Posted December 01, 2010:
Remembering Catherine Doherty

God is a Lover who hungers to be loved in return. Burning with this vision of faith, Catherine de Hueck Doherty challenged Christians of her day to live a radical gospel life and to recognize God’s image in every human being.

She was a pioneer among North American Catholic laity in implementing the Church’s social doctrine in the face of Communism, economic and racial injustice, secularism, and apathy. At the same time she insisted that those engaged in social action be rooted in prayer, and that they incarnate their faith into every aspect of ordinary life.

Catherine was a bridge between East and West. Since she was baptized and raised Orthodox and later become Roman Catholic, her spiritual heritage included both these traditions.

Catherine was born in Nizhny-Novgorod, Russia, on August 15, 1896. Raised in a devout aristocratic family, she grew up knowing that Christ lives in the poor and that ordinary life is meant to be holy. Her father’s work enabled the family to travel extensively.

At the age of fifteen, Catherine married her cousin, Boris de Hueck. Soon, the turmoil of World War I sent them both to the Russian front: Boris as an engineer, Catherine as a nurse.

Then not long after the war, the Russian Revolution destroyed the world they knew. Many of their family members were killed, and they themselves narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

The Revolution marked Catherine for life. She saw it as the tragic consequence of the failure of a Christian society to incarnate its faith. All her life she cried out against the hypocrisy of those who professed to follow Christ while failing to serve him in others.

Catherine and Boris became refugees, fleeing first to England and then to Canada where their son George was born.

In the following years she experienced grinding poverty as she labored to support her child and ailing husband. Then after years of painful struggle, her marriage to Boris fell apart. Later it was annulled by the Church.

Catherine’s talent as a speaker was discovered by an agent from a lecture bureau. She began traveling across North America and became a successful lecturer. Once again she became wealthy, but she was not at peace.

The words of Christ pursued her relentlessly: Sell all you possess, and come follow me (Mt 19:21). On October 15, 1930, Catherine renewed a promise she had made to God during her ordeal in the revolution and gave her life to him. She marked this day as the beginning of her apostolate.

In the early 1930’s, with the blessing of Archbishop Neil McNeil of Toronto, Catherine sold all her possessions and provided for her son George. Then, desiring to console her beloved Lord as a lay apostle by being one with his poor, she went to live in the slums of Toronto.

The lay apostolate was still in its infancy in the 1930s, and Catherine kept searching for direction. Dorothy Day, another pioneer in this field, was among the few who understood and supported what she was trying to do.

As Catherine implemented a radical gospel way of life, young men and women came to join her. The group that resulted called themselves Friendship House and lived the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.

In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the members of Friendship House responded to the needs of the time. They begged for food and clothing to share with those in need and offered hospitality of the heart to all.

They also tried to fight the rising tide of Communism, through lectures, classes, and a newspaper called The Social Forum, whose content was based on the great social encyclicals of the Church.

Misunderstanding and calumny plagued Catherine all her life. False but persistent rumors about her and the working of Friendship House forced its closing in 1936. Catherine left Toronto feeling that her work had failed. Through the great disappointments and seeming failure, she heard the voice of Christ beckoning her to share his suffering.

Soon after she left Toronto, Fr. John LaFarge S.J., a well-known leader in the struggle for inter-racial justice in the United States, invited Catherine to open a Friendship House in Harlem, a large African-American ghetto in the inner city of New York.

In February 1938, she accepted this invitation, and soon Harlem Friendship House was bursting with activity. Catherine saw the beauty of the African-American people and was horrified by the injustices being done to them. She traveled the country giving lectures decrying the racial discrimination against them.

In the midst of widespread rejection and persecution, Catherine found support from Cardinal Patrick Hayes and Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York. In Harlem, a small community formed around her, but again her work ended in failure.

Divisions developed among the staff of Friendship House and, in January 1947, they out-voted Catherine on points she considered essential to the apostolate. Seeing this as a rejection of her vision of Friendship House, she stepped down as director general.

On May 17, 1947, Catherine—along with her second husband, American journalist Eddie Doherty, whom she had married in 1943—came to Combermere, Ontario, Canada.

Catherine was shattered by the rejection of Friendship House and thought she had come to Ontario to retire. Instead, the most fruitful and lasting phase of her apostolic life was about to begin.

As she was recovering from the trauma, Catherine began to serve those in need in the Combermere area, first as a nurse and then through neighborly services. She and Eddie also began a newspaper, Restoration, and eventually began a training center for the Catholic lay apostolate.

At a summer school of Catholic Action that Catherine organized in 1950, Fr. John Callahan came to teach. He was to become Catherine and Eddie’s spiritual director and the first priest member of Madonna House.

Under his guidance, in February 1951, they made an act of consecration to Jesus through Mary, according to St. Louis de Montfort. Mary, Mother of the Church, became a guide to their lives and to Madonna House.

Catherine’s lifelong passion to console Christ in others propelled her forward. Again young men and women asked to join her and graces abounded.

In October 1951, Catherine attended the first Lay Congress in Rome. The papal secretary, Msgr. Montini (later to become Pope Paul VI) encouraged Catherine and her followers to consider making a permanent commitment.

On April 7, 1954, those living in Combermere voted to embrace a permanent vocation with promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and the community of Madonna House was established.

The following year, Catherine and Eddie took a promise of chastity and lived apart thereafter. From these offerings, an explosion of life took place and Madonna House grew.

On June 8, 1960, at the blessing of the statue of Our Lady of Combermere, Bishop William Smith of Pembroke offered the Church’s approval to the fledgling community.

At a time when the de-Christianization of the Western world was already well-advanced, Catherine had a faith vision for the restoration of the Church and of our modern culture. She brought the spiritual intuitions of the Christian East to North America.

Lay men and women as well as priests came to Madonna House to live the life of a Christian family: the life of Nazareth. They begged for what they needed and gave the rest away. At the invitation of bishops, they opened houses in rural areas and cities in North and South America, Europe, Russia, Africa, and the West Indies.

Catherine’s vision was immense, encompassing farming, carpentry, cooking and laundry, theology and philosophy, science, the fine arts, and drama.

"Nothing is foreign to the apostolate except sin… The primary work of the apostolate is to love one another… If we implement this law of love, if we clothe it with our flesh, we shall become a light to the world," she said, "for the essence of our apostolate is love—love for God poured out abundantly for others."

In response to the deepening dilemmas of the Western world, Catherine offered the spirituality of her Russian past. She introduced the concept of poustinia, which was totally unknown in the West but has since become recognized not only there but in much of the world as well. Poustinia is the Russian word for "desert," which in its spiritual context is a place where a person meets God through solitude, prayer, and fasting.

Catherine’s vision and practical way of living the Gospel in ordinary life became recognized as a remedy to the depersonalizing effects of modern technology.

In response to the rampant individualism of our century, she called Madonna House to sobornost, a Russian word meaning true unity of heart and mind in the Holy Trinity—a unity beyond purely human capacity.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty died on December 14, 1985 after a long illness. She left behind a spiritual family of more than 200 members and foundations around the world. She left to the Church, which she loved passionately, a spiritual heritage that is a beacon for this new century.

The following is taken from a letter to the Madonna house family: "We need to be poor! Let us live an ordinary life, but, beloved, let us live it with a passionate love for God. Become a mystery. Stretch one hand out to God, the other to your neighbor. Be cruciform. … Christ’s cross will be our revolution, and it will be a revolution of love!"


If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!


Restoration Contents

Next article:
An Advent Invitation

Previous article:
One Man's Scrap, Another Man's Gold (November 2011)



RSS 2.0RSS feed

Madonna House - A Training Centre for the Lay Apostolate