The Sayings of Abu Francis
Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day had a falling out. It came only four months after they first met. The quirky French street-corner philosopher had first washed up at Dorothy’s New York apartment on Dec. 9, 1932, right after Dorothy returned from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to pray for inspiration for her future work. He seemed like an answer to her prayers.
For four months, Peter lectured Dorothy on looking at history “in a new way which centered not on the rise and fall of nations, but on the lives of the saints,” writes Catholic Worker historian Jim Forest. “She had to understand that sanctity was what really mattered and that any program of social change must emphasize sanctity and community.”
Under peasant Peter’s influence, journalist Dorothy decided to publish a newspaper to promote Catholic social teaching and the peaceful transformation of society – The Catholic Worker. On May 1, 1933, Peter looked over the premiere edition with less-than-adoring eyes. He apparently found the paper just another left-wing, pro-union screed, short on ideas and strategy for a new, personalist social order.
He departed New York City to work for room and board at a boys' camp in rural Mt. Tremper. For a couple of weeks. Then, calling the falling out off, Peter returned with a list of essay ideas for Dorothy’s June edition.
The Catholic Farmer
Peter Maurin had been raised with 23 brothers and sisters in a poor farming village in southern France. Dorothy Day, 20 years his junior, was born in Brooklyn. Like most people raised in city life, Dorothy recognized farming as a necessary task – just normally performed by someone else. In 1936, Peter published “Back to Christ – Back to the Land” in the Catholic Worker and began to articulate what he called “agronomic universities” – farms not in the business of feeding city folk but supporting those living on them.
Dorothy decided to give it a try and the Catholic Worker purchased a 10-acre property in Easton, Pa., christened “Mary Farm.” Both Peter and Dorothy lived there for more than two years.
Subsistence farming was a tough row to hoe, but Dorothy appreciated that everyone was gainfully employed – in some way.
“In the cities there is unemployment and the breadline. There are municipal lodging houses and the parks where men sit all day and are either sunk in lethargy or are racking their brains for a way out,” she wrote in 1938. “And on the land there are untilled acres, there is room for every kind of employment where the single unemployed can pioneer and lead the way for the family, thus serving not only himself but the common good.”
Poor Farm, Rich Farm
Peter wasn’t the first to envision farming as a way to alleviate poverty. In the 1800s, the United States had developed “poor farms,” county-run farms where indigent residents worked in the fields and cared for each other with public support. Some of the produce, grain and livestock fed the residents.
In some cases, poor farms were considered so important to the local economy that outsiders were hired to cover responsibilities when there were not enough able bodies in residence. Children from local orphanages, petty criminals, the disabled, elderly, or infirm could often find work on poor farms.
The model went into decline following the 1935 Social Security Act, when the New Deal tried to solve the nation’s woes with large-scale, centralized job programs. Poor farms disappeared nationally by about 1950.
It’s too bad, I say! A sustainable farming environment where anybody – especially homeless and mentally ill people – could live, work in the fresh air and get some help would be, well… a “Rich Farm.” A farm would be a more desirable place for people to live and get assistance than a homeless shelter or drop-in center in an industrial park. Plus, our communities need more local food cultivation, not another hang out for people awaiting charity.
For the most part, the Catholic Worker movement evolved along Dorothy’s city model: houses of hospitality were established to shelter and feed poor people from the surplus of the urban area. It’s necessary to share the surplus, but people need to become producers instead of just consumers. With the double calamities of climate change and the depletion of cheap energy, we are facing ecological and economic collapse.
Soon there will be very little surplus. Survival and sanity will depend on building resilient, self-reliant communities whether we are rural or urban. A new, personalist social order.
Peter Maurin was from Europe, which is way ahead of us on this. Called “care farming,” the merging of agriculture and mental health goes back at least 400 years. There are more than 1,000 care farms in the Netherlands alone.
In Northern California, a group of us are working on building a network of sustainable and hospitable homesteads. We do not predict that large, centralized systems and technology will rescue us. We are using Permaculture to design habitat that cooperates with, and is powered by, nature. Some call it The Catholic Farmer. Others Transition. If you share this vision or would like to learn more, don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Peter once told Dorothy: “In the history of the saints, capital is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”
What say you?
Can we return to solving some of our problems through accepting that fact that we need the labor of immigrants (and helping the undocumented get the paperwork needed to move from their countries to ours and back again), as well as enticing our inner-city poor to move into the countryside to become self-sufficient and strengthen local small communities and create new ones?
Small town life is increasingly attractive to persons who like to work with their hands. And now that we know people can also work easily from home (thanks to the pandemic), I'd love to see professionals of all sorts returning to small towns and reviving those cultures, too.
#creationcare #smallfarms #sustainability