02 Jun A Glorious Thing
by Fr. David May
“Still sleeping, Catherine began to talk. I could make nothing of her words until I heard her say, ‘Spadina Street’.
“That was in Toronto. She was remembering—against her will—some devilish tragedy in a sort of cataleptic nightmare.
“Her face twisted and twitched in agony. I was tempted to wake her; but something restrained me. …
“There were several nights like that. I began to accept them almost as a matter of course. …
“Did you ever wonder how the mother of Jesus felt, watching her Son as he was taken out of the synagogue to be stoned to death? She must have known every man in that angry mob. Undoubtedly she had cared for many of their wives and children. She loved them all. She would go on loving them.
“So why did I hate those people who had tortured Catherine so long ago in that far-off city…?
“Maybe I should pray for all the Russian woman’s enemies and false friends. But how? On my knees? With my arms and eyes raised to heaven? No, I could only ask God to open my narrow heart a little wider and fill it with all the things it lacked.” *
These words were written by Fr. Eddie Doherty about the sufferings of his wife, Catherine. Perhaps he would agree that the greatest spiritual benefit he derived from her was that his “narrow heart” got opened a little wider. Certainly those of us coming to Madonna House late in his life came to know him as someone with a great and merciful heart indeed.
This May 4th we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Fr. Eddie’s death.
Those familiar with the history of Madonna House are also familiar with the basics of the story of the life of Eddie Doherty: an Irish-American newspaperman from Chicago with a reputation in the 1930’s and ‘40’s as one of the best investigative reporters in the United States.
Rich, sophisticated, worldly, he had been alienated from God and the Catholic Church since losing his first wife, Marie, to the great flu epidemic of 1918. He remarried, and was widowed a second time.
Gradually, he was reconciled to God again, and he met Catherine de Hueck in Harlem, New York, while doing an article for Liberty magazine. They fell in love and were married in a private ceremony in Chicago in 1943. In 1947 Catherine and Eddie journeyed to Combermere, Ontario, and founded Madonna House.
As the community developed around them, they discerned in 1955 that it was God‘s will that they embrace a life of celibacy. This was a very great sacrifice for both of them.
Eddie spent the rest of his years writing books and editing Restoration and being a support to Catherine and to the community, mostly in a hidden way.
In 1969, he realized a dream of many years and was ordained a priest of God (by Archbishop Joseph Raya in the Melkite Catholic Church). He died on May 4, 1975.
Now, forty years later, Eddie Doherty remains a largely hidden figure in the day-to-day awareness of the community. As he would have wanted it, his wife Catherine remains the principal teacher of the spirituality the Lord gave her for the apostolate.
Yet those who knew them both well have always insisted that without Eddie, Catherine would probably not have been able to start an apostolate a third time (after failures of both the Canadian and American-based Friendship House movements). He was her steady support, confidante, and protector in a profound way.
The received “wisdom of the day” at the time I joined MH (in the early 1970s) was that Fr. Eddie was the merciful and gentle “grandfather” and Catherine the hard-hitting if compassionate prophet of the community.
So, go to Fr. Eddie for consolation and to Catherine for inspiration or if you were willing to risk getting singed by the fire in her spirit!
Even then I knew these were caricatures. I didn’t know Fr. Eddie well, and in fact I was more apt to either run into or seek out Catherine with my questions, but I could at least see that both were acquainted with suffering and that that was somehow the source of what was so attractive about them.
In true Irish fashion, Eddie hid his inner secrets behind humor and clever puns and the like. Catherine was more dramatic, simple, and direct about such things. But their union in love and suffering came from the same place, or so it seemed to me when I gave such matters any thought at all.
Recently I decided it was time for Madonna House to read Fr. Eddie for our spiritual reading after lunch. His writing generally is quite brilliant as to skill and use of language, often deep and insightful spiritually, though it comes across at times as somewhat dated and from “an era,” (as one would expect of a good journalist in any era).
All the same, we plunged into reading his last book, A Cricket in my Heart, an autobiography basically covering from 1940, the year he met Catherine, until 1969, the year he was ordained a priest. We found it thoroughly enjoyable, funny and poignant at the same time.
One of the more poignant sections are the chapters that describe a mysterious spiritual experience on the porch of the American church in Rome, St. Susanna’s, in 1951.
Catherine was in Rome at the First International Lay Congress. (It is during this visit that she met Pope Pius XII, who encouraged her to lead the community to the stability of commitment.) Eddie was in Europe doing research for a book. He had a growing intuition that some great sacrifice was about to be asked of both of them.
One day, he found himself on the porch of the church early in the morning, long before it was opened, praying and seeing his whole life go before him.
Eddie received truly profound insights about God’s plans versus his own throughout his life, particularly concerning his first two wives. Marie and Mildred both somehow “came” to him during these early-morning hours, while the rain was pouring down and he was wet and shivering on the little porch of St. Susanna.
Many others passed before his eyes, people he has written about through many years—truthfully if not always kindly. The realization of both the call to repentance and the mercy of God were acute, piercing. Let me again quote from A Cricket in My Heart:
“If there were tears in my eyes, it was neither pain nor grief that put them there. It was the beauty and love of God. He had given me a tour of my past, with an angel to show me all the blessings he had squandered on me—even when my heart shrugged off the touch of his gentle hands and my defiant mind refused to listen to his overtures.
“I had been shown the love of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I had partaken in a family reunion. And I knew now that I loved the Lord indeed, and wanted to love him more and more. Why shouldn’t there be tears in my eyes?
“I am not a mystic. I don’t know what it was, exactly. But I understood it to mean that I would be called to a new and quite different vocation, one in which I could atone for all my sins and for the sins of others, and that I would pay some exorbitant price for the priceless privilege.
“I understood, also vaguely, that Catherine was, somehow, involved in the payment. Perhaps she would help me pay the debt. Perhaps she was the debt I owed!
“…it was an awakening to a new life, a new adventure, a new love, a new sense of beauty and wonder, a new awareness of the mercy of God, and of the tender care of his mother. I rejoiced that [through my consecration to Mary] I was her slave… Joy and peace possessed me… They still possess me twenty-odd years later.” *
It was this joy and peace that so many drew strength from through the years. Fr. Eddie lived to the full the grace of dispossession he received that day—the dispossession that enabled him to make a vow of chastity, a vow which Catherine, of course, also made.
“I realized the truth…that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Yet a wonderful thing, too. A glorious thing. Oh, an incredibly wonderful thing!”
*From A Cricket In My Heart, Blue House Press, (1990), available from MH Publications