Catherine de Hueck Doherty had an enormously practical loving spirituality that brought healing to many wounded and poor people. John Murray PP tells her story.
She was one of the great women of the twentieth century and yet when she died her bed was in an obscure log cabin and most people would never have heard of her.
Catherine Doherty was one of the prophetic voices of her age, one of those people God uses to keep His divine gospel perspective alive in the world. She herself would simply have said, ‘I am a woman in love with God and the poor’.
Her life spanned most of the last century and she survived two world wars, the Russian revolution, the depression of the ’30s, a broken marriage, the scandal of an all-too-human Church, the Second Vatican Council and founding a new community within that Church – to name but a few of the challenges.
Two strands of faith
Catherine was born in Ninji-Novgorod in Russia on 15 August 1896. It was an era when Christianity was strong in Russia – work, pilgrimages, culture – everything was saturated with the gospel. She was baptized, catechized and married all within the Orthodox Church.
But she also had an exposure to the Catholic Church in the form of her schooling in Alexandria (Egypt) where her father, an aristocrat, had been posted by the government. In time it would lead to her being received as a Catholic in 1919 in England.
However, over a long lifetime she was able to integrate these two strands of the faith within her own spiritual journey – the `two lungs’ of faith – as Pope John Paul often spoke.
Love of the poor
Her parents had communicated to the young Catherine an extraordinary love for the poor. Her mother for instance had insisted that she get married in a poor village among poor people whom she served to express her great love for them. No family members attended. Often she accompanied her mother on her visits to the local poor and frequently she saw her father get up from the table and wait on beggars who came to the door for food. ‘A love that is not incarnate is not real love,’ she would say.
She was married at an early age to Boris de Hueck but by then, the Russian Christian culture was collapsing, a culture where the people had known the gospel in their own language for a thousand years and the very word for Sunday meant ‘resurrection’. The couple got out with their lives and made their way to Canada. In reflection on the Russian experience she knew that injustice to the poor can destroy a whole Christian civilization: `Wake up! Love the poor! Live the gospel or you will call down on yourselves the anger of God.’
Once in Canada she was joined in her vision by other young men and women and soon she opened Friendship House in the slums of Toronto and later one in Harlem. Her approach was simple: to live the life of the Holy Family of Nazareth among the poor, serving meals and handing out clothes and support.
In the 1930s and ’40s several more Friendship Houses followed and members of the black community too, were received with dignity. This was long before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Dorothy Day, another great pioneer in this field, was among the few who supported and indeed understood what Catherine was trying to do.
Yet Catherine never saw her actions as ‘social work’. Rather she was moved by the gospel truth, ‘What you did to the least of my brethren you did for me.’ For Catherine each person was Christ, to be treated with the greatest dignity. ‘When I hear a knock on the door, I see a hand with a wound in it – literally.’
She had a lifelong passion to `take Jesus off his cross – console him, bind up his wounds by caring for the poor, the suffering and the broken. She had an intense interior vision of Jesus continuing to hang on the cross with millions of people streaming by, completely unaware of his love for them.’
Journey into God
Why did she go to hide herself then in the backwoods of Canada for the last thirty years of her life? The answer brings us to another aspect of the intriguing life of this amazing woman. In 1943 she met Eddie Doherty -a journalist – and married him; her first marriage to Boris had received an ecclesiastical annulment.
With Eddie she went to Combermere in the rural area of Ontario. Here she was taken by the Lord on a journey into God, into herself, into the spiritual disease of the world. She tried to apply the charism of gospel truth not only to the sick and distorted situations of the day but to the entirety of human life. She taught how to reevangelize, ‘re-gospel’ everything from its roots.
Gradually the community which grew around her applied her energies and wisdom to liturgical customs, family life, mission outreach and many more areas. The Madonna House community became in time a public association of the faithful under the local bishop.
This was the period when she was most fertile in terms of writing, and her produce amounted to over twenty-five books and 100,000 letters. She began to introduce Christians in the West to the richness of the Orthodox traditions. She was indeed a great staretza for the world – a Russian mother feeding her spiritual children with the bread of the gospel.
She taught people how to live the gospel right where they were in their homes and offices and schools. Her classic work, Poustinia (Russian for ‘desert’) was a call to prayer and the `desert’ of the heart through prayer, solitude and fasting. Her vision and practical way of living the gospel in ordinary life became recognized as a remedy to the depersonalizing effects of modern society and technology.
Catherine died on 14 December 1985 after a long illness, leaving behind a spiritual family of more than 200 members. She left to the Church which she loved passionately, a spiritual heritage which is indeed a beacon for the century which has just begun. Her cause for canonization has been introduced in the Catholic Church in 2000 and she has already been given the title ‘servant of God’.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (July 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.