Catherine Morris is 84. But the silver-haired former Pasadena nun, who was once a teacher and later a principal at the private Mayfield Catholic schools, shows few signs of slowing down in her long-time role as an advocate for society’s outcasts.
Morris, who grew up in Pasadena and holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Portland, recently tried to explain to a reporter why she left Mayfield and her order — the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus — for a cause and a draft dodger named Jeff Dietrich. Together they shaped a life dedicated to helping homeless people on Skid Row, the notorious 54-block area in downtown Los Angeles where there are now tent cities and people sleeping on drug-ravaged streets.
“In the convent, I had an awakening to another America,” Morris recalled while seated in the garden of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker (LACW) soup kitchen that she runs on East Sixth Street. Known as The Hippie Kitchen, it’s in the same vicinity that Mother Theresa visited and offered her suggestions on how to raise funds to rebuild after a predecessor kitchen was severely damaged in the wake of the magnitude 5.9 Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987.
“I was most influenced by working with the homeless,” Morris continued in a subsequent phone conversation. “I wasn’t an angry person when I left the order. I think the sisters are great. I was just called to a different lifestyle and Jeff became part of that.”
She met the dashing Dietrich in 1972 at a time when he was a hippie, feeding homeless people out of a furnished milk truck.
After hitchhiking across the US and Europe to evade the hot breath of his draft board, Dietrich, the son of a real estate developer who grew up Catholic in Fullerton, had discovered a community of Catholic Workers in Pasadena. It was headed by Dan Delaney, a former Los Angeles diocesan priest, and his wife, Chris, a former nun. The Delaneys worked on Skid Row. When they left for Sacramento, Dietrich took over as an LACW leader, becoming part of a Christian anarchist movement co-founded in 1933 by French Catholic social activist, theologian and De La Salle brother Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, a pacifist and former bohemian writer in New York. Day is now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.
After consulting with her superior at Holy Child, Morris had also joined LACW and began working with Dietrich. He impressed her with his can-do ethic at the Hippie Kitchen. “He did everything,” she said. “He cooked and was one of the organizers and he wrote for The Catholic Agitator, which is now 49 years old,” she added, referring to the LACW newspaper. “He was just a very attractive personality and an attractive person to work with. I fell for him,” Morris added with a laugh.
But when Dietrich proposed in 1974, Morris at first hesitated, telling him she was still a bride of Christ and too old for him at age 39. Dietrich, then 27, persisted.
The two iconoclasts were wed on Feb. 19, 1974 and now live in a 15-bedroom Victorian mansion in Boyle Heights donated by a neighbor. It’s shared by about 18 other people, among them Catholic Workers and homeless guests. Morris, Dietrich and the other Catholic Workers subsist solely on donations, many from Catholic parishes, and earn a “stipend” of $25 a week. Once a year, at Christmas, they publish a fundraising appeal in The Catholic Agitator.
“It has worked out pretty good,” Morris said of her 45-year marriage which has included time away from the Hippie Kitchen for demonstrating with Dietrich against wars in Iraq and Central America and against nuclear weapons. The couple reportedly has been arrested at least 40 times. A year before her marriage, Morris spent two weeks in jail with Dorothy Day, the aforementioned candidate for canonization, after both were busted supporting a United Farm Workers strike led by Cesar Chavez outside the Fresno fields.
Dietrich, semi-retired at 72 and hospitalized in January with a urinary tract infection that spread, was not available for comment. But he sent word about his feelings for his wife shortly before Valentine’s Day, stating: “I love her, I adore her and I couldn’t live without her.” The Catholic Agitator dedicated its February issue to Dietrich, who has written two books.
Morris, meanwhile, soldiers on with a crew of a dozen CW volunteers mostly from Los Angeles and Orange counties who prepare about 3,000 meals each week at the Hippie Kitchen’s outdoor dining area on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, starting around 9:30 a.m. On Fridays, they also offer homeless supportive services like dental and foot care clinics along with legal referrals and shopping carts to push their belongings from place to place.
The downtrodden that they serve have been rousted by street sweepers from the Los Angeles Sanitation Department and sometimes arrested by LAPD cops who reportedly continue to confiscate their carts despite a 2016 injunction against the practice issued by a judge who said homeless people needed the carts to survive on the streets.
“They get arrested for owning stolen property inside the shopping cart even though they’re pushing it,” said Jerry Jones, director of public policy at the Urban Law Center in Los Angeles, which got its start in a construction trailer at the Hippie Kitchen’s garden years ago.
Jones said there’s currently a network of more than a dozen providers dealing with the homeless crisis on Skid Row, many of them faith-based, “but ultimately what they need is affordable housing.”
Morris noted that the religiously inspired LACW soup kitchen has the distinction of not proselytizing to clients. “We’re not out to save souls. We want to be friends,” she said. “Yesterday, we had a giant downpour. We were giving out ponchos to everybody. We try to make their lives a little less harsh. We don’t think they need to be preached at.” She made it plain that the Los Angeles Archdiocese has no involvement with the “independent” Los Angeles Catholic Worker movement and its houses of hospitality.
In 1998, Morris and Dietrich clashed with then Los Angeles Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony. They joined a group of protesters opposed to the archdiocese’s new $20 million Our Lady of Angels Cathedral and reportedly climbed a fence to stop a groundbreaking ceremony presided over by Mahony, shouting “No new Cathedral! Spend God’s money on God’s poor!” according to accounts in the Los Angeles Times.
A 31-year-old Catholic Worker named Kaleb Havens undertook a similarly bold action last year when he chained himself to a fence outside a Skid Row building that once housed a Salvation Army shelter and commenced a lengthy Lenten hunger strike starting on Ash Wednesday, demanding that the city of LA provide more housing and supportive services for the homeless.
“It was his idea,” Morris said of Havens. “We supported him.”
Archbishop Jose Horatio Gomez, Mahony’s successor, acknowledged a meeting in June 2018 with members of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, according to a statement released by the archdiocese. In it, Gomez was described as having “deep respect for the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, the Servant of God Dorothy Day. He has written and spoken often about her importance.”
The statement, however, noted that the archdiocese’s work for the “vulnerable and those in need” is carried out through its parishes and through “official” agencies such as Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent De Paul Society.
The Rev. Andy Bales, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, is the largest faith provider on Skid Row, with headquarters in a $29 million building. He called Morris a “shining light of compassion” for homeless people, noting she shows up every year to mark National Homeless Memorial Day on Dec. 21 to pay tribute to those who died “and she prays and tells personal stories about them.”
But Bales, who lives in Pasadena, also recalls Morris, Dietrich and their supporters storming a 2010 press conference by police who were announcing an injunction to ban drug dealers from Skid Row.
“They had a megaphone and were shouting me down and they had big pictures shaming the police,” he said. “I think their love and compassion overwhelms any judgment of a sense of order. They see good in all people whether they’re drug dealers or an abandoned soul. They don’t judge anyone.”
Morris declined to comment on Bales’ remarks. She acknowledged that there have been incidents at the Hippie Kitchen involving potentially violent people, but insists that the behavior in the garden is “admirable.”
“Occasionally we have disputes that could go to ugliness, but we’re all trained in non-violence and forever watching to see if there might be a problem. And we’ve stepped in to take care of it,” Morris said.
She added: “We never called the police. We don’t do it because we’ve seen that things get worse when you call the police.”
So it goes with a woman of faith who knows who she is and what she believes in. “I no longer believe in a God who walks the Earth,” she said, adding, however, that she does believe in God as manifested by Jesus, “who told us to serve and to do what we can to help the poor.” n