In 1925 Pope Pius XI issued a call to “Catholic Action,” calling on all the laity to participate in a new and renewed movement to carry and apply the Gospel message — the message of truth and justice, of morality and peace — to all aspects of human life.
Catherine Doherty had been raised by her deeply Christian Russian parents to a strong sense of responsibility toward the poor and less fortunate, and was painfully aware of the injustice of the economic and social conditions oppressing many of them. She was also filled, during the late 1920s, with a burning love of God and an unceasing questioning as to how best to serve Him. Thus she became one of the pioneers who responded to the Pope's call.
Beginning in 1930, and working through the depths of the Great Depression, Catherine founded Friendship House in Toronto, Canada, where she and a group of fellow laypeople strove to provide clothing, food, and shelter to the unemployed and homeless; a library, reading room and social activities for those deprived of them; help in finding employment; and assistance to immigrants in need.
Later on, in 1938, Catherine continued her apostolate in New York City, founding Friendship House Harlem, which provided many of the same services as in Toronto, but with a particular emphasis on combating the evils of racial discrimination and promoting racial justice for all. Friendship Houses were later established in Chicago, Washington D.C., and other cities in the U.S.
In the words of its constitutions of the 1940s:
Friendship House is an organization of Catholic lay men and women united to sanctify themselves and the society in which they live through an effort to restore the justice and love of Jesus Christ to individuals and social institutions.
The foundations of Friendship House and its works are very simple. They take their roots in the great and beautiful plan of God's love.
During all these years, it was not only Catherine’s actions which spoke to the people of Canada and the U.S. — her voice and her pen spoke out as well. In lectures and talks up and down the North American continent, and in a ceaselessly flowing river of articles, letters, and books, she penetrated the hearts, the minds, and the lives of Christians with her unwavering call to live the Gospel. A whole generation of priests, sisters, and lay people was nourished and sustained by her teaching.
Pope Pius X had said the field of Catholic Action “does not exclude anything which pertains to the divine mission of the church” and “the fruitfulness of the doctrine and morality taught by Jesus Christ is so limitless that providentially it sustains and promotes the material welfare of the individual, the family, and society.”
Catherine had taken him at his word and was applying her action to call all Christians to love and respect the dignity of all persons and to right the wrongs being done to Blacks and the poor.
As Catherine herself put it:
Christians are called to become icons of Christ, to reflect him. We are called to incarnate him in our lives, to clothe our lives with him, so that everyone can see him in us, touch him in us, recognize him in us. When we don't live the Gospel without compromise, or try to, we are skeletons.
The gospel can be summed up by saying that it is the tremendous, tender, compassionate, gentle, extraordinary, explosive, revolutionary law of Christ's love. If we Christians implemented it, it would change the world in a few months.
A Christian is one who loves and who brings the message of love. True love never compromises, never conforms to anything which is not the truth.
Hence racial discrimination and economic and social injustice would end; the lie of unequal dignity and rights of persons would disappear.
Catherine moved to Combermere, Ontario, Canada, in 1947. There, building on the foundations laid in Friendship House, she and her husband, Eddie Doherty, founded a new apostolate, Madonna House.
Madonna House began as Friendship House had, as a group of laypeople, but with the arrival of Fr. John Callahan and a number of other priests in the early 1950s, the membership grew to include priests as well. Beginning in 1953, members have made a commitment to celibacy, with a view to dedicating themselves to Madonna House for life. The total membership now numbers over 200 — lay men, women, and more than 20 priests.
The original field of activity of Madonna House was a rural apostolate to the local area of Combermere begun at the request of the Bishop of Pembroke, the local diocese. Public health nursing and midwifery services were provided, and a clothing room, a lending library, children’s programs and social events were organized. The scope of the Apostolate now extends from our training centre in Combermere to over twenty missionary “field houses” on five continents.
Since 1958 the Madonna House family has also included Associate Priests. These are priests, bishops, and deacons serving in their own parishes, dioceses, and ministries — living and preaching the Madonna House spirituality in many countries and in many ways. Our first associate priest was Archbishop Joseph Raya; since then their number has grown to over 100.
Madonna House is now constituted as a Public Association of the Christian Faithful (Cf. Code of Canon Law, 298–320) within the Roman Catholic Church, under the authority of the bishop of the Diocese of Pembroke.
Over the years literally thousands of people have been inspired, set on fire, born anew as they have visited Madonna House. Under Catherine’s influence, young and old, lay and cleric, men and women of many cultures, Catholic and not Catholic, have dedicated or rededicated themselves to love of God and are pouring out their lives in his service.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of her apostolate in 1981, Catherine Doherty was invited to Mass and a private audience with Pope John Paul II.