January 23, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible saints: Catherine de Hueck Doherty

John F. Fink(Thirty-third in a series of columns)

Catherine de Hueck was called “Baroness” because she was one for a while, but most of her life was lived among the poor.

She was born Catherine Kolyschkine to aristocrats in Russia in 1896. Her father was Russian Orthodox and her mother Lutheran. She traveled extensively as a child because of her father’s occupation, and received part of her education in Egypt and Turkey. She spoke six languages, and understood three more. Her parents also taught her a love of God and the poor, regularly taking her with them when they visited the poor.

She married her cousin, Baron Boris de Hueck, when she was only 15. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Boris and Catherine escaped to Finland with their lives, but little else. They endured poverty and near starvation before making their way to England in 1920. There she was received into the Catholic Church.

Catherine and Boris immigrated to Canada in 1921. Catherine gave birth to a son, and supported the three of them by working as a laundress, waitress and lecturer. Boris lived a dissolute life and had numerous extramarital affairs. The couple separated in 1930, and eventually divorced.

Catherine moved into the slums of Toronto to serve the poor. She founded what she called Friendship House there. However, when rumors spread that she was a communist, she left Toronto in 1938 and moved to Harlem in New York City. She opened a Friendship House there, and became an advocate for civil rights and social justice.

In 1943, Eddie Doherty went to Harlem to see what Catherine was doing. At the time, he was America’s best-known and highest-paid journalist (and one of my heroes when I was a young boy growing up with an interest in journalism, especially after I read his autobiography, Gall and Honey). He not only wrote about Catherine (including her biography, Tumbleweed), he fell in love with her.

They were married in 1943 after Catherine’s first marriage was annulled. Eddie had been married twice before, but his first wife died in the 1918 flu epidemic and his second wife died in a freak accident.

Unfortunately, Catherine had problems with some of Friendship House’s staff, partly over her marriage. When these could not be resolved, Catherine and Eddie moved to Combermere, Ontario, Canada in 1947, naming their new rural apostolate Madonna House. It is a community of both laity and priests committed to living Gospel values. The members take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience but, except for the priests, remain lay men and women. Eddie wrote articles and books to publicize Madonna House.

Eddie eventually went to the Holy Land, where he studied for the priesthood in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Once ordained, he returned to Madonna House, where he died on May 4, 1975.

Catherine, too, wrote hundreds of articles and more than 30 books. By the time of her death in 1985 at age 89, there were 200 members of the community living in 22 missionary field-houses on three continents. †

Local site Links: