Catherine found herself being pulled in two conflicting directions. She realized she was a single parent with a small child to support. Yet she felt hounded by Christ's words to the rich young man in the Gospel verse: “Sell all you possess, give it to the poor, and come — follow me!”
Eventually, she did exactly that, giving away her possessions to the poor, keeping only enough to provide for her son. Then, with the blessing of her bishop, Most Rev. Neil McNeil of Toronto, she went to live and work with the poor in the slums of Toronto, where she founded Friendship House. She later established Friendship Houses in New York City's Harlem section, in Chicago, and other cities in the 1930s and 1940s.
Catherine was guided in her work with the poor by a series of words that she believed came from Christ. His simple directives came to Catherine at odd moments over a number of years. These words eventually were gathered together and became what is known as The Little Mandate, which today is the backbone of life at Madonna House.
Through the years, Catherine became well-known for her social justice work with the poor and minorities. She was a forerunner in the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. and was a friend of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. For her words and her work, she received accolades, honourary degrees, and awards (including papal medals and the Order of Canada) — as well as persecution, threats, hatred, and heckling. But always, her words, like her actions, were strong, clear, and uncompromising, solidly based on the Gospel of Christ.
Meanwhile, Catherine's son George finished boarding school and went off to war in Europe; he later married and became a successful businessman in the U.S. As Catherine continued her work with the poor, she met Edward J. Doherty, a famous Chicago newspaper reporter who interviewed her in Harlem in 1940. The blue-eyed, Russian baroness captured the romantic Irishman's heart. In 1943, the pair were married by Bishop Bernard Sheil of Chicago.