Catherine Kolyschkine was born in Russia on August 15th, 1896, to parents of deep Christian faith.
The time into which Catherine was born was an era in Russia when Christianity was strong and vital. Russian culture was saturated with the Gospel of Christ: home life, work, relationships in society, pilgrimages — all were deeply Christian. Catherine was baptised, received her early religious training and was married in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russian psyche has an extraordinary integration of faith and life: The Orthodox Russian has a passion to incarnate the truth of the Gospel into life and culture. Catherine brought to the West this Orthodox spirituality that was passionate for the salvation of the world.
But she also had an early and intense exposure to Roman Catholicism. When she was about 6 years old, she went with her family to Alexandria, Egypt, where her father had been posted by the government. For several years she attended a Roman Catholic school there conducted by the Sisters of Sion. This profound influence during her formative years eventually led, in 1920 in England, to her request to be formally received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Over her lifetime, Catherine integrated both of these great Christian traditions — Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism — within her own spiritual being. She is one of the seeds of integration that can help toward the reunion of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the “two lungs” as Pope John Paul II calls them, once again breathing together in harmony.
In her convent school chapel in Egypt, there was a crucifix graphically portraying the sufferings of Christ. One day Catherine went with soap and water and tried to rub the blood off Christ's wounds so he wouldn't suffer. This inspiration — by no means simply a childish gesture — grew into Catherine's all-consuming passion.
She recognized that Jesus, in a real sense, continues to suffer in the members of His body, the church. “When I hear a knock on the door, I see a hand with a wound in it — literally,” she said. It was her lifelong passion to “take Jesus off his cross” and to console him, to bind up his wounds by caring for the poor, the suffering, the broken.
Catherine saw Christ in her neighbour, the poor, and returned his love for her by loving them. She never saw her actions as “social work,” but rather as living the Gospel truth of Christ's words: “What you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.”
Catherine's parents also communicated to her an extraordinary love for the poor, with the same Gospel verse as its basis. As a child, Catherine often accompanied her mother as she visited the poor, nursing and helping them in whatever ways she could. And she often saw her father get up from the table and wait on beggars who came to the door, as if waiting on Christ himself.
Her parents' example burned into Catherine's soul the Gospel truth: What is done to others is done to Christ. In Catherine's dynamic Russian faith, love was not abstract: Love was giving clothes, or a cup of coffee, or a listening ear. “A love that is not incarnate is not real love,” she often said.