Catherine Doherty: Lover, Martyr and Prophet
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Catherine Doherty: Lover, Martyr and Prophet

Catherine Doherty: Lover, Martyr and Prophet

Cheryl Ann Smith FAITH MAGAZINE May -June 2013

Cheryl Ann Smith, the director of Madonna House Robin hood’s Bay and a member of the Madonna house community for 32 years, gives an insight into the life and spirituality of Catherine Doherty, founder of the Madonna house movement.

Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty was a lover of Christ. Refugee, spurned wife, oft-maligned champion of the poor, holocaust of divine love, Catherine Doherty was a white martyr of the Gospel. Pioneer of the Catholic Lay Movement, forerunner of the new ecclesial communities, founder of the Madonna House Apostolate, Catherine Doherty was a prophet and poet of the Holy Spirit.

Childhood and Early Years

Who was this woman? Catherine was born in 1896 in another age, another world, the Orthodox world of pre-revolution Russia. She was born into a deeply Christian family in a society whose warp and woof was the Church. She described her childhood as idyllic, but as soon as she stepped into adulthood, innocence was shattered. Marrying her first cousin at the all-too-early age of 16 years, unhappiness broke into her heart. Only a year later, she and her husband were called into the front lines of the First World War, and she plunged into the horrors of war. But she did so with spirit and courage, and was decorated for bravery.

Both Catherine and her husband, Boris de Hueck, were born into aristocracy, and when the Russian Revolution exploded many of their family were killed. The couple fled to Finland. Catherine described hiding in the mire of pigs to escape the Red Army, only to be captured and condemned to death by slow starvation. Hovering between life and death she promised God: “If you save me from this, in some way I will offer my life to you.” The White Army rescued them, and in the spirit of divine forgiveness they refused to hand over their tormentors.

The Move to Canada and then New York

Catherine and Boris made their way to England, where Catherine joined the Catholic Church, and then they sought asylum in Toronto, Canada, where their son George was born. Ground down by the poverty they experienced as refugees, Boris’s inability to work and the cruelty of his infidelities, Catherine chose to move to New York City to earn a living for her little family. She described living in Ma Murphy’s boarding house, where six women rented a room with two beds. Life was bleak, and she was tempted to despair. Eventually she found work as a lecturer with the Chautauqua Circuit, and she shed her rags for riches again. However, one night she heard Christ gently laugh: “Catherine, do you think you can escape from me that way?” Thus began a period of voluntary poverty during which she received strange words from God, words from the Gospel that spelled a way of life.

Friendship House

With the Bishop of Toronto’s blessing, she provided for her son and then entered the slums during the Great Depression, meaning to live a Russian-style life of a poustinik (see note at end of article): praying, begging for her own needs and those of the poor, and serving her neighbours however she could. God had other plans, however, and soon a little community gathered around her, and the group, which she called Friendship House, spread to other Canadian cities.

This was during a period of the Communist scare. Catherine had a heavy Russian accent, lived among the poor and preached to anyone, including the Church, about the sin of not caring for these little ones of God. She did not mince words; she threatened many who belonged to “the establishment” and was eventually driven out of Canada.

It was then that she met Dorothy Day, who became a life-long friend, and Fr Paul Wattson of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, who paved the way for her to open a Friendship House for African Americans in the enclave of the Harlem slums in New York City. Through him, she became a Third Order Franciscan. This was in 1938. Again a community gathered around her and again Friendship House was invited to other cities, where Catherine’s voice tirelessly cried out for social and interracial justice. In those days, when the attitudes of slavery still cast their ugly shadow, she risked martyrdom. In one public talk she expanded Christ’s challenge: “I was black in the United States of America and you did not feed, clothe, educate Me.” She was nearly lynched. A quick-thinking janitor hid her in a rubbish bin and wheeled her out to safety.

Combermere and Madonna House

But the more painful rejection came from within her own community. Catherine had a particular vision of this movement of Friendship House that was inspired by God and emerged from her Russian background. This vision was not shared by the American members who had been formed by democracy. In addition, Catherine had received an annulment from her first marriage and had secretly married Eddie Doherty, the top-paid reporter in the United States who had fallen madly in love with her, with God and with the Catholic Church. Understandably, this was a shock to the Friendship House staff, and the rift widened. In 1947 they rejected Catherine and her ways. Catherine and Eddie then retired to a house in the backwoods of Ontario, Canada, outside a tiny village called Combermere.

From that place of humiliation and failure, Madonna House was born. Once again, people found their way to Catherine, as they do when Christ is alive and calling. In fairly short order, a community of laymen, lay women and priests dedicated to Our Lady were given permission by the Church to live together in poverty, chastity and obedience. Catherine and Eddie took the same promises. Within a few years, Bishops were asking for Madonna House staff to open houses in their dioceses, to live the Gospel of Love through soup kitchens, prayer houses, houses of hospitality and friendship. We now number about 200 members, and have 19 houses in Europe, Russia, North America and the Caribbean. In addition, more than 100 associate deacons, priests and bishops find their home in our spirit, and live itout wherever they are posted.
Madonna House is a microcosm of the Church: we are a blend of the East and West; we are men and women, clergy and lay, young and old, intensely active and deeply contemplative.

Catherine’s Spirituality

With this background now painted, we ask the question: What is the spirituality of Catherine Doherty? Thousands of holy men and women have been lovers of Christ, white martyrs of the Gospel and prophets of the Holy Spirit. What makes Catherine Doherty unique? Let us allow the Holy Spirit to answer through phrases He whispered to her through formative years – phrases that she eventually pieced together and called her Little Mandate from God. This is the mandate that serves as the guiding light of her spiritual family, Madonna House.

Arise – go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.

Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.

Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise!

Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.

Love… love… love, never counting the cost.

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me.

Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet.

Go without fears into the depth of men’s hearts.

I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.

When Catherine first began to sense Christ calling her to a deeper life in Him, she turned to Scripture. It seemed that every time she opened a Bible, whether at a friend’s house or in the public library, it was to the words of Christ to the rich young man: Arise, go, sell what you possess, give it to the poor and follow Me (Mk 10:21). It became clear that she was to leave everything and follow Christ, but it was to be in the Russian way of giving her wealth directly and personally to the poor. Then she was to follow and serve Him there. This way of identifying with Christ in the poor was ingrained in her Russian background. Catherine recalled her parents hosting a dinner party for dignitaries when the butler announced: “Christ is at the door, sir.” Her parents left the table, seated atramp at the kitchen table, and personally served him a fine meal on china plates. For them, this tramp was Christ.

This first paragraph of the Little Mandate offers the heart of Catherine’s motivation: her beloved Christ called her to take up His cross, to share in His suffering, to love unto death as He did, for the sake of His poor. This was to be a full offering, a full renunciation, a full identification. This was the only possible way she could withstand the martyrdom that was to come.

As we in Madonna House follow the Divine Pauper in our promise of poverty, we rely on our Heavenly Father for all our needs; hence we live by begging. We may keep money we have brought to the apostolate, but we may not spend it without permission. We live as simply as possible, to identify with the poor and to give of our surplus each year to those in greater need. However, as Catherine taught us, physical poverty is the kindergarten level of this promise. True poverty demands a complete stripping of self, a total reliance on God at every level of our being.

Little – be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike. Although she was an intellectual, a cultured, educated woman of the world, Catherine followed the example of the One who emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave (Phil 2:7). As she wrote: “My devotion to the Child of Bethlehem helped me. He had surrendered his intellect, his God-like intellect. He had become a child.” And, catching glimpses of the immensity of the Blessed Trinity as she led a hidden mystical life where Christ showed her the agonies of hell and the glories of heaven, Catherine knew her littleness beside His majesty. Like St Thérèse of Lisieux in the years just before Catherine, she was called to spiritual childhood.

Preach the Gospel with your life – without compromise! Catherine knew the value and power of words. She was a mesmerising speaker and a prolific writer. But she was convinced that our life and heart are the greatest witnesses to the Gospel. And only when we are ready to lay down our life for Christ and His poor, only when we are ready to live the Gospel of Christ without compromise, will we be true evangelisers. As she wrote: “Words are not enough! Words die before the Word. I can only prove my love for him by loving my neighbour, for my neighbour is He Himself.”

Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you. It was the Holy Spirit who gave Catherine the words to challenge the modern pharisees, and to withstand the resulting threats. It was the Holy Spirit who gave her the grace to embrace celibacy while still so in love with her husband Eddie. It was the Holy Spirit who gave her the courage to tend the wounded in wars, to enter the slums without a penny, to live as the only white woman in a black enclave, to endure the failure of two apostolates and to begin again, to push herself beyond her limits to preach the Gospel of Love.

Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me. This inspired line offers a way of holiness. When Catherine began her apostolic life in the 1920s, most lay people were not yet aware of their call to union with God. They believed that to be the domain of Religious. This was not in Catherine’s Russian heritage, and she set about to teach and give witness to the call of every child of God to be one with Him. Every action can be a holy act, if offered out of love for God. This was why Catherine laboured for the Catholic Lay Movement, why she insisted we live in the marketplace and don’t wear habits. We are ordinary people living the nitty-gritty of everyday life in union with Christ. This is a universal call and it can sanctify the world.

Love… love… love, never counting the cost. In Madonna House hangs a sign that proclaims I am Third. I am called to love and serve God first, then my neighbour, and lastly myself. God is a jealous lover, a consuming fire who wants nothing less than our whole heart. From this wellspring of love we are mandated to love, to forgive, to lay down our lives for others. And only from this place of union can we see and love ourselves as God wishes.

This demanding call is at the heart of our life. When Catherine wrote the Constitution for our Apostolate, she placed at the beginning the law of love, for “the primary work of the Apostolate is that we love one another… This is the greatest work of the Apostolate. We must love God. We must love ourselves according to the will of God. We must love one another. This deep love of humanity requires an enlargement of heart that is so great that man could not aspire to it unless God showed him the way. We must pray for that enlargement of heart because we must become an inn for all those besieged by robbers, and where is the man or woman today who isn’t?”

Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast. Catherine eloquently spoke of our call to be contemplatives in the marketplace in a letter written in 1957. “I have mentioned the need for contemplation. While on a human level our Apostolate is one of the most active imaginable, I think it has also been destined by God to be deeply contemplative. Unless we become contemplatives, how will we ever be able to face a lifetime of doubts, temptations and fears? Unless we enter the great silence of God and his peace, how will we be able to face the daily pain that grinds us like sand? Resting on his breast, listening only to the sound of his heartbeats, we will hear, in proportion to our inner stillness, the depth of his love for us.

“We are a new breed of contemplatives. Our monasteries are the busy streets of new pagan cities… We are a new breed of contemplatives, and our bells are the poor, knocking ceaselessly at our blue doors. We are a new breed of contemplatives, and we must learn to rest on the heart of God, listening to the perfect harmony of his heartbeats while we go about his business in the midst of the most discordant music the world has ever known.”

Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Catherine wrote: “I would be hidden as Christ was hidden in Nazareth. I considered Nazareth to be the centre of my vocation. Only by being hidden would I be a light to my neighbour’s feet in the slums.” Catherine Doherty was a great woman, a holy woman. And yet she remains largely hidden in the Church. Her spiritual child, Madonna House, is also hidden in the shadow of the great orders and international movements in the universal Church. We are hidden in God. And somehow, by our life of atonement, prayer, uncompromising love, we become an unseen light. We can go without fears into the depth of men’s hearts for I am with you. It is Christ who lives and moves in us, when we allow Him access. We can bring Him, then, into the places of greatestdarkness, poverty, need. We can bring His light.

Pray always. I will be your rest. Catherine always dreamt of living a poustinik vocation, but God called her to love and serve as Jesus did, and to take her vigils at night, as He did. In her cabin was a cushion with the Russian words “I sleep but my heart watches”. Catherine’s heart rested always on the breast of her Beloved, giving her the grace and strength to love, love, love, never counting the cost.

Our Lady, the Trinity and the Church

In this short introduction to Catherine Doherty’s spirituality, three other elements must be presented: Our Lady, the Trinity and the Church. At the end of a talk about Madonna House given in 1956, Catherine was asked why she hadn’t spoken of Our Lady. After all, the Apostolate is dedicated to Her.

Her response? “All the things I have spoken to you will happen to you if you go to Jesus through Mary. She possesses the secret of prayer, the secret of wisdom, for she is the Mother of God. Who else can teach you to burn with the fire of love except the Mother of fair love? Who else can teach you to pray except the woman of prayer? Who else can teach you to go through the silence of deserts and nights, the silence of pain and sorrow, the solitude of joy and gladness, except the woman wrapped in silence?

“Sometimes it is difficult to speak of the self-evident… Our Lady of the Trinity and Our Lady of Madonna House are one and the same… Perhaps my silence about Mary was a tribute to the woman wrapped in silence. But I conclude by saying that all that we do in this Apostolate we do through Mary. All of us are consecrated to her as her slaves (a form of consecration given by St Louis de Montfort). That’s why we are free. And that is why we can dedicate ourselves so utterly to her Son, because it is she who shows us the Way.”

Towards the beginning of her Constitution, Catherine wrote that the essence of her spirituality, which was formed in Russia, is the Trinity. She described a mystical glimpse she was given of the Trinity as fire, flame and movement and herself as both enveloped by, and enveloping, the Trinity. Because she had been given this glimpse, she wanted her life (and ours) to reflect that vision. And thus we are three branches in Madonna House: lay men, lay women and priests, living one life. In this we model ourselves after the Blessed Trinity and after the Holy Family in Nazareth.

When writing elsewhere about living in community she said: “The Community of the Trinity is simply the Community of Love: God the Father loving God the Son, and this love bringing forth the Holy Spirit. In order to form a community, we must make contact with the Trinity first. Then and only then can we make a community with others… The secret of becoming a community is a total involvement in the other, and a total emptying of oneself so that each can say, I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me. Then the Christian community has come into existence. Then, like the Holy Spirit who truly formed it, a community becomes a fire burning in our midst and, from this fire, sparks kindle the earth.”

Catherine was deeply loyal to the Church, for she understood it to be the Body of Christ. From the age of 11 years, she consciously offered her life for priests, even if their humanity was at times scandalous. When she was a child, she found the local priest one day drunk in the gutter. Deeply shaken, she ran to her mother who calmly asked Catherine to help her bring the priest to their home. After she had washed him and put him on the bed, she called Catherine to put a lily in her brother’s chamber pot. It was a lesson Catherine never forgot: the humanity of the priest might be in the gutter, but Christ remained the pure lily in his priesthood.

Catherine was always obedient to the Church and willingly suffered for the Church. After Vatican II, when the Church seemed to be torn apart she wrote: “The Church is in agony. The remedy: greater love, greater understanding, greater compassion, greater empathy for all who are confused, suffering, leaving the Church, tearing the seamless robe of Christ in the process. The world has become a Coliseum once again. Those who understand that true renewal begins with themselves … will be ground into the invisible wheat of the bread of Christ. Having eaten of the God of love, they must now be ready to be consumed themselves as holocausts and as martyrs. This invisible shedding of blood may be the seeds of both a new faith and the finding of a lost one.”

Catherine de Hueck Doherty died on 14 December 1985, the feast day of St John of the Cross. The similarities between these two followers of God are striking, especially their adherence to the path of Love in the midst of darkness and rejection. Was it on that day that the title Catherine of the Cross was first heard? It is indeed apt.
Lover of God, white martyr of the Gospel, prophet and poet – this is Catherine of the Cross.
Madonna House has a field house in Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, England, where currently five members offer a house of hospitality and prayer. There are two prayer rooms available for retreatants, and the Chapel is available for an encounter with God. People are welcome to phone, write or come for prayer or counsel.

Madonna House
Thorpe Lane
Robin Hood’s Bay
YO22 4TQ
01947 880 169
[email protected]

*Poustinia is a Russian word for desert and it refers to a way of prayer that is more Eastern: silence, solitude, fasting and prayer with only the Scriptures as spiritual food. The poustinik is not a hermit, however, and expects to serve his neighbours according to their need. Catherine first brought this word and concept to the West in 1975, as she published her book entitled Poustinia.

It is now a fairly common word, having been integrated into the Western contemplative world. Catherine went on to publish a series of books introducing other Russian concepts, calling us to breathe with both lungs. She is thus a sturdy bridge between the East and West.

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