After Peter Maurin died, a group of people who had known him sat down and wrote short essays about what Peter had meant to them, and these were published in pamphlet form by the Pio Decimo Press in Monsignor Hellriegel's parish in St. Louis. We have been grateful ever since for that small pamphlet.
And now that Ed Willock is dead I think that many of us who knew him in the past should write a bit of what he meant to us, of what we knew of him. Arthur Sheehan who met him first in Boston made a beginning in the January issue of the Catholic Worker.
In the same issue of the paper we reprinted two essays of Willock's which were direct and forthright criticisms of positions of laity and clergy of the present day; coming as they did right after the Bishops' recent statement on Personal Responsibility, they were particularly pertinent. These essays were reprints—nothing he had written recently. He had not been able to write much in recent years, but there were some good articles that Bishop Waters used in his diocesan paper and tried to get syndicated so that Ed could earn a living as he had in the past.
These later articles were on the family, and since Ed and Dorothy were parents of twelve children, it would be thought that they had a right to speak. But Ed said wryly (while he was still able to talk) that there were so many priests writing about the family that there was not much room for the laity to voice their ideas.
Of course priests come from families too.
But I will begin at the beginning. I met Ed first at our Boston house of hospitality where he had done some beautiful murals for the walls. I thought of him always as a painter, an artist, a cartoonist, and I knew that he had earned a living sometimes painting billboards—not the first good artist to have done this kind of work, certainly.
These were depression years; talking about it afterwards to me, Ed said that the greatest disgrace a New Englander felt was to be without work, without a job with which to support a family. Like many another young man, he left home on that account, and came to the house of hospitality on Tremont Street in Boston, right off the Common, and worked with the Boston group there.
People made speeches on the Common and people listened to them. (That was why Peter Maurin loved Boston, because it had a Common, a bit of common land.) Ed met Peter there and they had many an Easy Conversation, as Peter called them.
Ed always said that he learned many things from Peter. "There can be no revolution without a theory of revolution," Peter quoted Lenin as saying and Ed listened to Peter work out a theory of the Green Revolution. Peter's theory hit the high spots, as he leaped from crag to crag in his lofty thought. Ed wanted to fill in the spaces, to make the way plain.
PETER THOUGHT IN terms of the apostolate, the single man and woman, the workers and scholars on a farming commune. Ed Willock thought in terms of family and community. And always of man's work, the breath of life to him, more important than food, that aspect of his life that makes him most like God, in Whose image and likeness he was created, man the co-creator with God, like God in that he too is a creator.
There were many marriages in the Catholic Worker movement always because when young people start working together, it is a more real courtship than just going together, going steady. When the Boston group together with readers from the Worcester, Massachusetts area started a house of hospitality in Worcester, young college girls came to help, and the girl who became Dorothy Willock was one of them
In all the busyness of the Catholic Worker movement during those years, I lost track of the Willocks until I began encountering Ed's work as both writer and artist in the Torch, the Dominican magazine published in New York of which Father Wendell is the editor. Carol Jackson, a convert, was also writing for the Torch and had the same ideas as Ed did. It was her idea I think that made them start the magazine Integrity, which was to run for many years and prove to be such a source of inspiration to so many students and intellectuals.
Ed and Carol printed in its entirety Cardinal Suhard's inspiring articles, Growth or Decline, and Priests Among Men which we used for discussions held for a week at a time at our Maryfarm retreat house. There were entire issues on Marriage, on the Family, on Community, and Ed wrote of life and of death with courage and dignity.
Many new writers were introduced to Integrity readers, and Ed's articles, clearly reasoned, logical, profoundly Catholic, showed the Dominican influence on his thought. He was himself a third order Dominican, and when he died he was buried in a habit Father Wendell brought.
The magazine Integrity became so popular that young people flocked to it and visitors came from all over the country to sit around the office and discuss the ideas in the last month's or the future month's articles. Ed himself had to fix up a room in the basement where he could hide out if he wished to get any work done.
He was invited to speak everywhere, of course. He had a growing family but he never set any fees. He spoke at the C.W. as willingly as he spoke at some school where he would be paid. And it was from one of these meetings that Marycrest, at Orangeburg, New York grew. A piece of land was chosen because it was within commuting distance of New York, and as soon as the land was purchased, a group of men headed by Ed started to help each other build homes.
ED WILLOCK WORKED tirelessly in that community, and went on with his speaking, writing and editing outside of it. His house, as some of the others, went up bit by bit. They are the kind of houses perhaps that would never be finished, what with growing families. Ed needed more room than others did, with the increasing children, and yet when they had the money, to put a second story on the house it had to be used for another kind of sewage system, or an improvement in the roadway. I do not know what taxes they paid, nor how the burden was shared.
All I know is that Ed worked harder than most men. And then one day we heard that he had been stricken and was partially paralyzed, that Dorothy had to be with him night and day those first weeks, and that it was not certain whether he would live or die. I do not know the exact nature of his illness, but it resulted in high blood pressure and repeated strokes.
The very day we heard this sad news, two young girls were coming to us from Minnesota to give us a year to help with the Catholic Worker house of hospitality and Peter Maurin Farm. One was a trained nurse and she went willingly and immediately to spend her year with the Willocks. That is the kind of devotion they inspired.
Later others went to help out as Ed got better or worse, and crisis succeeded crisis. A young poet and a young writer spent time there, trying to help take care of a wild young brood. Another young woman went into service, one might say, working for a wealthy woman as general housekeeper for sixty a week and her keep, and saved all the money to try again to get a second story put on the Willock house. A friend matched what she earned and another crisis was met.
Ed Willock was, in a way, a Job. He exemplified the mystery of human suffering. When I told the head of one of our groups, married and with children, he cried out at the tragedy of this but added, "What is going to happen to us? We must all suffer?" And his family too was stricken later on with a child afflicted with virus which left him deaf, dumb, blind and completely blank mentally.
The only way to explain it, of course, is the Fall. Without the doctrine of original sin, the evil in the world would be an unbearable mystery. "All nature itself travailleth and groaneth even until now," St. Paul said, and Juliana of Norwich said, to comfort us, as women are made to do, "The worst has already happened, but it has been repaired. All will be well, and all will be well, and all will be very well."
I SPEAK SO much of these mysteries, this need for man to fill up the sufferings of Christ, to bear with Christ the pain which will be His until the end of time, because this is how we all thought of it when we thought of Ed. It was not only his own little community around him, in which he was now a "useless" member (he never ceased to suffer over that) but it was a larger community, all over the country, who thought these thoughts.
I remember Father John J. Hugo saying once, at one of our retreats, that manual work was hard, and mental work was harder but that spiritual work was the hardest of all, and suffering is a great part of that spiritual work he spoke of. We all felt Ed was suffering for us all. If one looks at all men all over the world as members, or potential members, of the Mystical Body of Christ, Ed had been chosen among those worthy to suffer, to lighten the load for others, to take some of the suffering of families today upon himself, willing or unwilling though he might be.
"Let us suffer if needs be with bitterness," the Little Flower said, "but let us suffer." And Ed suffered with bitterness, to the end. He was doing the hardest work of all. He was using the weapons of the spirit in the warfare against principalities and powers.
It is all very well to talk of mounting the Cross joyfully, with Christ, singing. Suffering is not like that except perhaps for a woman bringing new life into the world. But Ed died daily. He was literally putting off the old man, and putting on Christ, as St. Paul said, "and there was no beauty in him."
He endured stroke after stroke. He was unable to speak and had to write on a slate half the time. Sometimes he could articulate more clearly, and Dorothy always seemed to know what he wanted to say. He had to be fed with a spoon, because much of the time he could not swallow. Dorothy had to do all this at the times when he was most ill. He wanted her with him always and there were the children. His mind was never affected, and so in that way he suffered the more.
There were times when he was better and he came to Newburgh, Maryfarm, for our retreats, or parts of them. Father Marion Casey went to him at Marycrest and talked to a group there. When we got the beach cottages, Dorothy brought him there, and I can see him yet sitting in a wicker chair looking out over the water and listening to the tides come in, breathing in the salt fresh air. He could not read for more than a few minutes at a time.
Two years ago he spent Thanksgiving at Peter Maurin Farm, and Michael, his oldest son, kept the fires going in the "priest's room" which had been made from a wagon shed, and waited on his father, and sometimes Ed could make himself understood and sometimes he had to take to writing on a slate. He could hear perfectly, of course, but it was sad to have to do so much of the talking when that brilliant mind had to confine itself to a few short sentences at a time.
We talked for a long time then, and I don't think there is a suffering Ed and his family endured that I do not know about. And it was complete, even to the cold disapprobation of those who asked, "What right did he have, to have so many children when he was not able to support them?" That was the cruelest blow of all, coming from his peers, and not all the help, the mutual aid of his greater family around the country could make up for it. "But God will wipe all tears from his eyes."
Let others write of the thought of Ed Willock; let all that he has written be reprinted and read by many. I can only write as a woman, and pray that Ed now knows what "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, of all that God has prepared for those that love him."
Ed was a man who lived, and loved, and died, and all he wrote was tried as though by fire, in the crucible of life itself.
[For more of Dorothy Day's writings from Commonweal, see our full collection.]