Madonna House

A Sacred Trust

by Linda Lambeth

For as long as I knew Catherine Doherty, a burning question was on her heart, a burning fire was consuming her. And this fire had been burning in her since long before that.

When Catherine was only fifteen, she wrote in her diary:

“I have been wondering, why do we live? What is life? What is our goal and why? Why is there poverty so terrible and riches so selfish? In search of an answer, I took the only book I knew which holds all the answers: the Gospels.

“The more I read the Gospels, the more I see that Christ wants us above all to love God, and then prove that love by loving our neighbors. As I look around and see the poor of Russia, so many poor and so many illiterate, I wonder if I could do something about it. But I am so young, so terribly young. When will I grow up?

“…One must always be charitable and feed the hungry and give to the poor, but what can I give?”

This diary entry reveals the passion already at work in Catherine’s young heart and soul. Through her parents, through the customs of the Russian people, and through the liturgy of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, Catherine had been imbued with a love of the Gospels.

Is it a wonder that, as she began to experience life and the sufferings that were soon to engulf her, her young heart cried out for an answer?

Was it then that she had the first glimpse of the dream that would grow within her: to restore to Christ all that had been torn asunder by separation, by starvation and by the utter carnage of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the years that followed?

When she wrote this, of course, she could not know the suffering that awaited her: the tragedy her marriage would become, the intense sufferings her family would endure, or the many labyrinthine ways she would travel.

But no matter what road she traveled, Catherine spent the rest of her life searching the Gospels and incarnating them with a passion that drew many to follow her.

I was one of those young persons who followed her and whose heart was set on fire by her love for God and for the poor—a sacred trust.

One day shortly after I made my First Promises in Madonna House, Catherine called me and said: “We are going to have a handicraft department and a mission shop, and you are going to take care of it.”

So began many years of working with Catherine almost every day.

Begging was paramount in our apostolate and always will be. Accordingly, Catherine begged for merchandise for the shop from friends and benefactors. As donations came in, we who worked in the shop endlessly sorted, fixed, polished, and restored them. We also made candles and pottery and multiple other craft goods.

And since neither our arts and crafts center nor our gift shop would be ready for a few more years, we did our handicrafts all over the compound.

Gather up the fragments, lest they be lost (Jn 6:12) was our motto, and Catherine herself sorted all the jewelry, buttons, and religious goods for years.

Some of the early staff were skilled and gifted. Kathleen O’Herin, for example, was a prolific seamstress. Filled with ingenuity, she produced an incredible variety of creative items from the fragments that we had gathered.

We opened a tiny little shop in one of the guest cabins and soon we had earned enough money to send a team to open a house in Pakistan.

It was evident that this little apostolate was here to stay; already it was providing us with the means to help the poor especially in mission areas throughout the world.

Before long, some of our laymen and priests built a real mission shop, and people began coming to it from everywhere. Many would bring donations to one door and buy something at the other.

The apostolate broadened and our benefactors and our customers became increasingly involved. Customers loved the fact that the money from their purchases was going to the missions, and many of them made a special effort to buy their gifts here.

But something far deeper than the exchange of goods was happening. We who worked in the shop were growing in love day by day, and we began to understand that this simple work was also a way of loving our brothers and sisters throughout the world. It was a way of uniting us more deeply in the Mystical Body.

Missionaries to whom we were sending money wrote, and Catherine kept us abreast of this correspondence. The poor were becoming deeply embedded in our hearts.

One day Catherine said to me: “I want a book of the letters from our benefactors and from the missionaries. I want those who come and take part in any way to truly understand what is happening here.”

So we made the book and to this day it rests on a stand just by the front door of our shop. Many customers spend time with it and come to understand the incredible exchange of hearts that is happening. From that book, too, young staff assigned to the shop learned the depth of their vocation.

Early on, Catherine made the decision that the proceeds from the shop would only be used for the poor—especially those in the missions. Nothing would be used for the running of Madonna House in Combermere.

It is a form of tithing, and no matter how difficult a year it is for for MH Combermere, financially, we have used the proceeds from the shop only for the poor.

When Catherine was alive, all the works of Madonna house began with a dream, a vision, and the gift shop was no exception. Of the shop Catherine wrote:

“In my dream of the shop, I saw Christ standing at the crossroads near Madonna House, and his arms were open. I saw tourists coming, and to each one he gave an embrace, although they did not know he was there. The tourists who come to us—the young, the old, the middle-aged—were being welcomed by Christ.

“We offer the wares they want. But actually, we are “traders” of Christ; through us he offers himself to all.

“Suddenly a little piece of jewelry, well sorted, is awesome; Christ will go to someone through that.

“I say to him, ‘That is too small for you.’ He seems to answer, ‘I am meek and humble of heart, and nothing is too small for me.’

I saw something else. A faithful group of young people followed him; the place seemed to shine like a light. Strangers came and became friends; tourists passed through and no one could forget it. It stayed in their hearts.

“There was only love, because God had passed through the one who sold the things to the one who paid for them.”

One night in Catherine’s last years, she called me to her cabin on the island. She was in her nightgown sitting at her desk with her head down. When I approached, I could see that she had been crying.

When she spoke amid her tears, she said: “Will you take care of the poor? I am tired now, I can’t do it anymore. Will you take care of the poor? All my life I have taken care of the poor. Will you take care of the poor for me now?”

From that moment I knew that this was a Sacred Trust placed in my hands, not for myself but for the whole apostolate. It was the beginning of the great flame in Catherine’s heart being passed to each of us in Madonna House.

Linda worked directly with Catherine for many years from the early 1960s on in establishing both the gift shop and handicraft center, which went hand-in-hand. She also helped establish a handicraft-gift shop of local crafts in Carriacou, West Indies, and after that, the gift shop in Marian Centre Edmonton.

After Linda’s return to Combermere in 1976, Catherine passed on to her the correspondence with the missionaries and the funds and books.

“My 30 years with Catherine were all gift,” said Linda.