Nina Polcyn Moore, 1914–2007
“There’s a saying that Theresa had this ‘T’ written in heaven. Well, I saw this ‘CW’ written in heaven!” (Nina Polcyn Moore, 1986)
Nina Polcyn Moore, one of the last of the Catholic Worker pioneers, has gone to her God. She died on Saturday, February 10, surrounded by family, former Catholic Worker Barbara Blaine (Chicago St. Elizabeth’s), and Dr. Peter Mayock. Fr. Bob Pawell had prayed with her in the afternoon, and she died peacefully and sublimely ready to join our great cloud of witnesses. On my last visit with her, she told me that her current mantra was “Wrap it up!” That’s just one of many samples of her unfailing good humor even as her body went the way of all bodies.
A great good friend of Dorothy Day, Nina was one of the founders of Holy Family House, the first CW in Milwaukee, and was also a lifelong friend to the entire Catholic Worker movement, following Catholic Worker activities with interest and unfailing wisdom. One of her last public appearances was in 2001 when she organized a program in Evanston, “Remembering Dorothy Day.” There she told wonderful Dorothy stories and also arranged for Fr. Bob Pawell and me to speak. Phil Runkel came from the CW Archives and showed a rare video of Dorothy’s television appearance in Ireland. When Nina married Thomas E. Moore in 1973, they sent a meat feast to the Worker in New York so everyone there could share in the celebration. She attended the Chicago Worker 50th anniversary celebration, and after she learned of the 2006 National Catholic Worker Gathering in Iowa, she anonymously contributed $7,000 to make it possible. She was also an enthusiastic supporter of artists who spread the message, particularly her friends, actress Sarah Melici and film-maker Claudia Larson.
She and her late husband, Thomas E. Moore had attended Marquette University together and she told me on our last visit that they’d had twenty-five wonderful years of marriage before his death. During that time and after, she was a loving step-mother to his children, Patrick, Michael, Mary Regina, Maureen and Kathleen Moore. After Tom’s death, Nina lived alone until 2003 saw her move to live with her sister Helen Heyrman and Helen’s husband, Don. Their five children were also close to Nina. The funeral Mass will take place at 11:00 on Saturday, February 24 at Nina’s parish, the Sheil Center on the campus of Northwestern University.
Nina Polcyn was not only a Catholic Worker pioneer, she was Dorothy Day’s personal friend. Dorothy would often stay with Nina when she visited Chicago, and the two of them traveled three weeks in Russia together in 1970, on a trip organized by Dr. Jerome Davis of Yale. But their friendship started when Nina arranged for Dorothy to speak at Marquette University.
The depression was rough. (I think it’s rougher now, because then being poor was more acceptable.) I lived next door to St. Matthew’s rectory in Milwaukee. The pastor, Fr. Ryan, fed everybody. This notion spilled over to our house and my mother would feed people, too. found out about the Catholic Worker early. Our Sunday school got four hundred copies of the Catholic Worker for all the children to take home to their parents to show them that the church cared about the poor and the worker. So I read that paper and it was luminous to me.
I read that Dorothy was coming to Chicago in 1934, and I persuaded Dean O’Sullivan to invite her to come to Marquette, which he did. (My husband and I heard her talk, but of course he wasn’t my husband then.) That night Dorothy stayed with my parents, and we became friends.
Then in July of 1935, I had graduated and my parents let me go to the Worker in New York We stayed with the ladies on the top floor of the house on Charles Street, except for one night in the Salvation Army when a lot of people came and there wasn’t enough room.
Dorothy had us pounding on doors to start a maternity guild so that when poor people in St. Joseph’s parish were having a child, they would have a little money. It was like an insurance policy; we tried to collect a quarter a week to prepare for their lying-in. We were scared green to walk up those damp tenement stairways, so finally Dorothy put us to answering the correspondence, and washing windows and dishes. We picketed the German Consulate and the German ship, the Bremen, when it came in because we knew how horribly they were treating the Jews.
Of course, at the end of the summer, all this culminated in a group that began to meet in the basement of the journalism library, back in Milwaukee at Marquette University. Dave Host was one of them, and Harry Schwartz and Leonard Doyle and later Larry Heaney who ran the house and Florence Weinfurter, who was a great asset. Out of that came the Catholic Worker house.
Florence Weinfurter, another member of that small community whom I interviewed in 1986, takes up the details of those early years:
You know, we had these strong friendships, and we were concerned about the underprivileged, and we had… there was a great measure of personal sacrifice to keep a house like that going. And also to spread the patterns that Dorothy was writing in the newspaper. In addition to our round table discussions, we were always reading. Good writers, mostly European writers in translation. We presented a play John Cogley wrote. He was from the Worker in Chicago.
As I remember, we had two houses. The first house sheltered the men who were lining up at that period when so many people were unemployed. A little later we moved to a street underneath a railroad track. Some murder had been committed there just before we moved in, but we didn’t pay any attention to that little thing.
We would have our meetings on Sunday afternoon, and we went to a cafeteria and bought ice cream cones, and then went to the upper level and conducted our meetings there. Most of the equipment came from the School Sisters of St. Francis. They’d also give us food and they’d give us their old coffee grounds. I also remember a Mary White, who kept us going when we didn’t have any money. We didn’t know we were poverty stricken, but I guess we were.
I asked Florence how Holy Family stood on pacifism and she answered:
I guess we were pacifists, more or less. We didn’t know exactly how far we were going. We went to Father Hugo to enlighten us about what stance we should or could take. You know, he was totally non-participating. A stringent believer. The retreats were eight days. We weren’t to speak during that period of time. There was much reading of the Scriptures, and much meditating, and much silence.
Nina told me:
Father Hugo said that as a result of the letters from [our house] in Milwaukee, he began to clarify the peace position in the Catholic Church. Dorothy said that [our questions] made him go to the sources, so we were part of that chain. Dorothy encouraged everybody to do [the retreat], which was very hard going. She herself was a woman of great dedication to a life of prayer and I think she had a regimen in her life that was not altogether espoused by everybody. She saw that the more you had to do, the more you had to take an hour off and go to somebody’s church and really pray.
At the end, because of the Second World War, it was only three women because either the men became C.O.s and left or they went into the Army or they went someplace else. The women were trying to keep the house together with scotch tape, glue, and a couple of prayers. We had problems with alcoholism in the men on the street, and a lot of factors we felt we just couldn’t control.
It was a very, very hard thing to close the house, but we finally did. We sent Dorothy a telegram and she sent a telegram back which showed how hurt she was. She was very wounded and very disappointed, but we healed that wound and she was always my friend.
Closing the house was a very painful time for me because the Catholic Worker occupied all my spare moments and cash. When something like that happens, I think you pray for what your next step is. I discussed going to the New York Catholic Worker with Dorothy lots of times, but I couldn’t get into the unstructured life, somehow. It just didn’t seem to suit me. I was very attracted to that work and I just loved Dorothy so much, and I saw so much to be done but I couldn’t seem to do it.
After teaching in the Milwaukee Public Schools, Nina moved to Chicago in the Fifties and managed and then owned St. Benet’s Book Shop at 300 St. Wabash until she married in 1973. St. Benet’s, with an engaging Nina at the helm, was a beacon for Catholic intellectuals, both religious and lay, at a time of exciting changes in the church, sparked by Vatican II. Catholics from around the country would stop at the shop to find lively discussions, books on the latest ideas and contemporary religious art unavailable elsewhere.
“This came to be her way of being faithful to the vision of Dorothy Day,” said Roy Larson, former religion editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. Rev. John Gorman, a retired auxiliary bishop in the Chicago archdiocese said, “She was the heart and soul of the place.”
Dorothy would frequently stay with Nina when she visited Chicago, sometimes taking the time to “just collapse.” When I first interviewed Nina in 1986, she recalled her travel experiences with Dorothy:
Going to Russia with Dorothy in 1970 was a delightful experience. Dorothy got a scholarship, which means her trip was paid for by Corliss Lamont. We had three weeks there. We went to Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw, and then we went to Romania and Czechoslovakia and Hungary and also had a weekend at a workers’ resort.
In each place we had prearranged discussions with local people on the peace movement. It was a very rich experience because there was sightseeing plus these conversations. And of course it was delightful to be with somebody like Dorothy, just an unforgettable experience. To have that whole mind explored.
Everybody on the tour, almost, was a minister; we were almost the only Catholics. They were all people who were trying to build bridges and understand the fact that the ordinary person wants peace. Dorothy was great in that sense of bridge-building and seeing what we could agree on.
Nina concluded her interview by saying:
There is no policy manual for any of this, you know. You come and you see what needs to be done, and you do it. Now that Dorothy’s gone, the people in the Catholic Worker houses will have to live with each other, grow with each other, suffer each other, help each other out of whatever confusions they have because a person like Dorothy is almost impossible to duplicate. so you just do what needs to be done.
I am so absolutely grateful for Nina’s life and friendship. On her recommendation, I live in the co-op apartment where she used to live, and I was blessed that I was able to visit her for short periods as she was slipping away. Nina was alert and still cheerful when I last saw her and I shall greatly miss her spirituality and her great sensibility and good humor.
Nina would often speak of the “golden cord” that Ira Progoff wrote about, a connection that one keeps until one needs it. Or it needs you. That’s what the Catholic Worker was to Nina. She never forgot her connections to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker and I hope we never forget her and the life and loveliness she gave to the movement.
Rosalie G. Riegle
February 17, 2007
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All quotations by Nina and Florence Weinfurter are from oral history interviews conducted for Voices from the Catholic Worker, (Temple UP, 1993) and archived at Marquette University Archives.