When I first saw Peter Maurin* my impression was of a short, broad-shouldered workingman with a high, broad head covered with greying hair. His face was weatherbeaten, he had warm grey eyes and a wide, pleasant mouth. The collar of his shirt was dirty, but he had tried to dress up by wearing a tie and a suit which looked as though he had slept in it. (As I found out afterward, indeed he had.)
What struck me first about him was that he was one of those people who talked you deaf, dumb and blind, who each time he saw you began his conversation just where he had left off at the previous meeting, and never stopped unless you begged for rest, and that was not for long. He was irrepressible and he was incapable of taking offense.
The night I met Peter I had come from an assignment for The Commonweal, covering the Communist-inspired “hunger march” of the unemployed to Washington. I had prayed at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, that I might find something to do in the social order besides reporting conditions. I wanted to change them, not just report them, but I had lost faith in revolution. I wanted to love my enemy, whether capitalist or Communist.
I certainly did not realize at first that I had my answer in Peter Maurin. I was thirty-five years old and I had met plenty of radicals in my time and plenty of crackpots, too: people who had blueprints to change the social order were a dime a dozen around Union Square.
At that time Peter Maurin was fifty-seven, had never married, had been “away from the Church” in his youth, had worked with Sangnier and his social studies group in Paris, and had sold its paper, Le Sillon. He believed in going to the people in town and countryside, because first of all he was of the people himself.
He constantly urged individuals to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; he urged Bishops to establish Houses of Hospitality. Somehow the two planks of the program got mixed up. I can remember well enough how it happened. He had written a series of essays addressed to the Bishops, pointing out to them that canon law called for the establishment of hospices in every bishopric. When a reader who had been sleeping in the subway came into The Catholic Worker office one day and disclosed her need (the apartment and the office were already full), Peter’s literal acceptance of “If thy brother needs food or drink, feed him, and if he needs shelter, shelter him” meant that we rented a large apartment a block away which became the first House of Hospitality for women. This apartment expanded into three apartments and a store, then into a house, and finally into a twenty-room tenement house at 115 Mott Street. Eventually it included four additional apartments and two stores; then to become a double house at 223 Chrystie Street, New York City. Now we are in a loft on Spring Street, with eight apartments in the neighborhood. Here the works of mercy are still being practiced by the group who get out The Catholic Worker, living without salaries, in voluntary poverty. “Feeding thy brother” started with feeding a few poor men. It became a daily breadline in 1936, and the line still forms every day outside the door.
Round-table Discussions, Houses of Hospitality and Farming Communes–those were the three planks in Peter Maurin’s platform. Despite war and re-employment which took many of our workers from us, there are still Houses of Hospitality, each autonomous but inspired by Peter, each trying to follow Peter’s principles. And there are farms, all different but all starting with the idea of the personalist and communitarian revolution–to use Emmanuel Mounier’s phrase. Peter was not disappointed in his life’s work. He had given everything he had and he asked for nothing, least of all for success. He gave himself, and–at the end–God took from him the power to think.
He was docile and accepted his condition, though one could see the pain and struggle in his eyes. He, who had talked so much, became completely silent. For the last five years of his life he had to be served like a child, told when to go to bed, when to arise, what to eat, what to put on. He was the one led, rather than the leader.
He was anointed at Easton, Pennsylvania, for a bad heart condition, and a few years later, on May 15, 1949, he died at Maryfarm in Newburgh, New York. When his requiem was sung all the congregation who attended sang the Mass gloriously, triumphantly, joyously. Garbed in a donated suit of clothes, he was buried in a donated grave in St. John’s Cemetery, Brooklyn.
Obituaries were found not only in The Industrial Worker, a Chicago I.W.W. paper which is on the subversive list, but also in Osservatore Romano in Vatican City, which carried its notice on the front page.
God has taken him into Paradise, with Lazarus who once was poor. May He bring us, too, to a place of refreshment, light and peace.
*Much of this material appeared in Jubilee, March, 1960. (Copyright 1960 by the A.M.D.G. Publishing Co.) as “I Remember Peter Maurin.” We gratefully acknowledge permission to use it.