Maryhouse: An East Village Gem

By Dana Davison

Among the new luxury condominiums, fancy cafes and boutique clothing stores in the East Village, an old redbrick building caters to a different crowd.

Maryhouse offers its services to homeless women. Established in 1976 on East Third Street by journalist and activist Dorothy Day, it is one of more than 180 “houses of hospitality” founded as part of the Catholic Worker movement across the country. It provides food, clothing, showers, telephone and a place of warmth, through the efforts of volunteers.

Volunteering isn’t just for the holidays here. It’s a way of life. Most of the volunteers live at the house, consciously practicing poverty to better understand those they serve. There are currently 28 residents at Maryhouse, ranging in age from two to 92, coming from privileged homes and from the streets, and including a family of refugees from the Congo. Resident volunteers share the same roof with guests in need of shelter. They work together as a community, performing a wide variety of little works of mercy.

“The only thing predictable about the day-to-day here is the unpredictability,” says resident volunteer Lindsay Hagerman, a 27-year-old Dallas native.

She says a given day could include visiting a hospital or nursing home, doing house repairs, organizing donations, hanging out with a visitor or housemate, attending a demonstration, writing letters, praying, attending Mass, accompanying someone in an ambulance, or preparing the newspaper for mailing.

The Catholic Worker newspaper started the movement of the same name in 1933 when Day’s friend Peter Maurin convinced her to co-publish a paper aimed at the social teachings of the church and advocating for the poor and nonviolence. It remains an integral part of the Catholic Worker community to this day, with 20,000 subscribers.

“We take turns writing the articles, and we print the address labels and do all the preparations for mailing it right here, with no paid staff members, and no subscription price,” says Felton Davis, 59, who came to Maryhouse in 1988 from an upper-middle class upbringing where nothing was wanting. “It’s been very instructive for me to live among the poor and try to be a useful person,” he says.

As part of their work, Catholic Worker volunteers regularly attend peace demonstrations, sometimes landing in jail for it. Davis was arrested in 2002 outside the United Nations during a campaign against preparations for the Iraq war, and again for a war protest at the Intrepid on Good Friday this year, where he and others were charged with disorderly conduct for blocking the entrance to the military museum.

Hagerman also participated in the Intrepid demonstration. She says being a volunteer at Maryhouse is different in a lot of ways from other types of volunteering. “I view the Catholic Worker philosophy as revolutionary,” she says, “and our work at the house – however seemingly mundane or small, often because of how mundane and small – as profoundly religious and political.”

Dorothy Day referred to herself as a Catholic anarchist, and she called her philosophy “personalism,” describing it as taking personal responsibility for someone in need.

Some of the volunteers at Maryhouse handle the responsibility by covering specific shifts at the house, cooking and cleaning, answering the phone and door. Other residents help out even if they are not on shift. Hagerman says the way work gets defined is one of the most radical things about the Catholic Worker; it calls into question when a person is working and what work is valuable, as well as how productivity and results are measured and whether those measurements are necessarily important. “Much of our work is outside shifts,” she says.

For Davis, this work also includes helping the homeless women with social services and keeping in touch with political prisoners and death row inmates through letter-writing campaigns. “What it boils down to is that we are supposed to be doing for others what we would have others doing for us if we were the outcast and the downtrodden,” he says. “It’s that simple, though making that happen within a community context is not easy.”

Maryhouse is run more like a big family than an institution, Davis says. The building formerly housed the Third Street Music School, so the auditorium provides a space for meetings and speakers and storing the newspapers. On the main floor, there is also an office and computer room with a dot-matrix printer and the little chapel room for vespers, which is the only space in the building where people are not allowed to sleep. The kitchen, dining room and clothing room are downstairs, where most of the socializing takes place.

Throughout the house, the walls are covered with posters and photographs of Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Gandhi, and with messages of tolerance and spreading peace. “In the midst of the apparent chaos here,” Davis says, “there is order and purpose and surprisingly enough, a lot of love.”

The boarding rooms are upstairs, where there is also a library. And that’s where preparations for Christmas are made each year, which include wrapping presents and making as many gift bags as possible. The holidays often bring visiting volunteers, and Davis appreciates the energy brought by the visitors, who he says aren’t as bogged down with the daily grind of life at the house and often lighten up the atmosphere.

The day after Thanksgiving, the clothing room, which usually opens only on Tuesday, was made available for the holiday.

“It’s my Black Friday here today,” says one of the women who came for lunch. Dee finds a pretty blue and white kimono and brings it into the kitchen to try on in the pantry. She asks Kaori Teramura, a visiting volunteer from upstate, to help show her how to put it on correctly. Teramura obliges, and then makes an impromptu obi from a flower-print smock and ties that around her waist, giving Dee the full effect of a proper Japanese lady. They grin in delight and bow to one another.

Click here for Maryhouse slideshow (music by DC Valentine)

The volunteers are collecting coats for women and men in need for the winter. Donations can be dropped at Maryhouse, which is located at 55 East Third Street between First and Second Avenues. Or call (212) 777-9617 for more information.