Catherine de Hueck Doherty was born in Russia on Aug. 15, 1896. At the age of 15, Catherine married Boris de Hueck. During the Russian Revolution, many of her family members were killed. After narrowly escaping death, Catherine and Boris became refugees and came to Canada in 1921. Their son George was born the same year in Toronto.
Catherine worked hard to support her ailing husband and child, but after years of painful struggle, her marriage to Boris fell apart. Eventually Catherine’s marriage with Boris was annulled by the Church in 1943.
Very talented in public speaking, Catherine soon became a successful lecturer. However the words of Christ pursued her relentlessly: “Sell all you possess, and come, follow Me.”
On Oct. 15, 1930, Catherine made the decision to give her life to Jesus. She marked this as the day of the beginning of her apostolate. Catherine sold all her possessions and provided for her son. She started to live in the slums of Toronto, and began her lay apostolate among the poor.
Young men and women came to join Catherine. She established Friendship House, and lived the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi. It was the time of the Great Depression. Members of Friendship House offered hospitality and provided material assistants to the poor.
They also combatted the tide of communism through lectures, discussions, and the distribution of “The Social Forum” newspaper, based on the social encyclicals of the Church.
False but persistent rumours about her and the Friendship House forced its closure by churchmen in 1936. During the Christmas season in 1936, Catherine was tempted to suicide. However, she heard the voice of Christ beckoning her to share His suffering.
Catherine left Toronto, and was invited by a priest to open a Friendship House in Harlem. Catherine accepted the invitation in 1938. In 1943, after obtaining the annulment of her first marriage, Catherine married a widower, Eddie Doherty, a journalist who had fallen in love with her while writing a story about her apostolate.
The Friendship House in Harlem also ended in failure. Divisions developed among the staff, and in January 1947 they out-voted Catherine on points she considered essential to the apostolate. Seeing this as a rejection of her vision of Friendship House, she stepped down as Director General.
Shattered by the ordeal of Friendship House, Catherine came to Combermere, Ont., with Eddie on May 17, 1947, intending to retire. However, as Catherine was recovering from the trauma, she began to serve those in need in the Combermere area.
She and Eddie established a newspaper, “Restoration,” and a training centre for the lay apostolate. Again young men and women asked to join her.
On April 7, 1954, those living in Combermere voted to embrace a permanent vocation with promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, and the community of Madonna House was established.
The next year, Catherine and Eddie made a promise of chastity and lived celibate lives thereafter. On Aug. 15, 1969, Eddie was ordained a Catholic priest in the Melkite rite at the age of 78.
The spirit of the Madonna House is that of a family, modelled on the Holy Family of Nazareth, which was a community of perfect charity and love. Members of Madonna House are involved in theology, philosophy, special programs, publication, science, fine arts, drama, farming, carpentry, cooking, and laundry.
Catherine said, “Nothing is foreign to the apostolate, except sin…. The primary work of the apostolate is to love one another.”
Catherine died on Dec. 14, 1985, after a long illness. She left behind a spiritual family of more than 200 members, and foundations around the world.