Catherine Doherty was not a person one could casually meet and then forget. She was a Russian who, in her own words, liked to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Complacency, mediocrity, tepidity — these were associated with those she sometimes referred to as “the walking dead,” people not really alive, although they might be living ‘normal’ lives.
Catherine's love for any given person might take the form of obvious compassion, through humble service, attentive listening and meeting their evident needs. Or her love might take the form of trying, by her words, to ‘shake’ a person from their self-satisfied approach to Christian life. It would still be compassionate love, if less obviously so.
In either case she wanted Christ to be loved. Gentleness might bring someone to know and love him: the God who would “not break the crushed reed or quench the wavering wick” (Isaiah 42:3). Then again, just as in the Scriptures God asked his prophets to boldly warn people in order to awaken their consciences and turn them back from spiritual disaster to himself, so God used this passionate Russian woman to speak his words in our day.
Through her privileged childhood formation, as well as the ‘novitiate’ through which God led her, Catherine's vision of life was all encompassing. Her spirituality came at the cost of great personal suffering; her joy and enthusiasm came through her faith.
Catherine never intended to found a community and only when the first men and women came to join her did she get an inkling that God was calling her to be a foundress. By the time she reached her 60s, the number of people coming to her from many parts of the world for a word of life and a model of Gospel living had greatly escalated.
Gradually it was perceived that God had given her a charism for the whole Church and not only for the spiritual family of Madonna House which she founded. Her teachings, coming out of her own life experiences, began to be recognized as one of the ‘modern spiritual classics.’
The spirituality Catherine received from God through his Little Mandate applies to any life situation. Through it he offers a light on their own pilgrimage to people from every country and culture and every walk of life. The Little Mandate, a ‘distillation of the Gospel,’ forms the core of the way of life God revealed to and through Catherine.
Thousands have passed through Madonna House: priests, religious, married and single people, young and old. A great many of them have asked me, “What is the spirit of Madonna House?” I still find that very difficult to express. The spirit of any vocation or calling is not easily put into words because of the mystery involved.
Take, for example, the immense mystery of God's choice of me as foundress of one of the first lay apostolates in Canada and the U.S.A. How did it all start? Where did it begin? A more unsuitable person to work in these somewhat puritanical and Jansenistic countries could not be imagined! East confronted the West. In truth, it was a shock for the East in myself.
My life had begun in the bosom of loving, well-to-do parents, in Russia. But from the age of 15 God allowed me to participate intimately in the cataclysms of the modern world, starting with the First World War and the Communist Revolution, then becoming a penniless refugee in this New World.
God brought me and my first husband, Baron de Hueck, to Canada, and a son was born to us on Canadian soil. Very soon after our arrival I had to cross the border into the U.S. to try to earn a better living for my family. The baron was sick and the child was small. I had to be content with starting at $8.50 a week in a laundry. Eventually I rose to a $20,000 yearly income in the great land of opportunity.
Where did the spirit of Madonna House have its birth? In the cradle of the steaming laundry where I worked as a refugee? On the battlefields of Russia? In a factory of New York? In a pleasant apartment in that city? I do not know. All I know is that somewhere in the 1920s I began to be ‘mightily bothered,’ if that can describe it, by the Holy Spirit.
Eventually I knew that God was calling me to live what I term his ‘Little Mandate.’ I fought this call for several years but finally succumbed to it. Or perhaps I should say that, like so many sinners before me, I finally said ‘yes’ to God.
Thus was born the Apostolate of Friendship House, which eventually flowed into the Apostolate of Madonna House. The spirit of both is this Little Mandate which God gave me. I marvel that he chose me to found them. Together with my spiritual children I share with all our friends, known and unknown, our way of life, of living the mysteries that God has revealed to us.