Peter Maurin's 'Green Revolution' is a longstanding reality for some Midwesterners
Throughout the country, 25 Catholic Worker communities are currently known to be involved in farming or agriculture.
MALOY, Iowa — Peter Maurin’s vision for the Catholic Worker Movement — which he founded in 1933 with Dorothy Day — included farms that he called agronomic universities.
Those early efforts were mainly unsuccessful, and instead the volunteer movement leaned more towards live-in hospitality homes in urban areas which serve people experiencing homelessness.
But a network of these type of farms exist in rural areas today, some of which have been around for more than 30 years. According to the website CatholicWorker.org , there has been a recent resurgence of Catholic Worker farms.
Catholic Worker communities operate autonomously so the exact number is uncertain, but the site directory lists 25 communities that are currently involved in farming or agriculture in some way.
Strangers and Guests
Brian Terrell is a longtime Catholic Worker and peace activist who lived and worked with Dorothy Day in New York in the last years of her life. He lives on a Catholic Worker farm in Maloy, Iowa, called Strangers and Guests with his wife, Betsy.
The two met in 1977 when she was living at a Catholic Worker Farm in upstate New York and Brian was at the Catholic Worker hospitality house on the lower east side of New York City.
They moved to Iowa in 1979 and worked at a Catholic Worker hospitality house in Davenport. In 1986, they moved with another family onto small acreage in Ringgold County, along the Platte River, where the population was 22 at the time of the 2020 census. With the goal being to live and work as a small Christian community.
Strangers and Guests is also the name of a publication signed by Catholic bishops from 11 Midwestern and Plains states. That publication issued a regional statement on land issues called “Strangers and Guests: Toward Community in the Heartland.”
Terrell said the letter, which is known to have inspired the Land Stewardship Project — along with their farm, are referring to passages from the book of Leviticus.
"The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, because the land is Mine; for you are only strangers and residents with Me." Leviticus 25:23 (New American Standard Bible version)
"This is not yours to buy and sell, and this is not a commodity," said Terrell. "So even though we did buy this little bit of land, we try to live on it as strangers and guests."
Terrell dedicates most of his time now to peace activism. He spent more than six months in federal prison for protesting targeted assassinations at U.S. military drone bases.
"I've been all over the world," he said on the phone from his home on Jan. 30. "In the last few years I've been to Afghanistan many times, and have made several trips to Europe recently to protest our nuclear bases there. I need to go again, in August."
But he still keeps up with the Catholic Worker movement, and is in contact with a handful of sites along with helping run their own. He said the reason for an uptick in Catholic Worker farms might have something to do with couples wanting to raise children in the movement, but would rather do so in a rural area than in an urban hospitality setting.
Peter Maurin's back-to-the-land movement didn't catch on immediately because Terrell said it can be "really elusive" until people try or see it for themselves.
"The hospitality idea is just really immediate — when people are hungry, you feed them. People need a place to stay, you make room for them in your house," said Terrell, who is Catholic. "But the farm idea, with craft and raising food, and building like a new society out of the shell of the old, it's really aimed at making the kind of the fundamental changes that have to be made."
Terrell said it was common for CWFs to serve as "adjuncts" to hospitality houses in larger cities, and were more like urban gardens, which didn't have the capacity to grow enough food to serve the population it was in.
"Very few urban houses had gardens, and that was even a controversial thing," he said. "You can get more food out of a dumpster than you can out of a garden sometimes."
When they started Strangers and Guests on the wings of the farm crisis, he said it was met with some confusion and criticism.
"When we first came here, people were saying, we're 100 miles from any real urban area, and 30 miles from the nearest stoplight, so what kind of soup line can you have on the edge of a town with 26 people?"
Some suggested at the time they shouldn't even call themselves Catholic Workers, which they disproved by living out the plan successfully in a community created by them. Brian and Betsy's living comes from weaving and they also raise dairy goats, chickens and produce.
"The Catholic Worker movement was intended to be a back to the land movement basically, with the presence of the city, and that got twisted around somehow," he said. "And I think we're really returning to something, and I think it's a healthy move that I'm excited about for the future, the movement being more of a rural one."
Living out the Gospel
About 350 miles from Strangers and Guests is a more recently formed Catholic Worker Farm, ran by Paul and Sara Freid in Lake City, Minnesota.
"I'm really impressed by what's going on there," said Terrell of the Lake City farm which started in 2007.
Betsy Terrell brought a loom to the site a couple of years ago, spending a few days there to get it set up and then help the family and guests get the hang of it.
Paul and Sara came into the Catholic Worker movement through a service trip during college, which was a peace vigil at the White House and Pentagon.
"We both individually were impressed with how authentically people were living out the Gospel, and I think a lot of people can resonate with that," Freid said. "If you're going to speak something, you need to be living that out, and the words and actions need to match."
Shortly after they married they were living in St. Paul and volunteering at the Dorothy Day Center, when there was an opening for live-in volunteers at the Winona Catholic Worker, which provides overnight hospitality to women and families at the Dan Corcoran House and overnight hospitality to men at the Bethany House.
"They were going to close unless somebody moved in, and they said we think that you guys should move in, and we said, we'll think about that," she said. "So we thought about it, and prayed about it, and then on our one-year wedding anniversary, we moved into the Winona Catholic Worker."
As live-in volunteers, they were responsible for the operation and upkeep of the hospitality houses, and share the house with people experiencing homelessness.
In search of a deeper connection with the land, the couple left Winona in 2007 and returned to Lake City where Sara grew up. They purchased a 52-acre farm, now the Lake City Catholic Worker Farm.
"Farms were always part of that movement, they just never really took off," said Sara Freid in their deep winter greenhouse on a January morning the day after a major snow storm moved through, as her daughters played with sleds and a couple kittens outside their home where they often host guests.
She said a reason they were selected for a grant through a University of Minnesota Extension to build one of five winter greenhouse prototypes across the state was because of their Catholic Worker structure, where people are often coming and going from the operation.
"A couple of the aspects of what they were looking for was a place where you're comfortable having visitors," Freid said of the project. "We were like oh yeah, that's a no-brainer, we have visitors all the time — we are a community farm, and people are stopping by, from interns that live with us during the summer and people who live with us who just need a place to stay."
On the other side of the greenhouse is a commercial kitchen where Lake City Catholic Worker Farm produces its own kombucha under the label John the Baptist Beverage Company . They raise their own vegetables, fruits and nuts, along with chickens, goats and pigs. They're always open to having help, she said.
"We've had nobody at times, up to a family of five that have stayed with us," she said.
She said that both Paul and her have off-farm jobs to support their operation.
"Catholic Worker houses typically run on donations, but our farm doesn't run on donations," she said. "But we're trying to get to the point where our farm supports what we're doing out here."
For people looking to join the movement or learn how to farm or craft, Terrell said they will always have space. He said they've had visitors in the past just looking to learn how to raise goats before they went out on their own.
"We really want that," said Terrell. "We've had people coming and going all the time, but kind of slow over the COVID time, but we've had several people stay for up to a year or two years. We really wish we could build community."
Guests are still turning out to the isolated farm in Maloy, where Terrell said an upcoming retreat will include lessons on how to weave baskets, make candles, carve wood and more.