150+ Canadians Day 57: Catherine Doherty

Catherine Doherty contributed to peace by devoting her life to working for social justice and the poor.

Catherine Kolyschkine was born in Nizhny-Novgorod, Russia, on August 15, 1896 to wealthy and deeply Christian parents. 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 in Catherine’s youth. At the age of 15, she married her cousin, Boris de Hueck and became a Baroness.

Soon, the turmoil of World War I sent them both to the Russian front: Boris as an engineer, Catherine as a nurse.

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 a Christian society’s failure 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.

Nearly starving to death as refugees in Finland, together they made their way to England, where Catherine was received into the Roman Catholic Church on November 27, 1919.

Immigrating to Canada with Boris, Catherine gave birth to their only child, George, in Toronto in 1921. In the following years she experienced grinding poverty as she laboured to support her ailing husband and child. After years of painful struggle, her marriage to Boris fell apart; later her marriage was later annulled by the Church.

To make ends meet, she took various jobs, eventually travelling across the United States, giving talks on the Chautauqua lecture circuit, an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  At this Catherine was very successful. Once again she became wealthy—but she was not at peace.

Prosperous now, but deeply dissatisfied with a life of material comfort, her marriage in ruins, de Hueck began to feel the promptings of a deeper call through a passage that leaped to her eyes every time she opened the Bible: “Arise — go… sell all you possess… take up your cross and follow Me.”  And so she did

In 1932 Catherine sold all her possession, provided for her son, George. And went to live a hidden life among the multitude of poor people in downtown Toronto where she established Friendship House with its soup kitchen. She gave food to them when she had none for herself – and offered education and fellowship, too. Ironically, she was tagged as a communist sympathize.

I considered Nazareth to be the center of my vocation. Only by being hidden would I be a light to my neighbor’s feet in the slums,” Doherty wrote. She believed that activism should be rooted in prayer and that faith should be brought to every aspect of daily life

As she implemented this radical Gospel way of life, young men and women came to join her at Friendship House, and lived the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, 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 the distribution of a newspaper called “The Social Forum.”

Misunderstanding and calumny plagued Catherine all of her life. False but persistent rumours about her and the working of Friendship House forced its closing in 1936. Catherine left Toronto, feeling her work had failed.

Soon after she left Toronto, a well-known Civil Rights Movement leader in the U.S., invited Catherine to open a Friendship   in Harlem. In February, 1938, she accepted his request, and soon the Harlem Friendship House was bursting with activity. Catherine saw the beauty of the Black people and was horrified by the injustices being done to them. She travelled the country decrying racial discrimination against Blacks.

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 came to Combermere, Ontario, Canada, with her second husband, American journalist Eddie Doherty, whom she had married in 1943. 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 neighbourly services. She and Eddie also established a newspaper, “Restoration,” and eventually began a training centre for the Catholic lay apostolate.

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

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 celibate lives thereafter. From these offerings, an explosion of life took place and Madonna House grew.

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.”

Catherine was a prolific writer of hundreds of articles, best-selling author of dozens of books, including her autobiography “Fragments of My Life, A Memoir.” This is not a dull, date-filled biography — Catherine’s memoirs read like an adventure novel. The book shines with her vision of uncompromising commitment to the Gospel. It’s a journey into Catherine’s life, disclosing the mysteries of world events that shaped her life; the mysteries of her leadership; the mysteries of her marriage; and, most of all, the mysteries of God’s love.

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 in the 1960’s, but has since become recognized in much of the world. 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 deep unity of heart and mind in the Divine and one another. Peace.

After a long illness Catherine de Hueck Doherty died on December 14, 1985, at the age of 89. 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 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 neighbour. Be cruciform. … Christ’s cross will be our revolution and it will be a revolution of love!”

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