Catherine Doherty and the Western Re-discovery of the Poustinia
“Ekaterina Fyodorovna Kolyschkine de Hueck Doherty, better known as Catherine Doherty CM Servant of God (August 15, 1896 – December 14, 1985) was a Roman Catholic social worker and foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate.
A pioneer of social justice and a renowned national speaker, Doherty was also a prolific writer of hundreds of articles, best-selling author of dozens of books, and a dedicated wife and mother. Her cause for canonization as a saint is under consideration by the Catholic Church.
Doherty was born Ekaterina Fyodorovna Kolyschkine (Екатерина Фёдоровна Колышкина) in Nizhny Novgorod, Russian Empire. Her parents, Fyodor and Emma Thomson Kolyschkine, belonged to the minor nobility and were devout members of the Russian Orthodox Church who had their child baptized in St. Petersburg on September 15, 1896. She was not baptized on the same day that she was born because her mother was worried she might get a disease as she had been born on a train. Schooled abroad due to her father’s job, she 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. Her family returned to St. Petersburg in 1910, where she was enrolled in the prestigious Princess Obolensky Academy. In 1912, aged 15, she married her first cousin, Baron Boris de Hueck (1889–1947).
At the outbreak of World War I, Baroness de Hueck became a Red Cross nurse at the front, experiencing the horrors of battle firsthand. On her return to St. Petersburg, she and Boris barely escaped the turmoil of the Russian Revolution with their lives, nearly starving to death as refugees in Finland. Together they made their way to England, where de Hueck was received into the Roman Catholic Church on November 27, 1919.
Emigrating to Canada with Boris, de Hueck gave birth to their only child, George, in Toronto in 1921. To make ends meet, she took various jobs, eventually becoming a lecturer, travelling across North America.
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.” Consulting with various priests and the bishop of the diocese, she began her lay apostolate among the poor.
In 1932, she gave up all her possessions, lived among the multitude of poor people in downtown Toronto and established Friendship House with its soup kitchen. She gave food to them when she had none for herself – and offered Catholic education and fellowship, too. Ironically, she was tagged as a communist sympathizer and, beleaguered by her own organization, Friendship House was forced to close in 1936. Catherine then went to Europe and spent a year investigating Catholic Action. On her return, she established the Friendship House at 34 West 135th Street in Harlem in 1937. The interracial charity center, in addition to distributing goods to the poor, conducted lectures and discussions to promote racial understanding. In time, more than a dozen Friendship Houses would be founded in North America.
In 1943, having received an annulment of her first marriage, as she had married her cousin, which is forbidden in the Roman Catholic Church, she married Eddie Doherty, one of America’s foremost reporters, who had fallen in love with her while writing a story about her apostolate.
Serious disagreements arose between the staff of Friendship House and its foundress, particularly surrounding her marriage. When these could not be resolved, Doherty and Eddie moved to Combermere, Ontario, on May 17, 1947, naming their new rural apostolate Madonna House.
This was to be the seedbed of an apostolate that, in the year 2000, numbered more than 200 staff workers and over 125 associate priests, deacons, and bishops, with 22 missionary field-houses throughout the world.
Eddie Doherty “Tumbleweed: A Biography of Catherine Doherty” [Madonna House Pubns, 1988)
“Vividly portrays Catherine’s early life in Russia, her harrowing escape to freedom during the Revolution, her life as a refugee in North America, and her calling to the lay apostolate. A revealing look at the motivations behind this amazing woman — as seen through the eyes of her husband.”
Lorene Hanley Duquin “They Called Her The Baroness: The Life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty” [Alba House, 1995)
“A wonderfully absorbing, professionally researched biography of Catherine Doherty which is most of all a grippingly readable tale. An adventurous love story of one soul’s journey into God. The first professionally researched biography of Catherine Doherty.
Born at the turn of the century into the wealth and luxury of Russian nobility, condemned to death during the Bolshevik Revolution, an immigrant to North America, friend of the rich and famous, victim of an unhappy marriage and divorce, foundress of the Friendship Houses in America and the Madonna Houses throughout the world given to serving the poor, a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement and a woman passionately in love with God, Catherine de Hueck Doherty remains an enigma years after her death. Considered a saint by some (her cause for canonization is under consideration) and a charlatan by others, hers is an undeniably extraordinary story.
Catherine believed that the only hope for the salvation of the world was love, the kind of love that would stamp out pride, greed and selfishness, a love that would heal and restore emotionally battered people. Her life knew this need.
At the start of the Great Depression, her ‘arranged’ marriage ended after years of emotional abuse. Searching for deeper meaning, she moved into the slums of Toronto to work for the poor. A cleric sabotaged the effort. Her only child rebelled and ran away from home. She hovered on the brink of suicide, but found the courage to start again and became a forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940′s.
Catherine served as a freelance journalist in Europe during the Spanish Civil War and at the start of World War II. In 1943, she married a celebrated Chicago newspaper columnist. When her friends and followers rejected her vision of the future, she moved to the back woods of Canada and started the first Madonna House. They are now found on five continents.
A powerful lecturer and award winning author, her more than 30 books blend a profound spirituality of the East and West. When two russion icons were installed in the Madonna House Chapel in Combermere, Catherine exclaimed: “Perhaps [God] wanted a humble little bridge between the Latin and Eastern rites. For…here were the Lord, Christ of Russia, and [his mother] coming into our chapel… dedicated to the reunion of East and West…bringing by their very presence…unity based on love, prayer, and an understanding of one another.” Her whole life echoed this.”
Mary Bazzett. “The Life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty” [Madonna House Publications, 1998]
“The life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty is an adventure story through two World Wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and the Second Vatican Council. Yet more than all that—the life of Catherine Doherty is a love story. Born into aristocratic wealth, Catherine experienced grinding poverty as a refugee. She went from riches to rags, and eventually back to riches, in North America. Then inexplicably, she reverted to poverty, voluntarily giving away her possessions and living in the slums to work with the poor and destitute—all for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because of Christ, Catherine’s life is a love story. “I am in love with God and that is a fact,” she would say. How this love story unfolded to include the lay apostolate of Friendship House—and later Madonna House—is contained in this booklet. Initial steps in the canonization process are currently underway to determine if Catherine Doherty might one day be declared a saint in the Catholic Church.”
Echo Lewis “Victorious Exile: The Unexpected Destiny of Katya Kolyschkine: Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Amazing Journey Into Loss, Love, Death and Resurrection” [Madonna House Publications, 2013]
“Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s amazing journey through loss, love, death, and resurrection. Katya Kolyschkine lived a life of adventure, peril, persecution and exile from her native Russia. Trying to forge a new life in North America, she struggled with poverty and near-despair. Darkness closed in on her, but she was propelled by a love so great nothing could overpower it.”
Catherine de Hueck Doherty “My Russian Yesterdays” [3nd ed., Madonna House Publications, 2010]
“Will the faith of Holy Russia help renew the faith of the West? Catherine’s zeal for bringing people to Christ led her to write about the Christian customs of the Russia of her childhood. Catherine Doherty’s zeal for bringing people to Christ led her to write about the Christian customs of the Russia of her childhood in a way that feeds our faith.
The faith of Old Russia endured through the Revolution and the Communist era and still endures today. “My Russian Yesterdays” is a book of the ordinary Russian people and of the solid, simple, yet abiding faith which was the joy and inspiration of their life. Is this the sort of example which will lead us to God’s peace and order in the midst of our modern, complex, and fear-burdened world?”
Catherine de Hueck Doherty “Fragments of My Life: A Memoir” [3rd ed., Madonna House Publications, 2007]
“A journey into Catherine’s life, disclosing the mysteries of world events that shaped her; the mysteries of her leadership and her marriage; and, most of all, the mysteries of God’s love. With 40 photographs. Intensely personal experiences forged Catherine Doherty’s heart and spirit—as a child living in exotic places, as a youth caught up in the Russian Revolution, as a young woman struggling as a refugee in foreign lands.
Catherine can be said to have ‘done it all’ but, unlike many, she ‘did it all’ for Christ and in some of the most unlikely places—and ways! How, why and where she did it are breathtakingly revealed in “Fragments of My Life”. The pace of her life never lets up.
The reader meets a woman of joy, humor, suffering and sheer exuberance, who shares, in a conversational and very personal way, her painful, growing experiences as a disciple who attempts to live the Gospel.
“Fragments of My Life” is really a love story—the story of young love, mature love; love of God and people, person by person. The telling is itself an act of love, uttered in trust, but not without risk. Catherine Doherty emerges from these pages as a woman to contend with, a heroic Christian example for our times.”
Doherty’s writings include:
“Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer” (Madonna House Classics Vol.1) by Catherine Doherty (Jan 1, 2000)
“Strannik: The Call to the Pilgrimage of the Heart” (Madonna House Classics) by Catherine Doherty (Jan 1, 2000)
“Molchanie: Experiencing the Silence of God” (Madonna House Classics) (Vol 4) by Catherine Doherty (Jan 1, 2001)
“Bogoroditza: She Who Gave Birth to God” by Catherine De Hueck Doherty and Catherine de Hueck Doherty (Jul 16, 2001)
“Urodivoi: Holy Fools” (Madonna House Classics) (Vol 5) by Catherine Doherty (Jan 1, 2001)
“Fragments of My Life” by Catherine Doherty (Jan 1, 2007)
“Catherine De Hueck Doherty: Essential Writings” (Modern Spiritual Masters) by Catherine De Hueck Doherty and SJ David Meconi (Mar 11, 2009)
To balance the widespread laudatory – indeed, often hagiographical – evaluations of Catherine Doherty, the following from the significant “Hermitary” is offered:
“Evaluating the impact of Catherine Doherty (1896-1985) and her idea of “poustinia” is complicated by the issue of her personality and how she was received and interpreted by the hierarchy and religious of the Catholic Church in her day. Books of her reflections and talks only began to appear late in her life, when a certain degree of co-existence in Church circles appeared to tolerate her and her movement, by then its ideas having been largely absorbed by larger issues championed by more institution-friendly groups.
What was the Anglo-American ecclesiastical establishment to make of this outspoken Russian-born woman, a convert baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, an émigré to Canada and the U.S. who went from rags to riches to rags again, a divorcee who eventually got an annulment (itself controversial) back in the 1940’s, a woman who criticized Church and public policies on race, segregation, poverty, and economic justice long before they were mainstream Catholic issues?
Catherine Doherty remarried in 1943 and moved to Combermere, Ontario, an obscure place where she could work with the local bishop in reconstituting her Friendship House model, renaming it Madonna House. These houses were established as lay communal quarters, renouncing individual ownership, its residents embracing a life of economic and spiritual modesty on the model of traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The effort grew slowly but only thrived with the liberalizing atmosphere of the Vatican Council and its aftermath, intersecting, however, with the already popular vocabulary of ecumenism and — in the case of the “poustinia” concept — the retreat movement.
But none of this biographical information is told in the book “Poustinia”. The concept must be evaluated on its own terms. The first of three sections of the book is about “poustinia” and clearly are the most original of the sections, apparently composed in the 1960’s. The remaining two sections are primarily talks to staff and visitors.
“Poustinia” is Russian for “desert,” and represents the path of solitude in searching for meaning. It evokes the long traditional of hermit monks and the figure of the forest-dwelling “staretz”. But the book never gets too far in explaining this tradition or how it can be presented to the West. Doherty assumes that the force of her personality is sufficient — and, indeed, it may have worked in person. But as a book the treatment is insufficient and lacks depth. For example, here is a concluding comment about “poustinia”:
It seems strange to say, but what can help modern man find the answers to his own mystery and the mystery of him in whose image he is created, is silence, solitude — in a word, the desert [emphasis in original]. Modern man needs these things more than the hermits of old.
Doherty briefly describes the Russian “poustinik”: the hermit living on the edge of town, door unlatched, welcoming anyone but seeking out no one. She relates what must have been an impressive childhood memory, that of Peter, a friend of her father who sold all of his considerable property and set out alone and barefoot like a medieval pilgrim or beggar, one of the “jurodivia”. Years later and in another city, her father recognized his friend’s expressionless face in a crowd of beggars.
“He called out his name and intelligence returned to that face. They embraced. They went to Mass together and then had breakfast. My father asked, “Why have you chosen this vocation of idiot or retarded person?” Peter answered, “I am atoning for the men who have called Christ a fool during his lifetime and during all the centuries thereafter.” They kissed each other again, and Peter disappeared. My father never saw him again.
But these are the only anecdotes about hermits and eastern spirituality in the entire book.” We are left wanting so much more!
In the remainder of part one Doherty adapts the concept of “poustinia” for lay people and occasional religious visitors. On the grounds of her House is a smallish house or cottage, furnished with cot, table and chair. The only permitted reading is a Bible, and the only permitted food (supplied) is bread and hot water for tea or coffee.
The “pousitnikki” is to immerse himself or herself in sheer solitude, not reading more than the Bible, not working, no communications, not even praying if the spirit does not persuade. Walks in the woods or puttering in the cottage garden are permitted for the visitor’s weekend stay. Doherty even gives license to just sleep if that is all that the exhausted but honest wayfarer can accomplish. But solitude, sacrifice, silence, self-discipline — all these tools are intended to open the person to finding God experientially. Then the “poustinikki” can return to the “marketplace” of the world carrying the desert within the self.
Doherty’s book is conversational and informal. There are very few references to other writers or books, and no deep spiritual insights on the topic of solitude and silence. Doherty is eminently practical, like an administrator, though one remembers that Teresa of Avila was both an administrator and a mystic. There is little or no mysticism about Doherty’s style or personality, which would have been a redeeming quality in her lifelong battles with the Church. Instead, the charismatic movement has found room for her, and perhaps that is where her ideas best succeed, for they do not really reproduce the “spirituality of the East” nor did they ever take off in the West.
There is a small group representing Madonna House that is lobbying for Doherty’s canonization. Such efforts on behalf of any number of candidates these days have taken on an embarrassing aura of public relations and fund-raising. “Poustinia” is a valid concept, but given the many retreat models both Catholic and other in today’s self-help marketplace, one wonders how successfully this fragile plant has fared in being roughly transplanted outside of its native soil.”