April 30, 2012

Submitted by guest writer Jaclyn Chabot.

Catherine Doherty, the foundress of Madonna House Apostolate is not the easiest person to write a biography about. In the preface to her own autobiography, Catherine sums it up pretty well, first from the outsiders’ viewpoint, referring to herself in the third person: “You have led a very interesting life, a historical life. You've been part of very strange events. You've had many adventures. Somewhere along the line you 'got religion'”.  However I would say that religion was fundamental throughout the entire course of her life, and that her own statement about herself is more accurate in that it shows who she was in everything that she did: “You know I am in love with God, and this is a fact. But if you are in love with God you are also in love with people; one follows the other like night follows day and day follows night.”

Her life was never easy, in fact, it was quite the opposite. Catherine was born in Russia into nobility, her family having received titles of nobility from the Tzar, something that didn't really matter much to her as a child: she was more interested in the fact that she was a descendant of farmers from a district south of Moscow. She was baptized Russian Orthodox.  Due to her father's line of work, Catherine spent much of her childhood travelling to many foreign countries including Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Switzerland. She went to school in several different countries, and at one time she could speak Modern Greek, Russian, French, English, German, Arabic, and she understood Serbian, Bulgarian, and Polish.  They would also go to Jerusalem for the holy week ceremonies.  I think because of this, Catherine was very aware and accepting of many different cultures, beliefs, and personal values.
At one point in her childhood, Catherine's family lost everything and spent one year in Paris living very poorly. It was Catherine's first taste of poverty, although, being a child, she really didn't seem to feel it, and instead rather enjoyed it. 

Catherine, already married at 15 to the Baron de Hueck, lived through the Russian Revolution as a nurse for the Red Cross. When sent for duty at the front, she worked supervising the kitchen and keeping an eye on the first aid centers in the fields in back of the trenches. She received a decoration for bravery when she was sent to a dangerous area between the Russian and German lines and was injured en route.
In Petrograd after the war, Catherine was forced into poverty and starvation by the communist peoples due to the fact that she and her husband were aristocrats.  She would walk miles and miles in search of food, cabbage leafs and scraps in garbage cans, and the once beautiful house was left bare after the communists had taken everything away from them.  She and her husband eventually decided to make a run for Finland.  They were literally within steps of the border when they were spotted by a patrol and had to run for their lives, only to discover after crossing into Finland, that the village near their estate was communist.  The villagers decided that they would die by starvation. Catherine and her husband were almost dead when, after Finland defeated the Germans and decided to wipe out all the communists in the country, the authorities found out what the villagers had done.  They were saved and taken to a hospital to recover. Catherine weighed only 85 pounds.

Catherine and her husband voluntarily joined the White Army after the communist revolution. She was sent to a British hospital since she spoke English, but when her husband became ill they were sent from Finland to Edinburgh.  From there, they traveled to London, where they lived in great poverty until by chance they came in contact with an uncle of her husband's, who welcomed them into his elegant home. When the White Russian front collapsed, they moved away to Toronto, Canada. Catherine, at this point, was about 25 years old. 

Shortly after World War 1, due to the scarcity of jobs, Catherine left for New York City in order to find a job. Again, Catherine was forced to live in poverty. Her husband was working in Montreal, and it was a difficult time for their marriage, as they were forced in their separate ways by jobs and other attachments. Catherine again found herself on the brink of starvation; she was making 7 dollars a week. 

One day, out of the blue, a woman found her in a small store where she was working and stated that she knew Catherine was a Baroness and asked her if she would come for tea.  Tea ended up being the telling of her story of escape from Russia to a group of forty people.  Due to the very eloquent and exciting narration of the story of her adventure, she was later offered a very high paying job touring all over North America.  She would dress up in a Russian costume and give lectures of her life story as the Baroness de Hueck. She travelled from Sudbury, Ontario through Canada to Oregon, California, and then to Kansas City and ended in Chicago

Catherine would intermittently take trips home to Canada where her husband lived in their house; eventually she realized that something had fundamentally changed in her, and in her love for her husband. She saw that the marriage was falling apart, and with advice from a priest, the marriage was eventually annulled.

Back in New York, Catherine continued to lecture here and there, but at the same time God had begun to ask her to give up everything in order to follow him.   So, after a good deal of fighting with it, she eventually followed His call, and left her $20,000 salary and everything she possessed in order to go and live in the slums of Toronto during the Great Depression.  Catherine had always wanted to be like Saint Francis when she was little: giving up all her riches and going to live with the poor; but after having been forced into poverty and starvation, and then afterwards recovering and becoming rich again, it had been a more difficult thing for her to give it up. 

But her childhood dream had come back, and it led her to write down what she called, and what now all the Madonna House Apostolate calls, The Little Mandate: 

“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.

Blessing the statue of
 Our Lady of Combermere
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 fear into the depths of men's hearts. I shall be with you.

Pray always. I will be your rest.”

To be continued...


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