May 11, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

‘Baroness’ Catherine de Hueck Doherty served the poor

John F. FinkLast week, I wrote about Eddie Doherty. I thought that this week I should write about his wife, Catherine de Hueck Doherty. She was called “Baroness” because she was one for a while, but most of her life was lived among the poor.

She was born Catherine Kolyschkin to aristocrats in Russia in 1896. Her father was Russian Orthodox, and her mother was Lutheran. She traveled extensively as a child, because of her father’s occupation, and received part of her education in Alexandria, Egypt, and Istanbul, Turkey. She learned to speak six languages and understood three more.

Her parents also taught her a love of God and those in need, regularly taking her with them when they visited the poor. While in Alexandria, she studied in a school run by Catholic nuns, and thus learned about Catholicism.

She married her cousin, Baron Boris de Hueck, in 1911, when she was only 15. World War I began three years later. It was followed by 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, meanwhile, lived a dissolute life and had numerous extra-marital affairs. The couple separated in 1930, and eventually divorced.

In 1934, Catherine moved into the slums of Toronto to serve the poor. She founded what she called Friendship House. Four years later, she moved to Harlem in New York City. She opened a Friendship House there, and became an advocate for civil rights and social justice. She opened other Friendship Houses in various U.S. cities.

During the Spanish Civil War and the first part of World War II, she went to Europe to work as a journalist for Catholic periodicals. She then returned to Friendship House in Harlem.

As I wrote last week, in 1943, Eddie Doherty heard about Friendship House and went to Harlem to see what Catherine was doing. At the time, he was America’s best known and highest paid journalist. He not only wrote about Catherine, he fell in love with her. They married in 1943 after Catherine’s first marriage was annulled.

Unfortunately, Catherine had problems with some of Friendship House’s staff, partly over her marriage to Doherty. When these could not be resolved, Catherine and Eddie moved to Combermere, Ontario, Canada in 1947. They founded a new rural apostolate there that they named Madonna House.

It’s 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. Both Eddie and Catherine wrote articles and books to publicize Madonna House.

Catherine 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. †

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