Memories of Joseph Zarrella

posted by Rosalie Riegle on April 1st, 2006

Joe Zarrella, Catholic Worker pioneer, has gone home to God. Deo Gratias, as Dorothy Day would say. I first met Joe when I interviewed him for Voices from the Catholic Worker. The penetrating questions he asked me after the interview helped to seal my fate as a Catholic Worker. We became friends and I will never, ever forget him.

Joseph Zarrella was one of Dorothy’s earliest recruits and until his death on at age 93 a shining light of the movement. He came to the Worker in May of 1935 and, as he said, “The bug hit me, and I was captured.” Joe very quickly became active in the house and he and Gerry Griffin usually managed everything when Dorothy was traveling. As World War II loomed, he and Dorothy traveled to Washington to testify that lay Catholics be allowed conscientious objector status, a ruling that resulted in many Catholic Workers and others refusing military service.

Joe met Mary Alice Lochner at the Worker. They married and moved to Mary Alice’s home town of Tell City, Indiana, where they raised raising four daughters and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren during a 63-year marriage. His deep faith and his devotion to the movement and its principles never faltered. Dorothy visited them often and, as Mary Alice remembers, always left some knitting for her to finish. In Tell City, he and Mary Alice continued their work for unionization and other social justice issues. Mary Alice told me,

The war years weren’t very happy for anybody. And Joe wasn’t really well received when he came here. And then he became a labor organizer and organized the factory that my father was superintendent of. So we were not very… (inaudible phrase) It was real bad. We had some real difficult years in Tell City. But people have grown up now, you know, and they realize… until Joe organized the factory, there was no such thing as paid vacations or paid holidays or insurance, none of that. Fifteen cents an hour! That’s what some of our workers were making. What is accepted today is enormous. Oh, they have no idea what unions did!

Joe was a fighter but I’ll always remember him for his warmth, the perpetual sparkle in his eyes, and his gentle, sometimes crazy humor. When he asked how you were, you knew he really cared. He was the kind of man who remembered people’s birthdays and the names of their children, even if he hadn’t met them. He counseled countless Catholic Workers, especially those from the Midwest, and he loved to hear people’s house stories, often matching them with his own humorous reflections. As a tribute to his memory, here are some excerpts from our first interview.

I remember this abbot from St. Meinrad came to visit us and all these cockroaches were crawling around while we were having coffee. Now this abbot was a very prestigious person, and you could see him being so uncomfortable. I got the feeling I’d better move him out, so I took him upstairs to Mrs. Johnsons’ place. Continued the conversation in a more sanitary atmosphere.

People would come, and they’d need a bed to sleep. Well, you can’t turn somebody away. So you’d get up and give them your bed, and you’d sleep down in the office. For a while there, we were giving our bed away so often, we said, “To hell with it,” you know, and just slept downstairs. If we had some money, we’d give them thirty, thirty-five cents, whatever it was to get a bed in a flop house.

You wonder why the health department didn’t come down on us. We violated practically every health rule in the book. No hot water. Primitive cooking facilities. One toilet for a whole floor. No heat except for open fireplaces and a few kerosene heaters. Most of the time we dressed up to go to bed. No place to take a bath or anything like that.

And the bedbugs! One time it was so bad that we took the beds up on the roof, soaked the mattresses with kerosene, and blow-torched the bed frames and the springs. But they still came back. Peter seemed to be the only one who was immune. Well, finally, somebody complained to the health department. Not because of the health specifically, but they were trying to get rid of the bread line. So the health people came down, and they made us put in a sink where the bread line was because we were handling food without washing our hands or anything. Dorothy asked them why they investigated.

“Well, we got a letter. Somebody was complaining about you.”

“Who was it?” They said it was anonymous.

“Do you answer all anonymous letters?”

“Yes.”

And she said, “Well, you might be deluged then.” (laughter) And she brow beat him. But you know, before those people left, they gave us a donation.

Until his death, Joe called Dorothy “Miss Day,” and he was just crazy about her. He’d always find some flowers for her room when she’d be returning from a trip, and try to do special things to make her life pleasant. The time he spent with Dorothy’s daughter Tamar nurtured a friendship that survives to this day.

I guess we were kind of protective of Miss Day, and didn’t always let her know everything that was going on, especially when she was away. I know I used to write to her: “Even though we’re broke, we’re getting along.” I never really told her of the troubles we had. And they were many. We were constantly on the verge of being closed down because of lack of money. Lots of times I’d go up to George Shuster at the Commonweal, the man who got Peter and Dorothy together, and borrow money from him. But Dorothy didn’t know about all these things. When she came home, we didn’t bother her.

Joe traveled as long as he could, sometimes celebrating May Day anniversaries in New York and recalling the early days at Friday night meetings. For several years he had been in poor health and unable to come to the annual Midwest Catholic Worker retreats, a week end he always relished. After a second severe heart attack in late February, he and his wife left their Tell City home, she to move in with one of their daughters, Mary Jo Burke, and Joe for a nursing home. He died on Tuesday, March 28, surrounded by his family. Services were today at St. Paul Catholic Church in Tell City. Memorial contributions may be made to Hospice Foundation of Louisville or to the Catholic Worker of New York.

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