Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Catherine de Hueck Doherty

Baroness. Pauper. Wife and mother. Celibate. Activist. Contemplative. Catherine de Hueck Doherty's tumultuous life included all these elements and more. Like Francis of Assisi, whom she sought to emulate as a Franciscan tertiary, Catherine was single-minded in her quest for God, and the force of her personality drew along many in her wake.

Photo of Catherine taken by Thomas Merton (1941)
Catherine was born in 1896 into Russian minor nobility. As a young schoolgirl, she displayed her innate piety when she tried to clean away Christ’s bloody wounds on the crucifix. Raised in the Orthodox Church and educated largely in Catholic schools, she grew up breathing with both lungs of the Church, East and West. Eventually Catherine became a Catholic, but she never lost her love for eastern Christianity. 

At age 15, Catherine married her cousin, Baron Boris de Hueck. World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution denied the couple an idyllic married life in society’s upper-crust. Instead, the de Huecks left Russia for Ontario, Canada, where Catherine gave birth to a son, George. The upheaval in their lives hit Boris hard, and he fell into dissolute living. The de Hueck marriage unraveled and was subsequently annulled, leaving Catherine a single mother in a foreign land. She leaned heavily on her faith during this time, and even as she found success as a writer and lecturer, Catherine felt the Lord preparing her for a special work.

An immigrant and outsider herself, Catherine knew the pain of poverty and the shame of social exclusion. Taking her cue from the papal social encyclicals, she applied her awakened social consciousness to the fight against racial prejudice. “A love that is not incarnate is not real love,” she used to say, and it was a sentiment she put into action. 

Doherty with Dorothy Day in Rome (1957)
Catherine’s Friendship Houses—first in Toronto, then in New York City—focused on interracial bridge-building, and despite opposition and poverty, the work flourished throughout the 1930s and 40s, spreading across North America.

Worn out by years of selfless charity and civil rights activism, Catherine retreated to the prairies of Ontario in 1947, and established Madonna House with her new husband, Eddie Doherty. What started as an attempt at “poustinia”—a Russian term for desert spirituality—became a destination for a regular stream of visitors.

A community of like-minded men, women, and priests began to take shape, and, recognizing God’s hand at work, the Dohertys surrendered themselves to the new undertaking—a surrender that led them to take a promise of chastity and embrace celibacy for the remainder of their lives. “Acquire inner peace,” Catherine wrote prophetically, quoting St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, “and a multitude will find their salvation near you.” Today, Madonna House includes over 200 permanent members with satellite communities around the world.

Catherine Doherty died in 1985. Pope John Paul II opened the cause for her canonization in 2000, bestowing on her the title Servant of God.

A version of this story was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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