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Gilbert House Catholic Worker

May 2009 - Many people are attracted to the Catholic Worker lifestyle.  Living in community and dedicating your life to performing the 
Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy attracts followers from a variety of faiths (or lack thereof) and they do much good.


The Movement has no national administration, with local Catholic Worker houses each calling their own shots, so you never can be quite sure what you will find when you first step inside a Catholic Worker house.   Binding the Movement together is something called the Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker.  You could call it the mission statement of the Movement. As Peter Maurin once said, “We are an organism, not an organization.”


It is always refreshing to find Catholic Workers who really understand this mission and who also have a deep love for, and obedience to, the Catholic Church as CW founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin did.  Glenwood City’s Gilbert House Catholic Worker is home to two such people.
Miki Tracy and Mary Alice Calhoun formed the Gilbert House community in Glenwood City in 2004.  The two friends pool their miscellaneous income and offer their lives in service to the locals. 

 Miki Tracy (left) and Mary Alice Calhoun (right)
Calhoun is the resident bread and pie baker and keeps the vegetable garden going. She is also an artist, sometimes selling her works.  Tracy writes articles to help support the house and is an amazing source of information on everything relating to the Catholic Worker Movement, G. K. Chesterton (for whom the house is named) and a variety of other very interesting things.

Tracy told me that she and Calhoun decided to settle in Glenwood City because “we were looking in areas where there were a lot of women and children who were not being served by anybody else, a place where there was a strong Catholic presence, and a place where it would be easy to start a community garden.  And a place where, when we have the ability to do so, it would be easy to get people out of the [Twin Cities CW houses] who need respite.  That is how we ended up here.”

I asked Tracy what makes this a “Catholic Worker house” instead of just two ladies being do-gooders.


“What makes it a Catholic Worker house is that we live the Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker Movement and that we are here with a purpose.  It’s not that we are out there just doing good.  The funny thing is that regardless of the fact that we try to be good people as individuals and try to live our Catholic faith, the fact of the matter is that we’re all really bad at it and we need each other in community to become who we are, to meet our potential.  And in order to do that, and in order to live the Aims and Means of the Catholic Worker Movement, we have to do it in community.  You cannot do it independent of other people.”


She continues, "I have been to the Benedictine monasteries and whether you are living with one person or several dozen it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that having other people with you not only keeps you accountable to the Gospel but it makes it easier to be good in the world.   I truly believe that this is the living out of the ideal of the Gospel and that it’s not just doing good it is actually answering the moral imperative of the Gospel.”


I had a feeling that Tracy was the one to ask about progress towards the canonization of Dorothy Day.  I was right.


“He [Peter Maurin] made people understand that living the Gospel is not about piety in the picturesque sense, it is about being totally human and totally vulnerable to other people and pouring your heart out in service.”

Her thoughts:  “I do believe, regardless of what she wanted people to believe, that she was a saint.  I don’t think she was a saint because she was extraordinarily holy, I think she was a saint because she actually had the willpower and the fortitude and the tenacity to put aside her own ambitions and her own desires to do what she knew God was calling her to.  And what I mean when I say that is that Dorothy didn’t really like living and working in community.  She wanted to be left alone.   Dorothy was an incredibly private person. “


“And I don’t think that she would have been a saint if it hadn’t been for Peter Maurin coming along and basically prodding her with a stick and saying  ‘Hey, I read some of the stuff that you wrote and I’ve decided that God wants you to be my mouthpiece. ‘   I think that Peter also was a great saint and that he was also a great instigator and I think the thing that I love the most about Peter as a spiritual father is just the simple fact that he was at once the best example of the least of us that we could possibly have and he was also very much a walking encyclopedia of Catholic history and spirituality. “


“The man had a way . . . whether it was through his Easy Essays or through his meandering dissertations to different people, he had a way of expressing the ideals of the Gospel that made people want to serve.”

“He [Peter Maurin] made people understand that living the Gospel is not about piety in the picturesque sense, it is about being totally human and totally vulnerable to other people and pouring your heart out in service.”


Tracy continues, “When I think of the two of them I think that one of them is the recluse being thrown into the mayhem and the other is the instigator.”


“Dorothy is actually now a 'Servant of God' according to the Church and the process continues.  The Dorothy Day Guild in New York is actually working very hard to try and raise awareness of who she was and what she did; why she deserves to be acknowledged.  “


“She absolutely did not want it to happen!  She actually told people not to call her a saint.  She did not want to be dismissed so easily.  I think that to a certain extent she was right because I think that when people look at a saint they don’t think, even though the saints are set up by the Church as models for us to emulate to become closer to God and to walk more closely in our Catholic faith, the fact of the matter is that people look at saints as people who are unattainable or unapproachable or different.  Dorothy Day was as different from you and me as . . . nothing.”


"And so if she is not canonized at some point it will be because she refused and did something to throw a monkey-wrench into the spokes.”  From heaven.  “If anybody can stop it, she can.” 


So since its beginning in 2004, Gilbert House Catholic Worker has helped lots of people with their financial emergencies (out of donations and the women’s own limited funds).   They have cleaned up/repaired/donated seemingly tons of clothing and shared many a garden veggie. They have taught, listened, comforted, and basically done what needed to be done.  I asked Tracy if there have been scary moments.


“The scariest thing here I think, so far, has been alcohol and guns.  They don’t mix. “


The most rewarding things?  “I think that the most rewarding things here have been when people tell us that we can’t do a certain thing or that it’s not going to work and it works beyond all our expectations.  We had tons of neighbors telling us ‘You can’t plant fruits and vegetables in manure.’  ‘You can’t do this.’  ‘You can’t do that.’  They eat our vegetables just fine.” 

“I think the biggest thing that has happened since we started giving away a lot of produce is the fact that people have started to trust us more and as a result we have kind of become the keepers of people’s secrets, which has been very good.  And I think that that’s the one thing that I appreciate more than anything else is the fact that people trust us enough to tell us what their burdens are and that is the seed of building community to have that kind of trust from other people.”