Fellow Traveler

NINA POLCYN MOORE, R.I.P.

She called herself a “merchant princess and trafficker in crucifixes.” And so she was, entrepreneur extraordinaire, friend of Dorothy Day, social activist, doyenne of religious books and art in Chicago in the halcyon 1950s and ’60s.

Nina Polcyn Moore, who died February 10 of congestive heart failure at her home in Evanston, Illinois, had a protean personality-serious of intent, merry in mode, generous with time and money, contemporary in thought. Her journalism professor at Marquette University in the 1930s advised students to sparkle when they spoke. In the 2000s, Nina still quoted that advice with approval.

Nina’s personality was shaped by the people she had known. Her father, a railway switchman who admired Eugene Debs, bought her a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica when she was six months old. Her mother, always an example, fed the poor during the Depression. Bishop Bernard Sheil, who hired Nina to be associate director of his Sheil School of Adult Education in Chicago, was a pioneer in interracial justice. Preeminently, Dorothy Day showed Nina how to care for the poor.

Roy Larson, former religion editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, summed up Nina as “indefatigable in her efforts to unite fine taste and deep piety, liturgical devotion and a passion for social justice, tradition, and imagination.”

Nina discovered her true passion early on: serving the poor. As a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1934, she asked the school to invite Dorothy Day to speak. Only if you find her a place to sleep, she was told. So Dorothy Day spent the first of many nights at Nina’s family home and spoke at Marquette. They became best of friends, according to Nina’s sister, Helen Heyrman.

On her graduation from Marquette, Nina joined Day in New York for a summer at Day’s Catholic Worker House. She accompanied the group-this was in the 1930s-in picketing the German embassy to protest Adolph Hitler. “I gave out [Catholic Worker] papers during the strike at the National Biscuit Company,” Nina remembered. “I worked on a maternity guild.” She came home to Milwaukee and helped start a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in 1937.

Nina moved to Chicago in 1942 to work for Bishop Sheil at the Sheil School of Social Studies. But she found St. Benet’s Bookstore-also part of the Sheil complex-more attractive. “Later I had the time of my life owning [the bookstore] and running it on my own,” she said.

What was the time of Nina’s life was also a time of intense ferment for the Catholic Church in Chicago. Writers, avant-garde theologians, and artists commingled in the shop to find stimulation and support, and to drink the tea, wine, or, in the case of luminaries, the Benedictine liqueur that Nina offered.

“With her book shop as an independent power base in the church,” wrote Thomas Frisbie in the Chicago Sun-Times obituary for Nina, she “helped nurture the progressive ideas of Day and others.” Nina traveled with Day to Russia in 1971 on a peace mission. They also went to Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania.

In 1973, Nina sold the shop and married college friend Thomas Eugene Moore, a widower with five children. He died in 1995.

In his eulogy for Nina, Fr. Robert Pawell, OFM, who worked at St. Benet’s when he was young, recalled a day when a burglar stole five gold rings-a substantial loss for a small bookstore. Nina was up to the occasion. She rang up “NO SALE” on the cash register and gave young Pawell thirty dollars. “Go to the bakery and buy a chocolate cake,” she instructed, “and go to the liquor store for champagne. We must find joy in the Cross.”

Such a response to adversity was vintage Nina.

Published in the 2007-05-18 issue: 
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Margery Frisbie is the author of An Alley in Chicago, recently republished by Sheed and Ward.

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