Catherine was the child of wealthy Orthodox parents in Russia. She was steeped in the spirituality of her country, but during her father’s long diplomatic and business assignments abroad she was sometimes educated in Catholic convent schools. She was married at the age of fifteen to Boris de Hueck, and the couple fled to Finland at the time of the Bolshevik revolution. They went to England, where Catherine formally identified herself as a Catholic.
Then they settled in Canada as refugees and their son George was born there. She now experienced great poverty, and the disintegration and, finally, annulment of her marriage. Her gift for lecturing eventually brought her financial security and success, but she was haunted by the call of God to forsake security and work among the very poor. For some years ‘Friendship House’ worked primarily among poor immigrants, and she became closely associated with Dorothy Day and the young Thomas Merton (see December 11th). In 1943 she married Eddie Doherty, and in 1947 they moved to Combermere, nearly 200 miles from Toronto, where a large community called ‘Madonna House’ grew up, united in prayer and service to the poor. The community moved towards formal vows and lifelong commitments, and in 1955 Eddie and Catherine chose to avow celibacy together.
Catherine’s persuasive advocacy of the richness of Russian spirituality and of the relentless call of Jesus to preach the gospel without compromise has had a profound impact on many people throughout the West. Her humour and disarming directness showed that true holiness can have a very human face.
‘Little, be always little, simple, poor, childlike. 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.’ From ‘The Little Mandate’ at Madonna House.
Catherine’s book ‘Poustinia’ has had a profound influence upon the Northumbria Community. The Russian word ‘poustinia’ means a desert, and for Christians especially the desert of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. In this sense it could be translated ‘hermitage’. It is the place where we go to be quiet, alone with God, to discover God who dwells within; and specifically a small room to which we go to pray and meditate.
Show me, my Lord, what I may learn from the desert, from being still in Your presence, and from disciplining myself so that I may know You more intimately. Teach me to do these things with a good grace, with humour and with my feet firmly on the ground; in Jesus’ name. Amen.