Bella Dodd: From Communist to Catholic
How was it that a little Catholic girl – born in Italy – became one of the most powerful figures of the American Communist Party at the height of its power during the late 1930’s and 1940’s? The story of Maria Assunta Isabella Visono’s journey from a poor southern Italian village to the intrigues of Soviet Communist penetration of America is fascinating and frightening. It should be better known than it is.
Maria Assunta’s mother, Teresa, lived in Potenza on a farm that had been in her family for generations. She was a young widow and mother of nine children when she met Rocco, from Lugano, who fell in love with her. Rocco wanted to marry and move to America, but Teresa loved her farm and was reluctant to leave the land. Eventually she agreed to allow Rocco to take her older children with him to New York, establish a home, and she would follow soon with the younger ones. This she did, and Teresa and Rocco were married in the church of Saint Lucy in East Harlem in 1904. Problems with the caretakers of her farm took her back to Italy; it was only on the voyage there that Teresa realized that she was soon to be a mother for the tenth time.
From Italy to America
Because her business in Potenza took longer than expected, her new little daughter was born on Italian soil. Under these unusual circumstances, little Maria Assunta Isabella entered the world. Teresa returned to New York soon after, leaving the baby in the care of foster parents, Taddeo and “Mamarella,” simple country folk who loved her as their own. Teresa had planned to return for her daughter within a year, but, because economic depression in America made it difficult to raise money for the journey, that time stretched into more than five years. Little Maria Assunta was almost six years old when she met her father and sister and brothers for the first time; she spoke no English and missed her foster parents terribly. It was her sister Caterina, Americanized to “Katie,” who dubbed the child “Bella” because she disliked her first names. Thus began the slow process of the Americanization (hand-in-hand with the de-Catholicization) of the little girl.
From the beginning Bella loved school; she had a quick mind and soon was proficient enough in her new language that she became a class leader. She gradually lost the memory of her shepherd foster father and her loving “mamarella” and soaked up her new surroundings. She loved the excitement of the big city. Her mother, on the other hand, longed to get out of the noisy, dirty city and the cramped apartment. At Teresa’s urging, they found a large house surrounded by many acres in Westchester County where she cared for the two aged maiden sisters who owned the place. When the sisters died, the family moved into the house. Teresa at last had her farm; Rocco owned a successful grocery business, and the family was happy.
The Visonos considered themselves Catholic, but the two nearby Catholic churches of Westchester were attended by Irish and German Catholics. They didn’t seem to fit in with their “Italianness.” So, gradually, as they became less Italian, they also became less Catholic. Bella was not schooled in her faith, but she always knew that there was something missing in her life. As she grew, her mind sought out spiritual fulfillment in the local ladies’ circle of the Episcopal Church community, attending book studies and Bible readings there, singing hymns, but always refusing to attend services because she was a Catholic. She was an avid reader, and reveled in the local public libraries.
Just as Bella was preparing to enter high school in 1916, she had a horrible accident, which scarred her forever and delayed her much-anticipated entry into high school. She was returning home on the trolley and signaled the motorman to stop. As she stepped off the vehicle, she was flung into the street and her left foot became caught under the wheel of the trolley. Her father arrived, carried her to the doctor’s office and she was promptly brought to the local hospital where her mangled foot was removed. Sadly, Bella spent an agonizing year in the hospital undergoing five surgeries, all of them botched and slow to heal. Finally, her mother brought her home to recuperate. While her wounds slowly healed, Bella read everything her mother brought her from the local library. In that awful year, she lost her beloved sister Katie to the world-wide influenza epidemic. It was truly a sad time for the Visono family.
The Formative Years
The following year found Bella well enough to enroll in the local public high school. Although her body was handicapped, her will was undaunted. On crutches, she walked the ten blocks to her school and forced herself to participate in school activities. The addition of an appliance, though awkward, allowed her to discard the crutches and even participate in hikes as a member of the Naturalists’ Club. She excelled in academics, particularly English and the sciences, and won many awards, her most cherished was being selected at graduation the most popular girl in the class. She had already developed an interest in politics, and it was in high school, with its mix of students of all religions, ethnic backgrounds and races that Bella was first exposed to a new take on social issues when she read the Socialist newspaper, The Call, brought to school by a classmate from the East Bronx.
With the scholarship money that she won, Bella chose to attend Hunter College for Women in New York City. At that time, Hunter was beginning to undergo a change from a genteel ladies’ finishing school to a teacher preparation college. Influenced by her favorite teacher, one Miss Sarah Parks, a free-spirited young woman who had the audacity to ride to school on a bicycle, Bella got caught up in this new attitude of freedom. Hatless, her long hair flying in the wind, Sarah scandalized the older, staid faculty members and delighted the girls. She was a “new woman” – a freethinker, who spurred the students to look into the social problems of the day and to think for themselves.
Since Bella had never had a real grounding in moral teachings, she drifted from group to group, finally settling in with a group of girls who were highly intellectual and concerned with social problems. She became best friends with Ruth Goldstein, whose home was Old Testament Orthodox Jewish. Ruth, however, was more interested in the problems of the “proletariat.” Together, they became a part of an amorphous group who fell for the new thinking. Here are her own words: “…we developed a sort of intellectual proletariat of our own. We discussed revolution, sex, philosophy, religion, unguided by any standard of right and wrong. We talked of a future ‘unity of forces of the mind’ a ‘new tradition,’ a ‘new world,’ which we were going to help build out of the present selfish one.” The young intellectuals drifted into agnosticism, many into atheism.
It is interesting to note that at many stages throughout her life, Bella did flirt with traditional spirituality. She loved Mrs. Goldstein’s observance of the Jewish High Holy Days for the beauty of the Old Testament readings and the touching singing and ceremonies; and during her year in the Catholic hospital she had longed to discuss Catholic dogma with a priest or sister but she never did. By her second year at Hunter, Bella was a committed believer – in science, evolution and intellectual achievement. Spiritual beliefs were not provable by science, therefore not worthy of consideration. Hers was a group of eager young people ready to transform the world; yet they had no true values of their own, no moral compass with which to guide them. They were ripe to accept Marxist theory.
The Future Arrives
In June of 1924, Bella graduated from Hunter with honors. She had given little thought to her future, but knew that she wanted to function with as little handicap as possible. To that end she visited Saint Francis Hospital in New York City to inquire after their finest surgeon. She then called upon Dr. Edgerton who promised to undo the damage that the botched surgeries had done and fit her with a proper prosthesis. Bella had no money, but the doctor believed her promise to pay him over time, and the deed was done. Reflecting back upon the time spent in the Catholic hospital, she regretted that no sister or nurse approached her about the Faith. “Perhaps I might have responded,” she wrote.
True to Dr. Edgerton’s promise, Bella was walking well within six weeks after the surgery. Soon she was teaching history in a local high school. It was in teaching that she found her calling. After one semester in the high school, Bella was offered a position at Hunter College in the political science department. She accepted and began her college teaching career in February of 1926. More and more young women were entering higher education at this time; as a result, classes were large and schedules full. Many of the teachers were “freethinkers” who passed on their philosophies to their students. Bella also began graduate studies at Columbia University, one of the hotbeds of liberal thinking. This step only made her more critical of the role that her country played in international politics.
In later years, after she left the Communist Party, Bella concluded that “Communists usurp the position of the left, but when one examines them in light of what they really stand for, one sees them as the rankest kind of reactionaries and Communism as the most reactionary backward leap in the long history of social movements. It is one which seems to obliterate in one revolutionary wave two thousand years of man’s progress.”
In 1927, Bella received her Master’s degree from Columbia. She then enrolled in New York University Law School while she continued teaching at Hunter. When her former undergraduate idol and colleague Sarah Parks committed suicide in 1928, Bella was thrown into an emotional tailspin. She did not yet realize that she herself was on the same, albeit slower, path to self-destruction, always seeking a moral core, finding it only in steeping herself in futile attempts to serve the masses and right the wrongs she saw in society. A trip to Europe with friends showed her the terrible unrest and fear gripping Italy as a result of fascism. The same fear was palpable in Austria and Germany although they were not yet in the clutches of fascist governments. She was shocked at the blatant immorality and open decadence she saw in Germany. Perhaps it is telling that she made a special side trip to Dresden to view the Sistine Madonna, her happiest time in that country. It was also on this European trip that she met her future husband, John Dodd.
Economic Depression, Lawyering and Marriage
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Bella’s family was not affected immediately. She was able to leave her post at Hunter College to take a law clerk position with a prestigious firm in New York City in preparation for the bar exams. In 1930, her close associate John Dodd, ten years her senior, asked her to marry him. He, too, was a freethinker, but very different from Bella. He was a Southerner, from Georgia, and an engineer. In any case, they shared a great love for their country, and Dodd helped her overcome certain problems in her political outlook. It was through his eyes that she saw how the liberal Northern press presented a “twisted picture” of his part of these United States, which had great reservoirs of strength, based not on material wealth but upon the integrity of its people. They married in a civil ceremony in the county clerk’s office in New York City.
By 1932, both John Dodd and Bella’s family had felt the furious impact of the Depression. Because of this she returned to her post at Hunter College. It was at this time, when she could see that teachers were expected to work for very little pay and no benefits, that she became active in organizing the college faculty to seek fairness for teachers in the political sphere. Thus was born the Hunter College Instructors Association, the first grass roots teachers association in the country and the precursor of the later, more politically powerful teachers unions.
In 1933, the government of the United States officially recognized the Soviet Union. This was the impetus for the many young Communists on campuses to “come out of the woodwork” and speak and act openly. \At Hunter, the respectability that recognition brought completely changed the complexion of student activity and organization on campus. Overnight such groups as the Friends of the Soviet Union, the Young Communist League, and the League of Industrial Democracy arose. It was obvious to Bella that these organizations were not springing up spontaneously, that some greater force was behind them.
Because she was the brains behind the original Instructors Association, Bella found herself being courted by Communist Party functionaries who appreciated her organizational ability, knowledge and intelligence. Of course, she only became aware of their Communist affiliation later. By the time she realized this, she was already entrapped in their web. Like all lower level Party members and sympathizers, Bella became valuable because it was deemed that she could serve the cause. In the bigger picture, the “masses” were ripe for entrapment because of the hard economic times. In preparing a country for the Revolution, the Communist Party tries to enlist the masses, especially those who are unattached and disaffected.
Bella did not become a Communist overnight. Her primary goals were to help the teachers achieve proper salary and benefits and to help the “little people” – the forgotten man of the city who lived on the verge of destitution. She was not interested in the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” nor was she aware that they were all expendable chess pieces in the huge and dangerous game being orchestrated by Moscow.
Because of her expertise in organizing the unions, Bella was chosen Legislative Representative of the American Federation of Labor to the New York Legislature. This move made her all the more valuable to the Party. She became known in Albany and Washington as a force to be reckoned with. From there she moved up the ranks lobbying not only for the teachers, but for seamen, the unemployed, any group deemed “downtrodden.” The Communist Party became more and more powerful in the New York teachers unions as well as in the American Federation of Labor itself.
The Spanish Civil War
Intellectuals of America during the tragic Civil War in Spain were in full support of the so-called Loyalists, who were in reality socialists and Communists. Because the Party had taken the stance as the main enemy of fascism, this emotional appeal attracted many Americans to the cause of the leftists in Spain. The Communists used this emotion in rallying anti-Catholic feeling in this country, calling those who supported the Church and the nationalists in Spain reactionaries, fascists, against freedom and indifferent to the poor. Anticlericalism was rampant. This was a common Communist tactic, particularly with the Catholic Irish, Polish and Italians – to drive a wedge between the people and their priests.
The truth of the matter here is that Communist Russia wanted the United States to come into line with its own foreign policy regarding Spain. To this effect, the International Brigade was set up with the intention of sending foreign soldiers to fight for the Loyalist (Communist) side. Many thousands of dollars were raised in the midst of depression for arms and materiel for the American Lincoln Brigade and to send supply ships to help the “Spanish poor.” Most of these ships were diverted to Russia. Bella herself was active in recruiting her fellow teachers to join the Lincoln Brigade, many of whom did not return from that horrible war. Even in our own time, the Lincoln Brigade is eulogized. Many Americans still do not realize that the victory of the nationalists in the Spanish Civil war was a victory of the Spanish people over the Soviet Union’s plans to communize that nation.
Complete Dedication to the Party
Because she began to spend so much time working for the Unions between 1936 and 1938, Bella devoted less and less time to her teaching duties at Hunter. Not a meeting of a learned society or an educational group happened without members of the Party present and ready to present the Marxist ideology. The object was to get Communists in key positions in the major teachers unions all over the country. Bella was at the forefront of this activity. As a consequence of her Party activity, she decided to resign her teaching position. She gave no thought to her future security; her reason for living was the work of the Party. She took a huge cut in pay and settled for a salary of sixty dollars a week, which she accepted during the eight years she worked for the Party. This constant whirlwind of activity put a terrible strain on her marriage.
During this time her father had a stroke. Amazingly, her husband, who had always been very hostile to Catholicism, had called a priest and arranged for him to have the sacraments before he died. Bella held the funeral at a Catholic Church and the burial was in a Catholic cemetery. Shortly after that, John told Bella that he would seek a divorce. Bella and her mother took a small apartment in New York City where she could be close to her Party activity.
At this time — in 1939 and early 1940s — Communists were infiltrating all unions in the United States. The American Party higher-ups were taking orders directly from Stalin and the bosses in Moscow. With war in Europe on the horizon, the Communists did all they could to criticize Hitler and fascism in Germany. However, when the Soviet-Nazi pact was signed in 1939, it took the American Reds by surprise and caused a rift in the Party. The Party was now officially anti-war. Many Jewish members became alarmed and frightened by this alliance and quit their membership. There was much infighting between various factions of leftists, which, consequently, weakened the Party’s appeal. Then abruptly, on orders from Moscow, they were again pro-war and told to lobby for America’s entry into the war against Hitler. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, American Communists rejoiced because they knew that now the United States had to enter the war on the side of the Soviets. This signaled to them that the Soviet Union would have at its disposal the armed might of America.
Bella was deeply committed to Communism by this time, although, ironically, she had not yet become officially a member of the Party. She and her labor committee even met with Eleanor Roosevelt to enlist her help in securing the release of some union leaders who had been convicted of industrial sabotage. Mrs. Roosevelt was sympathetic to the Communist’s appeal, saying that she believed that Communists should be permitted to be members of unions, but not leaders. In her autobiography, written in 1954, Bella expressed the hope that Mrs. Roosevelt had eventually learned that there could be no meeting with the Communists half way – that “co-existence is not possible.”
A Lonely Life
When her mother, Teresa Visono, died in her arms in 1941, Bella was left completely alone in the world. She took a tiny apartment near the Hudson River in New York and immersed herself even more in the work of the Party, the only family that she had now. Because her organizational ability was so astute, Bella was put in charge of sending groups of young Communists into minority neighborhoods in New York – Black, Puerto Rican, poor Irish, poor Jews and other recent immigrants – to rev up the discontent of the disaffected and to enlist their support for Communist and left-wing candidates for local, state and national elections. The extent of Communist influence at the local level in the city was astounding, with many elective posts filled by Marxists or their sympathizers.
Even at the state level, Communists had great influence, Bella included, because of her work with the teachers unions. At the national level, they canvassed neighborhoods to get out the vote for FDR.
There was new thinking on the national level now. Roosevelt had pledged mutual co-existence and continued postwar Soviet-American unity. If that pledge were kept, then America could be developed into a full-fledged socialist nation without a militant class struggle. In other words, Communist control of America would be done peacefully from within – not a shot need be fired.
When Bella was finally told that it was time for her to publicly declare her Communist affiliation, it was 1944, and it was done with great fanfare at the Party convention. She immediately became the head of the Garibaldi Branch of the Party on 116th Street in East Harlem, an Italian neighborhood that contained a smattering of Puerto Ricans, West Indians, and other minorities. She loved being close to the little people and, in her naïve and still idealistic way, she still believed that Communism was a way to help them out of their poverty.
Earl Browder, the most powerful Communist in the American Party, had always worked for unity among diverse national groups within the Party – on instructions from Moscow, of course. Now, a reversal came about – on instructions from Moscow, not to Browder, but to a newly favored group – that Browder’s thinking was wrong. National differences were to be favored. Browder was expendable and ousted; a new group was taking over. Suddenly, Browder’s former friends turned on him and spoke ill of his direction of the Party. Bella began to realize that everyone at some point could be shunned by the Party and dumped in disgrace without even being told what was happening or why. In Bella’s words: “Close friends of many years’ standing became deadly enemies overnight.”
It took Bella quite a while to realize and then accept that the turnaround in attitude of the new Party higher-ups was not merely a local phenomenon, but was dictated by Moscow. Conditioning had been so thorough that for her “the last illusion to die was the illusion about the Soviet Union.” Communists worldwide considered Russia the great workers’ paradise. In 1946, the National Board of the Party expelled Earl Browder in disgrace. Several other high profile members, friends of Bella’s were also expelled for the slightest criticism or deviation from policy – a policy which shifted in the wind.
Bella could detect a stealth campaign being conducted against her, since she was outspoken against the mistreatment of Browder and others who had been loyal. Several times she was accused of “white chauvinism,” apparently a terrible crime by Party standards. Of all things, this was one “crime” of which she was not guilty; she was the only Party official who lived and worked in Harlem with poor people of all races! When she tried to quit the Party, she was told “No one gets out of the Party. You die or you are thrown out.” By the end of 1947, Bella knew that her former colleagues were out to destroy her; she had seen it happen to others. Her office was under constant surveillance; her every move was watched. All the while she saw more clearly how the Party used people – rich and poor, black and white – only for what they could get out of them. Several of her acquaintances committed suicide. Bella had her doubts that those deaths were actually self-inflicted. Others she knew were murdered.
Twice she was called before boards for questioning. Finally, on June 17, 1949, she was formally expelled on the grounds that she was “anti-Negro, anti-Puerto Rican, anti-Semitic, and anti-labor.” Both the New York Times and the Communist Daily Worker carried the story of her expulsion. Bella was desolate, not because of her expulsion, but because all of her friends dared not approach her. As she expected, former friends and associates began to harass her. Her law practice was almost destroyed. She spent an awful year during which her only comfort was to read the New Testament, which she had never ceased to do in the long years she was a Communist. She thought of leaving New York and starting over some place where she was not known. But she was a stubborn woman, a born fighter, and something in her core told her she had to fight it out there.
Indictment of Communism
In 1950, Bella was called before the Tydings Committee of the United States Senate to testify as to whether or not she knew Owen Lattimore, who had been accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being a Soviet agent within the American government. She had not known Lattimore and as far as she knew, he was not a member of the American Communist Party. She stated those facts; however, as she thought about the duplicity of the Party and how it had deceived her and thousands of others, she found herself revealing those facts as well. It was the first time that she had spoken out publicly against the Party. She began to see how the Russians had used the Spanish Civil War as a preview of the Red Revolution to come in western countries; she thought of the Koreans killing each other in the name of Communism and the Americans dying in the cause; she saw how the godless Communists used well-meaning Americans against their own country.
Seeing the Truth Again
There are no co-incidences with God. On a cool crisp day in the fall of 1950, an immigration appeal case took Bella to Washington, D.C. As she walked along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the House Office Building at the Capitol, she ran into an old friend from the East Bronx neighborhood of her childhood. Christopher McGrath was now a congressional representative of the Twenty-seventh District. He invited her to his office to talk of old times. He could see that she was clearly distressed and frightened and asked her if she wanted FBI protection. When she refused, he said he would pray for her safety. Then he asked, “Bella, would you like to see a priest?” He had caught her off guard, but she fervently answered, “Yes, I would.” On the spot, the Congressman’s secretary made calls and secured an appointment with Monsignor Fulton Sheen of Catholic University.
Bella saw Monsignor Sheen for the first time at his home that evening in suburban Washington. As Christopher drove her there, she thought of the many lies and canards she had let go by – even told herself – against her Church when she worked for the Communists. She was genuinely fearful of meeting the monsignor. She need not have worried, for the good priest listened as she sobbed to him, “They say that I am against the Negro,” the accusation that hurt her most. He took her into his private chapel and they knelt before a statue of Our Lady. Bella felt the battle within cease and peace took its place. He then gave her a Rosary and told her to see him on his visit to New York in the winter. Now she realized that the Communist promise of the “brotherhood of man” was impossible without the Fatherhood of God.
Return to the Church
As Christmas approached, she again felt a horrible loneliness. Poor friends, whom Bella had provided lodging in her own home years before, invited her to their coldwater walkup in Harlem for a Christmas Eve dinner. They had a simple meal and afterward read from the Psalms. When Bella boarded the bus to return to her apartment, she was so immersed in her thoughts that she passed her stop and rode many blocks farther. She got off at Thirty-Fourth Street, although she had no recollection of it. She walked and walked to the West Side until she found herself in a church, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Midnight Christmas High Mass was in progress. Here she found the true brotherhood of man. So moved was she by the beautiful Mass and the devotion of the people, that she again walked the streets of New Manhattan for hours, thinking and praying, before she returned to her apartment. She felt that she had been guided by the Star of Christmas that night.
Seemingly by chance, she met Mary Riley, a former teacher whom Bella knew and who now worked at the Board of Education. Mary was a committed and active Catholic who knew what Bella had been through. They spoke of the Faith, and Mary sent her a packet of books about Catholic programs, which were actively helping the disadvantaged. One of these books was Father James Keller’s You Can Change the World. He had written, “There can be no social regeneration without personal regeneration.” She was introduced to Father Keller and began to work at the headquarters of the group he had founded, The Christophers. How these Catholics impressed Bella with their simple devotion to their work of helping others and their deep commitment to their Catholic Faith!
Bella began to attend daily Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. She read Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other classics of Catholic writers and thinkers. She purchased and studied prayer books and other books on the Faith. Then she began to receive regular instructions from Bishop Sheen himself. “I saw how history and fact and logic were inherent in the foundations of the Christian faith,” she states in her autobiography, School of Darkness.
As Easter of 1952 approached, the Bishop said that she was ready to be received into the Church. Since no baptismal record could be located in the little Italian town of her birth, Bishop Sheen conditionally baptized her in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. She then confessed and received Our Lord from Bishop Sheen’s hands the next morning at Mass. “It was as if I had been ill for a long time and had awakened refreshed after the fever had gone,” she wrote.
The Ordeal Ahead
The year 1953 saw Bella called up by a Congressional committee investigating the infiltration of Communists in the high places of the United States government. Her newfound faith strengthened her to face this ordeal with courage and determination. She swore before the Senate Internal Security subcommittee that there were a number of Communists in legislative offices in Congress and in a number of groups advising the President of the United States. She also testified to the Communist takeover of labor unions in the country and of her personal experience securing posts for members of the Party in the unions.
Perhaps most frightening of all was her testimony that during her time in the Party, “more than eleven hundred men had been put into the priesthood to destroy the Church from within,” the idea here being that these men would be ordained to the priesthood and progress to positions of influence and authority as monsignors and even bishops. She stated that “right now they are in the highest places in the Church” where they were working to weaken the Church’s effectiveness against Communism. These changes, she declared, would be so drastic that “you will not recognize the Catholic Church.” A few years later, in a conversation with a new Catholic friend, Alice von Hildebrand, Bella told her that there are four cardinals within the Vatican “who are working for the Communists.” This was twelve years before Vatican II. The reader can draw his own conclusions.
Shortly after her conversion, Bella had great hope for the youth of America. She saw goodness and a giving, missionary spirit in the young Catholics she worked with. Bella died in 1964 at the age of sixty.
Bella Dodd did much harm to her country and her Church. It is a great blessing that she repented of those sins. We can pray that she has paid her reparation and is now with the saints in Heaven. If she is not yet, our prayers may help her to arrive Home soon.