouraged every home to have what she called a “Christ Room,” representing an open door for someone needing a place to stay for a bit and a reminder to see the presence of Jesus in each person.

Initially, he admits, he was a bit nervous about working among the homeless, but that changed when he learned one of the residents was a former English professor who’d fallen on hard times due to addiction.

“I realized homelessness says nothing about a person being good or bad or lazy,” he says.

‘Love, harsh and dreadful’

Betsy Liedl, Crosby, Minn., one of the house’s first staff members, says she’s always related to Dorothy Day.

“She was hard to get along with, and like her, I sometimes ruled with an iron fist,” she says. “Some of the other staff people were softer and more malleable.”

Day was influenced by and often quoted Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” she adds, namely, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

“She took that to heart,” Liedl says. “She lived in poverty, never having clothes of her own, she didn’t bathe very often and she had very few possessions. She maybe had the sin of pride but certainly not the sin of greed, and she was such an incredible pioneer.”

Liedl says Day once refused to pay a telephone war tax because she didn’t agree with the war. “She sacrificed her whole life for what she believed in.”

Sonja Ellner, the home’s current director, says the core mission of the house hasn’t changed but a new emphasis is being placed on the underlying issues of homelessness, and helping residents become successful beyond their time there.

“We still try to run it like any other household, which gives the residents a sense of family and support,” Ellner says, “and we see tremendous transformations from the time they check in to when they move out.”

Looking back, Mehrkens recalls only a few challenges in getting the house running. Given that it was located “on one of the richest streets in town,” he says, there was opposition, but that quickly gave way to a sincere desire of neighbors to live out the Christian life.

“I’ve had difficult things in my work in the priesthood, but this whole thing was a blessing,” he says. “It was a project of quite a few people, and I’m glad to have been able to be a part of something that really worked.”

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com