Chambers of Her Heart,
Madonna House & Priestly Formation


Chapter 3 Chapter 1 Contents List

          I must first introduce you to Catherine Doherty so you can get the proper perspective upon the community she founded. Some acquaintance with her life will help you understand the vision of Madonna House in which you will be immersed.

          Catherine was born in Russia on August 15, 1896, and died in her cabin in Combermere, Ontario, December 14, 1985, on the feast of St. John of the Cross. I am the postulator for her cause for canonization. Moments after her death her bed was surrounded by her spiritual children. Her life and teaching influences millions of people. She was one of the truly extraordinary Catholic women of the 20th century.

          Who was she? Catherine herself would have answered simply, “I am a woman in love with God and with the poor.” On her cross in the Church cemetery in Combermere are the words, “She loved the poor.”

          Who was she? She was the foundress of Madonna House, one of the new ecclesial communities in the Catholic Church. We are priests and laity, men and women, who try to serve the poor and preach the Gospel on five continents throughout the world. She was the author of many books, including what is now considered to be a modern classic, Poustinia. History books are already attesting to the fact that she was a pioneer among the Catholic laity in North America in implementing the social encyclicals of the Popes, especially in the area of racial justice.

          Who was she? One of the prophetic voices of our time, one of those people whom God uses to keep his holy Gospel perspective alive in the world. She was a teacher of the Gospel, a trust-worthy spiritual guide during a most confusing century.

          She was a trust-worthy guide because her teaching did not descend from some ivory tower. She personally went through most of the major cataclysms and trials of the 20th century: two world wars; the Russian revolution; the experience of being a refugee; the Great Depression of the 1930’s; poverty; a broken marriage; temptations to suicide; rejection and persecution for the Gospel’s sake, and this often from the Church she loved; service to the poor; fighting racial injustice and prejudice; suffering from the scandal of a sometimes all too human Church; living in a secularized culture; steering her spiritual children through the turbulent waters of the post-Vatican II Church; founding a new ecclesial community.

          I myself trust her because she not only “got through” these trials with her faith in tact, but even more importantly, with her faith and love vibrant, shining, and on fire right to the end of her life. I trust her because her faith has been tried in the crucible of experience

          But Catherine did not simply have a strong faith, or the gift of speaking a prophetic word about our times, or the ability to discern the movements of the spirit in the hearts of others. She did not simply preach the Gospel without compromise, or call people to heroism as the Lord did. She not only had what I call a  “charism of truth” – the ability to speak Gospel wisdom about the whole of life. She had what is even rarer: the energy, courage, practicality, and the incarnational dynamism to actually make her vision a reality in daily life. Could we call it a charism of Gospel life?

          Charles Peguy criticized the clergy and religious of his day for “spiritualizing” the Gospel and failing to incarnate it in the life of society:

    They have spiritualized everything in Christianity. They have betrayed the earth. In their ignorance of the temporal order there is a great deal of unbelief, a great deal of laziness. They have underrated the essentially complementary, indispensable, completing element, the created world, and thus they are bad workmen; they sabotage the eternal gardens, trampling down the garden of the Lord.  (Quoted in Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, I)

          This is a bit harsh, and perhaps extreme. Much could be written on the other side about the innumerable priests and religious who would not merit this criticism, who founded hospitals, orphanages, schools; indeed, who laid the foundations for all the modern social services in the West.

          But Peguy was speaking about the Western world of his day when too many of those consecrated to the service of God’s people retreated from the public square and thus created a vacuum into which secular remedies flowed to bring justice to the social ills. His criticism is less true today. I quote him especially to highlight, in this book about Catherine’s spirituality and formation, her profound integration of faith and life. You read many books about the need to integrate faith into every aspect of life. Catherine had the genius and energy and courage to do it.

          Catherine was born in Russia at a time when Christianity was still strong and vital among the majority of people, but not in a large segment of the upper classes. Secularism, materialism, and even atheism were  very prevalent among the intelligentia. Especially were drastic changes needed to alleviate the poverty of millions of people. Nevertheless, among ordinary people, home life, work, relationships in society – all were still permeated with the spirit of the Gospel.

          As a result of the Russian Revolution, an extraordinary event took place in the West: an estimated five million Russians flooded into  Europe. Many of them were from the upper classes. Though they often were materially poor, having lost all their earthly goods in the revolution, they were spiritually, intellectually, artistically very rich.

          In the realm of theology and spirituality, one often hears the names of Bulgakov, Florovsky, Evdokimov, Mother Maria Skobtsova, and others. Catherine, also, is beginning to be listed among the greats of the Russian emigration.

          When Catherine came to the West she must have been in culture shock, and not simply for all the obvious reasons. She would have been in shock over the secularization of society. It was as if she had parachuted down from the medieval world of Russia (which was at the time closer to the Western 13th century) into the 20th century. She surely must have had a traumatic experience of how secularized western culture really was.

          The Russian religious psyche has an extraordinary drive for the integration of faith and life; a passion to incarnate the truth of the Gospel into every aspect of life and culture. The aberration of the West is to be so involved in the world as to neglect the Gospel; the Far East is so spiritual as to often neglect the crying needs of the world altogether. Thus, even geographically, Russia lies between these two worlds, and she has a genius for integrating the world and the spirit. (Communism was a Western product, but only the Russians took it seriously and implemented it, put flesh on it. But it was the wrong spirit!) Catherine, among others, brought this integrative genius to the West. It is the driving force behind the holistic formation you will find at Madonna House.

          Catherine was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, and received her earliest religious formation in that great tradition. But her paternal grandmother was Polish Catholic. When she was about six years old she went with her family to Alexandria, Egypt, and her father enrolled her in a Roman Catholic school conducted by the Sisters of Sion. This profound Catholic influence during some of the most formative years of her young life – and other factors as well - eventually led to her request to be received into the Catholic Church in England before coming to Canada.

          Over a long life, Catherine integrated both of these great traditions – Russian Orthodoxy and Catholicism – within her own heart. She is one of the seeds of integration that can help towards the reunion of these sister Churches

          The members of Madonna House have also been called by the Lord to try and try and work towards this unity. Thus you will find a Catholic/Orthodox atmosphere permeating the community. Many feed on the great spiritual writers of Orthodoxy, love icons – or even paint them – and feel more and more at home at the Eastern liturgies. During your stay with us the Lord will also be calling you to a better understanding and love of the Eastern Church.

          Catherine had a profound love of Mary as the Mother of the Redeemer and of the Church. She recognized Mary’s role as an integral part of the Gospel vision for the restoration and healing of the wounds of our modern society. “Madonna House” means, of course, “the house of our Lady.” Catherine believed that Jesus had made a present of our community to Our Lady. We have a very strong love for her. We consider the de Montfort consecration (which we’ll be considering) an important entrance into the chambers of Mary’s Heart and the Heart of Jesus. One of the characteristics of the new ecclesial communities is their strong Marian emphasis.

          Catherine’s parents had an extraordinary love for the poor. Her mother, for example, had insisted on getting married in a peasant village among the poor she had been serving. She belonged to a movement called “going to the poor” which was an attempt on the part of the upper classes to bridge the gap between rich and poor. As a child, Catherine often accompanied her mother on these visits. Also, Catherine often saw her father get up from the table and wait on beggars who came to the door, so much did he see Christ in them.

          Her parents’ example burned into Catherine’s soul the Gospel truth that what is done to others is done to Christ himself. In Catherine’s dynamic Russian faith, love was never abstract: Love is a Person, love is God. Love was giving clothes, offering a cup of tea, or lending a listening ear to Christ in the other. “A love that is not incarnate is not real love,” she would say.

          Married at an early age, Catherine and her first husband, Boris de Hueck, went through the First World War and the Russian Revolution. They experienced the collapse of Russia’s Christian culture where the very word for Sunday – even still today - means Resurrection, and where people heard the Gospel in their own language for over a thousand years. The young couple barely escaped into Finland with their lives, and thence to England, and eventually to Canada in 1921.

          Thus, through the Revolution, Catherine had imprinted on her being the realization that injustice to the poor can destroy a whole Christian civilization. She was on fire in the West with the message: “Wake up! Wake up! Live the Gospel, or you will call down upon yourselves the anger of God as we did!” Despite opposition and misunderstanding, she preached this message to the end of her life: “Share what you have with the poor, or you will perish.” This was not a pious phrase for her. It was a matter of life or death.

          Catherine lived out her message by opening, first in Toronto, and then in Harlem, in the 1930’s, what she called Friendship Houses. Her approach was simple: to live the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth among the poor, and then to share with them whatever the Lord provided – clothes, food, shelter. As mentioned above, she was one of the pioneers of racial justice in the United States. Part of her “charism of truth” was the directness with which she spoke out against injustice. Many in the Church were telling her, “It’s not time.” She would respond: “It’s always time for living the Gospel.”

          In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s she opened over half a dozen Friendship Houses where Black people were treated with dignity, and helped in their material and spiritual needs. She was involved in sit-ins in New York long before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

          In the chapel of that convent school in Alexandria there was a crucifix, graphically portraying the sufferings of Christ. One day she went around with soap and water and tried to rub the blood off Christ’s wounds so that he wouldn’t suffer any more. This early inspiration – by no means simply a childish gesture – grew into Catherine’s all-consuming passion. In a very real sense, that early gesture dramatized the absolute centre of her heart.

          What was that centre? She experienced that Jesus, in some real sense, continues to suffer in the members of his Mystical Body: “When I hear a knock on the door, I see a hand with a wound in it – literally,” she once said. It was her lifelong passion to take Jesus down from the cross, to console him, to bind up his wounds, and pour oil on them. She did this when she cared for the poor, because they were Christ. She had an intense inner vision of Jesus continuing to hang on the cross on all the busy street corners of the cities of the world, with millions of people streaming by, completely unaware of his love for them.

          Catherine never understood her efforts as “social work.” Rather, she was moved by this Gospel truth: “What you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.” For Catherine, each person was Christ, to be treated with the greatest dignity. “Love is not loved! Love is not loved! Love has come into the world in Jesus Christ, but he is not loved,” was her constant cry. Catherine went to him in her neighbor, to return love for love.

          Catherine spoke and wrote about the Gospel in simple terms which ordinary people could understand. One of her desires for priests was that they too would be able to speak in language ordinary people could understand. Her words were simple because she believed the Gospel was for everyone, so it had to be spoken in a way everyone could understand. That’s why Jesus told so many stories. We all love stories, and they are easy to understand. This ability to communicate the Gospel in plain language should be one of the goals of priestly formation.

          Catherine never thought the Gospel was easy; but neither did she think it was complicated. It is we who complicate it. The Lord would like his messengers to speak in such a way that ordinary people could understand. Catherine showed us how to speak simply. We hope the members of Madonna House speak simply to you!

          Sometimes people ask: “Why did Catherine go and hide herself in the back woods of Canada for the last thirty years of her life?” This question, and what we believe was God’s plan for Catherine in this move, brings us to the mystery of Madonna House. We believe that this last of her three beginnings – Toronto and Harlem being the first two - is her greatest achievement and legacy for the Church.

          In 1947 she came with her second husband, Eddie Doherty, to the rural area of Ontario. (Her first marriage had been annulled.) It was in Combermere that she was taken by the Lord on an increasingly deeper inner journey – into God, into herself, and into the spiritual darkness of the modern world. She was also led more deeply into her own Eastern spiritual roots and the essence of the Gospel. During the last third of her life she was engaged in a “re-visioning,” a restoration, a seeking to give birth to a new Christian culture and civilization. She had not yet heard of the present Pope’s term, the “civilization of love,” but that’s what the Holy Spirit was seeking to create in her community.

          She endeavoured in Combermere, more than ever before, to apply the Gospel, not only to the diseased and distorted social conditions of the modern world, but to the entirety of human existence. The Madonna House Apostolate developed into a community that sought to express the Gospel in every aspect of its life. Catherine showed how a Gospel vision could be the root of every action. The community learned how to live out the normal events of every day with a fuller awareness of the presence of Christ.

          Catherine believed that our modern world was in a great spiritual and moral crisis. “It is useless to deny it: I cry at night. Wouldn’t you, beholding a world about to crash? Wouldn’t you cry in the night if you knew that your Beloved was not loved?”

          People ask: Was she pessimistic or optimistic about the future? These words do not really apply to our Christian understanding of our relationship with the Lord and the world. The optimist believes that, no matter what happens, or what people do, everything will turn out alright. The pessimist believes that no matter what you do, everything will turn out badly.

          Someone once asked GK Chesterton this question: “How is the world going to turn out?” He said to his questioner: “How are you going to turn out?” It made the person realize that how he turns out will pretty much depend on his decisions.

          It was the same with Catherine. She believed very much that we could make a difference in the world, but we must have the courage to enter into the marketplace and struggle there with the anti-Gospel forces.

          She was neither a conservative or a liberal, calling people to the “right” or to the “left.” As one of our associates, Archbishop Donat Chiasson, said in his homily one day, "she called people up, to the heights of the Gospel." Neither was she a dry moralist, demanding people to do good and avoid evil. She was in love with Christ. She did not think or act in terms of “morality.” She acted out of love. She made the Gospel exciting, appealing, calling people to the great adventure of being in love with Jesus.

          Catherine’s profound Gospel teaching carries within it a sure hope for the world because it is for ordinary people who make up most of the world. She taught us how to live the Gospel right where we are – in our homes, offices, factories, art centres, and schools.      

          Catherine’s profound teaching is not, of course, a new Gospel but the ancient Gospel of our faith expressed in simple, contemporary terms. In her early years she was a sword of justice. In her latter years she was a teacher of wisdom, a staretza, as the Russians say, an elder, a wise one.

          One way to express the modern task is to ask, “how can you Christianize people in their daily lives in a secularized culture?” Her way – not the only way, but the way she was led to by the Spirit – was to establish, at least in one place, a Christian culture where this would happen, in the hope that its lessons would spread. The Gospel vision lived in Madonna House can be implemented anywhere. Madonna House is only a tiny seed, but we believe it contains the transforming power of the Gospel for the whole world.

          Now, if I could pick out two of her many virtues as most important for the purposes of this book, and for your formation as a priest, I would say they were, first, her great faith; secondly, her gift of “mapping out” a profound faith journey to the Heart of Christ.

          I do not simply mean that she had faith in the sense that all Christians do. She had what St. Paul calls the gift of faith, which is able to inspire faith in others. This is what Dorothy Day intuited about Catherine: “Catherine de Hueck Doherty has the gift of a great and flaming faith and of making life an adventure, a pilgrimage.” And in the many testimonies I receive from people about Catherine, most point to her contagious faith: no one could come in contact with her without being lifted up to God and into the reality of the world of faith.

          An anecdote from the life of Maurice Baring, a friend of Chesterton and Belloc, gave me an insight into Catherine’s faith-stance towards reality.

          Baring could read and speak Russian. In the early part of the last century, before the revolution, he was walking in St. Petersburg and came across a young boy crying on the street. Asking what was the matter, the boy said he had been sent to the store by his mother but lost the money. He would be severely punished when he got home. Baring gave him the amount of money he had lost. But instead of saying thank you to Baring, the boy looked happily up to the sky and said, “Thanks be to God,” and dashed off. Baring concluded: “Russians do not deal with secondary causes.”

          I like that story. In more philosophical terminology it is an insight into Catherine’s behaviour: she was always in a profound way dealing directly with God, the First Cause of everything. She didn’t neglect the earth and real people. Hardly. She had her feet on the ground, but her head in the world of faith, the divine world. Everything she did was guided by the mysteries of faith, by the transcendent divine order of faith.

          Secondly, at the very heart of her mission as a prophet was the revelation of how to make this faith journey. As more and more of her diaries and personal writings emerge, her life will be seen as an extremely and even detailed description of her journey of faith. She will become one of the great spiritual guides for the life of Church.

. . . o o o . . .

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