The Word Among Us

Easter 2022 Issue

Give Them God

The Complex but Fruitful Life of Catherine Doherty

By: Ann Bottenhorn

Give Them God: The Complex but Fruitful Life of Catherine Doherty by Ann Bottenhorn

The young woman lifted her head. Tantalizing dreams of choice foods had yielded to equally enticing thoughts of suicide, which now seemed almost a friend and a mercy. Finally, she uttered a prayer: “God, if you save me from this, in some sort of way, I will offer my life to you.” Then she collapsed, unconscious on the cottage floor, very nearly another victim of the Bolsheviks’ annihilation of the Russian nobility.

Riches to Rags. Catherine Kolyschkine had been born into wealth and privilege at the end of the nineteenth century. Traveling the world with her family, she was educated in Alexandria, Egypt; Paris, France; and St. Petersburg, Russia. And then, at fifteen years old and still attached to dolls, she was married to her cousin, Boris de Hueck. The marriage was a disaster. Boris’ mood swings and his emotional and verbal abuse plunged Catherine into “a pool of misery.”

Misery wasn’t confined to her home with Boris. Catherine survived World War I working as a Red Cross nurse. The horrors of war clawed at her ideas about God, “who promised to look after the poor, the sick, the lonely. Is he false to his promise?” she wondered. She survived being shot as a member of the nobility during the Russian Revolution. Later, the Bolsheviks tried to execute her and Boris, who had been condemned as “an enemy of the people,” by slow starvation. During that torment, she had even survived the temptation to suicide. By the time she celebrated her twentieth birthday, Catherine’s life read like an action-adventure movie.

Give to the Poor. Catherine lost everything in the revolution: wealth and status, family and home, and a sense of place in the world. For years, she worked the lowest of menial jobs to earn barely enough to survive. She learned to endure insults, ethnic slurs, and the contempt of people who were better off. She also found an answer to the question of God’s love in the face of human suffering: “It is our will [that brings about wars and discrimination], not God’s.” That answer created a deep desire in her to give all of herself to Christ. She longed to do what Jesus had done in leaving his throne in heaven and becoming poor in order to share the Father’s love in tangible ways.

The desire grew gradually. God had saved Catherine from starvation, drawn her by what she described as “a movement of God in her soul” to convert to Roman Catholicism, and lit a fire in her for the plight of immigrants, refugees, and victims of racism. “I always had the intuition that there was something God wanted me to do,” she explained. But it took her years, and repeated failures, to work out what that “something” would be. Meanwhile, she found that she was really good at storytelling. After emigrating to Canada in 1921, she captivated audiences with stories of the Russia of her childhood and of wars and revolution—and she made a lot of money.

All the while, the promise Catherine had made to God as she lay starving constantly came to mind. Then one day as she prayed, she read these words of Jesus: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor. . . . Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Every time she picked up a Bible—anyone’s, including one at the public library—it opened to that verse. The very idea, Catherine said, was a “nightmare.” But she did it. She sold everything and gave the money away. In doing so, she discovered her actual vocation: serving the poor, “directly” and “personally.”

A Lay Apostolate for Everyone. Catherine took up the call of the gospel, writing in her journal, “The gospel sometimes becomes for me one single sentence: No one can have a greater love than to lay down his life for his fellow men (John 15:13).” To her it meant living in the slums with refugees and outcasts. Trusting God to provide while working hard to make it happen. Begging for what she needed so that she might offer housing, clothing, food, and care for the physical needs of others.

Feeling an urgency to bring God “into the marketplace,” she founded a ministry called Friendship House in the slums of Toronto. She rented a run-down building and begged and borrowed what she needed. It was all so that the poor, the homeless, refugees, prostitutes, and anyone who sought help might have a place to sleep and a meal to eat—and, most important, an encounter of God’s love for them. Catherine longed to “give them God” by giving of herself. And she learned that she first had to accept God’s love for herself before she could give it to others:

Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39). Christians . . . need to understand that one can love neither God nor one’s neighbor unless one loves oneself and accepts oneself as being unique, irreplaceable, beloved by the God who created us. God loves us, not because we are good, but because he is good.

Though described as “flashy, impetuous, and strong-willed, with a penchant for cigarettes and salty language,” Catherine strove to be “little,” “childlike,” simple, and poor, relying on the Holy Spirit to guide and instruct her. “Oh, it’s all so simple,” she asserted. “It all amounts fundamentally to preaching the gospel with your life—not so much your work—but your life.”

Catherine’s life was complex and complicated. Her passionate nature, which sometimes struck others as authoritarian and bullish, was an asset in advocating for the needs of the poor. She could be charming too, and people were naturally drawn to her.

A Great, Undeserved Grace. Friendship House prospered at first, but Catherine’s abrupt, plainspoken manner made enemies among some members of the clergy. Staff squabbles and skirmishes over money weakened the structure she had developed. A local pastor, who despised Slavic immigrants, contended that her work duplicated that of his predominantly Irish parish. Eventually, the Church moved to close Friendship House, asserting that “while [Catherine’s] intentions are excellent, her field is too vague and the results . . . doubtful.”

Four years later, Catherine opened a Friendship House in Harlem. Again, she lived there and opened her doors to all in need. Again, disputes arose—this time between Catherine and her assistants. Eventually, either Catherine or the work had to go. On the surface, the problem was her marriage to the eminent journalist Eddie Doherty. The Friendship House staff had made voluntary promises of celibacy, yet Catherine had quietly married Eddie following the annulment of her marriage to Boris. And although Catherine continued to live in poverty as did the other staff, Eddie’s income cast a different light on her situation.

Under the surface, though, swirled weighty and conflicting ideas of how best to serve the poor and victims of racial injustice. Misgivings about the apparent “double standard” between the staff’s lives at Friendship House and Catherine’s agitated those concerns. Though initially she sought consensus through compromise, in the end Catherine resigned.

Catherine’s vision for her ministry was not focused primarily on celibacy or marriage, income or possessions or programs. She was adamant that bringing the gospel to others must come through community, and the community she envisioned was comprised of people of one heart—a type of community that only the Holy Spirit could bring about. “The desire of bringing souls [to Christ],” she wrote in her journal, “is so immense that I would call it . . . madness, if I did not know that it was a great, undeserved grace.”

If It Is of God . . . Following her resignation from Friendship House, Catherine and Eddie “retired” to their home called Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. Catherine again began to serve the poor in that rural community. Once again people began to gather to serve alongside her, drawn by the life of God visible through her. And as she had before, Catherine offered the example of connecting the gospel with everyday life in simple ways. But this time, she maintained a “steely commitment” never again to compromise the ideals of her vision.

Gradually, life at Madonna House became what she called “the beautiful and awesome spirit of the Gospel applied to daily living, without compromise.” It became a life that appealed to laity and religious alike as they searched for meaning amidst the cultural and religious upheaval of the 1960s. Catherine gathered them as a family, not around herself, but around Christ. And those drawn there were “transfigured” by love.

When asked what would happen to Madonna House when she died, Catherine answered, “If this is of God, it will continue. If it is not, it will cease to exist.” Catherine died on December 14, 1985. The apostolate of Madonna House continues today and includes eighteen “field houses” in Canada, the United States, and countries around the world.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, declared Pope St. John Paul II, “shows us ordinary, everyday Christianity is simply following Jesus in laying down our lives for others.” For Catherine, it was a matter of simply living the gospel. “God has given each person the mission not to be separated from the other,” she preached. The world, which is increasingly marked by division, suspicion, and isolation, needs the witness of community. It needs the witness of people living together, loving and caring for others. It needs the witness of people giving them God, as Catherine did.

Anne Bottenhorn is a longtime contributor to The Word Among Us.