In 1965, Nicole d’Entremont, a not-quite college graduate, was one of the young volunteers working at the New York Catholic Worker—St. Joseph’s House—on Chrystie Street, a short walk from the Bowery in lower Manhattan. These days the area is fashionable and the rent high, but in 1965, a two-room, cold-water flat could be rented, along with its cockroaches, for as little as $25 a month. For New Yorkers at the time, the Bowery conjured up images of homeless, alcoholic men panhandling in the day and sleeping in doorways at night. When an ambulance was summoned to aid one of the unwashed men who had collapsed on the street, it could easily take half an hour before it arrived. Dying men in that neighborhood were not a priority.
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In a mainly unwelcoming world, one of the few places street people could find a meal and a measure of care was St. Joseph’s House. It was probably the only place in town that provided decent food and a welcome with no strings attached, no sermons to hear, no biblical readings to endure, and no program to submit to.
The year 1965 was also when things were rapidly going from bad to worse in Vietnam—bombs falling like rain, thatched huts in peasant villages set on fire with Zippo lighters, bewildered U.S. army conscripts as much victims as executioners. Among the war’s casualties was one of the newer members of the Catholic Worker community—Roger LaPorte, 22 years old. Before dawn on Nov. 9, while standing between the U.S. Embassy to the United Nations and the U.N. headquarters, he poured gasoline on himself and struck a match, exploding instantly into flame. Rushed to Bellevue Hospital, his body 95 percent burned, LaPorte lived more than a day, managing to say that this was a religious act (that is to say, not an act of despair) and that he was “against war, against all wars.” He lived long enough for a priest to hear his confession.
D’Entremont was one of those at the Catholic Worker who was closest to LaPorte. She and a friend had been with him the evening before his self-immolation, unaware of what he was thinking about doing. She was vaguely aware of something LaPorte couldn’t—or dared not—put into words, but that hung unspoken in the air. Now 45 years have passed, nearly half a century of trying to understand what she lived through—and not only herself but LaPorte, Dorothy Day, and the others who were part of the community, young and old, novices and veterans, articulate and inarticulate.
The result is City of Belief, a remarkable novel in which d’Entremont herself is simply one of the people through whom the reader experiences life at the Catholic Worker in 1965. Some names are unchanged (Dorothy Day is one), others altered. D’Entremont has become Del, LaPorte has become Jonathan, St. Joseph’s House has become St. Jude’s, the community journal The Catholic Worker has become The Agitator.
City of Belief is also a portrait of a time when, for an amazing number of people, the goal of life was much more than making a living, being comfortable, and having security. It is startling to recall the sacrifices many made at the time in their struggle to end the war and create a more compassionate society.
While City of Belief has elements of autobiography, it is mainly a work of art. D’Entremont records events not only as she saw them but through the eyes of others, seeing herself with amazing clarity and detachment. Her book also describes in a compelling way her struggle with faith and doubt.
LaPorte’s self-immolation happened at 5:20 in the morning. Twelve hours later, D’Entremont writes, the lights of New York and most of the Eastern Seaboard went out. For nearly 12 hours, New York became a moonlit paradise. The crime rate plummeted; the good-deed rate soared. New Yorkers had no idea how talented they were in finding ways to help each other. It was a night of love in all its varieties. Nine months later, there was a tidal wave of births.
Was there a connection between what happened after sunset and before sunrise? City of Belief suggests the answer is yes.
Jim Forest lives in Alkmaar, Holland, and is co-secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.