In 1947 Catherine and Eddie Doherty left Chicago for Combermere to begin a new, rural outreach apostolate. At the time, it seemed to many to be the end of their apostolic life rather than the beginning of a new one. Undaunted, upon arrival on May 17 they immediately planted an orchard consisting of thirty-six apple trees (many of which can still be seen) symbolic of their determination to begin a new and permanent house of Gospel love at this beautiful riverside place, deep in the woods and hills of Northern Ontario.
Their decision to move to Combermere came after a turbulent time in the Friendship House Lay apostolate which Catherine founded in 1934. An amazingly prescient woman, often 50 years ahead of her time, she envisioned a lay Catholic community available to serve the needy in city or countryside in any service work imaginable, rather than being limited exclusively to combating racial injustice in American cities, as her U.S. based membership insisted upon.
Along with her vision of lay people building the Kingdom of God through unlimited forms of public service, was added Catherine’s extraordinary capacity to connect ordinary life and work with God, in the manner of the Holy Family of Nazareth, something which would itself attract pioneers who would follow her way of life as a lifetime vocation.
Having had been a celebrity speaker, columnist and leader of a movement which operated lay run houses of hospitality from New York to Chicago, her move to tiny, rural Combermere was a stark and dramatic change for this Russian aristocrat and her high profile journalist husband.
It was to an unfinished six-room house perched by the Madawaska River that Catherine and Eddie arrived. Would she, could she, begin again from nothing to build a kind of “New Nazareth” deep in the woods of Northern Ontario?
The early years were lived in dark faith but eventually the shoot which emerged was to become the Madonna House Apostolate. From its Combermere center would come forth today’s world wide network of 18 Madonna House field houses, “rooms” of Madonna House which would be born and sustained from Combermere.
This was not evident in 1947, when only Catherine, Eddie and one undaunted staff worker from Friendship House were present. But the seed they planted germinated, growing up into a Nazareth in the woods of Northern Ontario where Madonna House members live a life of doing ordinary work well, with great love, as an offering to God. In this way Madonna House seeks above all to form a Community of love, the highest goal of the Community’s Nazareth Family spirituality.
To Catherine’s amazement, not only lay people but even priest’s started joining her lay movement as well. Madonna House would become a new family of lay people and priests within the Church, recognized in Church law as a public association of the faithful. This new form of Church community was to become a place of bridges physical and spiritual, joining male and female, lay and clerical, the spiritual traditions of Catherine’s Eastern Christian heritage with those of the Catholic West, to which she converted after fleeing Russia for her life during the Communist Revolution.
Let us begin our tour of the product of Catherine’s faith with the first bridge, a roughly fifty yard walking bridge that takes us from Madonna House proper to the island in the Madawaska River where Catherine lived alone in a 14×28 foot cabin. Here, through prayer, suffering, writing and example, she forged the new way of life that was to become Madonna House.
The bridge leading to her island is only a few steps from where the original six-room house is located. But it was a very, very long journey of faith that she and Eddie took when, in 1955, they joined the rest of the Community who had a year previously voted to take lifetime promises of poverty, chastity and obedience. This gave Madonna House its enduring character, beyond that of a “movement” of people who came and went. Because of this decision, Catherine and Eddie lived apart while remaining in the Community, with Catherine moving into her island cabin in 1958, where she died on Dec.14, 1985, a decade after Eddie’s 1975 death.
Those who receive the vocation to follow in Catherine’s footsteps and live the life of Nazareth at Madonna House embrace the same promises of poverty, chastity and obedience as Catherine and Eddie did. To Catherine’s iconographical mind, which saw in pictures, the women, laymen and priests of Madonna House formed a replica of the Holy Family of Nazareth, with the women symbolizing Mary, the lay men Joseph, and the priests the child Jesus. All strive to be Mary, Joseph and the Christ child to each other and to the hundreds of working guests who come to live and work with us every year.
The following tour highlights not only the special features and places in Madonna House Combermere, but also the spirituality which inspires its day to day life.