Good neigbours, the Madonna House Way

·12 min read

Combermere -- When Catherine and Eddie Doherty arrived here early in the Spring of 1947, they bought five acres along the Madawaska River with no intention of doing much else than watching the river flow. Their hectic lives had come crashing down south of the border, leaving them exhausted. All they really wanted to do was enjoy the solitude passing their doorstep.

At one time Eddie Doherty had been the highest paid feature writer in American print journalism. During the Second World War, as a Hollywood screenwriter he had been nominated for an Academy Award. And then there was that assignment in Harlem, a section of New York City he simply considered the wickedest place of Christendom.

It was there, in 1940, he first met Catherine de Heuck, a Russian emigré who had fled the Russian Revolution, but who had since devoted her considerable talents to putting flesh on the bones of her novel ideas about social justice. In Harlem, she ran a 'Catholic Action'' charity called Friendship House.

Their first meeting was not a happy one. Catherine disagreed passionately with Eddie's view of Harlem. The rest, they say, is history. But it's a story that ends with a truly unique organization they carefully built together on those five acres along the Madawaska. Known famously throughout the world as Madonna House, it's more than the sum of its incredible parts.

Eddie Doherty was born in Chicago in 1890, the son of an Irish Catholic policeman who sent his 13-year-old son off to a Wisconsin monastery. Two years later, that same son came back to Chicago and began his meteoric rise in the newspaper business. But by 1914, Eddie Doherty had married his childhood sweetheart only to see her fall victim to the Spanish flu, leaving him a young widower with a newborn son.

By 1919, he took his second wife and two children west to California to set up the Chicago Tribune's Hollywood bureau. Soon, he became known as 'The Star Reporter of America.' But by 1939, tragedy had struck again; that second wife died unexpectedly.

A year later, an angry middle-aged two-time widower was assigned a Harlem feature that had him hoping to interview that mesmerising Russian emigre who ran Friendship House. In 1896, she had been born Catherine Kolyschkine on a train headed for St. Petersburg. Thanks to her father, a minor nobleman, she grew up a baroness, having been educated in Egypt.

Young Baroness in Russia

On her return to St. Petersburg, at aged 15, Catherine Kolyschkine married her first cousin, Boris de Hueck, but unlike most of her peers, by 1914 she was working as a Red Cross nurse on the front lines where she saw the horror of The Great War first-hand. Yet with the onset of the Russian Revolution, she and Boris barely escaped with their lives, before making their way to England.

In 1921, the de Huecks moved even further west, emigrating to Toronto, but throughout the rest of the Roaring Twenties a very charismatic Catherine de Hueck began travelling throughout the United States, giving very successful talks about social justice on the Chautauqua lecture circuit.

"She was a very dynamic speaker," said Mary Davis, a long-time resident of Madonna House who worked for more than 30 years with Catherine. "She could fill a room with her voice; when she came into a room, you knew she was there."

Still, Catherine de Hueck grew increasingly troubled by the world she saw developing around her, especially during the Great Depression. She was equally troubled by her own crumbling marriage. She wanted to do something more than just pray or avoid seeing the obvious or thinking about where the 1930s were headed. By 1932, she opened Friendship House, a Toronto soup kitchen where she happily fed homeless men wandering the country looking for work.

Often considered a communist sympathizer, ultimately Friendship House closed in 1936 so she left for Europe but returned in 1937 to establish a second Friendship House, but this time in Harlem, New York City.

Thus, that fateful meeting in 1940 when Eddie Doherty walked through the front door at 34 West 135th St. in Harlem looking for wickedness. What he found instead was a mesmerizing Catherine de Hueck, again feeding the poor and keeping a library where the homeless men could keep warm, read a book, or maybe listen to a talk about social justice. When Eddie first approached her, Catherine threw him out onto the street.

He came back; she threw him out again.

Until she didn't. Three years later, Catherine and Eddie Doherty were married, following the annulment of her first marriage. In 1944, things even got better. Eddie's screenplay for his Hollywood film, 'The Sullivans' was nominated for an Academy Award.

Yet, all was not well at Friendship House; some of the Harlem staff were not enamoured with Catherine's latest marriage. Finally, she packed her bags and headed for Combermere with Eddie in tow. She had been there before, a guest at another of her cousins who had a place along the Madawaska where she often took herself and some of her Harlem staff for a summer vacation.

Her bachelor cousin, an avid fisherman, had built a six-room house just east of Combermere, though, as with all Combermere homes at the time, it had no electricity nor any indoor plumbing. Still, when Catherine and Eddie arrived there in the Spring of 1947, Eddie was flush with cash, and so he bought the whole kit and caboodle from the cousin outright.

The couple's fervent hope was to lead a quiet, contemplative life, freelance writing for publication by day, and reading at night by coal-oil lamplight. Eddie was 57; Catherine was 51. But, in no time at all, a third Friendship House was well on its way.

The urban couple took note of their rural neighbours, whose hardships got them motivated to do something neighbourly. At first, Catherine provided emergency Red Cross nursing for expectant mothers, given that there was no local hospital available until 1960 when St. Francis Memorial was opened in Barry's Bay. Until then, Catherine herself occasionally delivered babies. The Dohertys soon took on some volunteers including a nurse who was a trained midwife. Other volunteers started to arrive and thus expanded the Doherty's neighbourly efforts. They began providing a St. John's ambulance service for road accident victims. Soon, the Doherty home became an emergency destination for anyone looking for a doctor, dentist, nurse and especially, a midwife.

The Dohertys also provided more exotic services: a lending library operated by post, showings of National Film Board movies using a battery-operated projector for movie nights where there was no electricity. Early in the 1960s, they even branched out and tried to start a maple syrup co-op.

Such good works to help their rural neighbours left a lasting impression. In the 1980s, when Christina Milan was only seven years old and growing up in nearby Purdy, she encountered some very nice people at Madonna House.

"They were good people, people who cared about me, cared about the community and were there to be good neighbours," she recalls.

When she was older and working at the Valley Manor in Barry's Bay, she even stayed for a short while as a working guest at Madonna House.

"I was surprised that there were young people from all over the world there," she said. "We were all seeking -- we were seekers -- looking for...the purpose of life? Looking for meaning. I was not looking for a vocation. But Madonna House felt like a place where we could find the truth. Some direction. A mentor."

Madonna House Founding

Madonna House has always drawn young volunteers. Those early house guests might stay for a week or two, sometimes a whole summer, as Mary Davis did in 1951 when she was barely 17. Others arrived from Toronto, Harlem, Hollywood -- some from even further afield than Timbuctoo -- all managed to find Madonna House in Combermere.

Nothing much has changed.

Of course, the name was officially changed from Friendship House to Madonna House in 1954, after its lay apostolate was organized under the auspices of Bishop William Smith of Pembroke at the behest of the Pope whom Catherine had met in Rome in 1951. A lay apostolate is simply a place where ordinary people of both sexes work alongside each other and though neither priests nor nuns, they can still freely make annual or lifetime promises of poverty, obedience and chastity.

Currently, nearly 200 souls work at Madonna House, either on their several campuses in and around Combermere or in the nearly 20 field houses that Madonna House operates from Israel to Arizona, Peru to England, Russia to Grenada -- all in an effort to continue what Catherine Doherty first began in Toronto and kept up in Harlem where she also earned her one and only nickname, 'Bee.' It was given to her by a small American boy in Harlem who watched her like a bumble bee, flitting about, collecting donations to outfit his baseball team.

"One thing that Bee always had as a characteristic of her Friendship Houses," said Mary Davis." She called it our 'Chitchat Apostolate' -- whenever we opened a house, the big point was to get to know the people in the neighbourhood, visit over cups of tea and maybe a cookie, so you can get to know the needs of the people in that place."

Eddie Doherty passed away in 1975 having been ordained a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Catherine Doherty died 10 years later in 1985 and since then, the Vatican has officially opened up the possibility of making her a saint.

Still, through thick and thin, Madonna House soldiers on.

Mary-Lynn Murray, a daughter of Dowdall and Rita Murray of Barry's Bay, began taking an interest in Madonna House in 1981 and by 1984, the year before Bee died, Mary-Lynn joined Madonna House full time.

"A big part of what I experienced when I first came to Madonna House was it didn't matter where I came from," she said. "It didn't matter who I was."

Like all the rest of the staff, she lives by that well-known Madonna House mantra: "I am third," meaning that after primarily serving the fundamental needs of God, and, secondarily, the fundamental needs of neighbours, only then does a lay apostolate consider their own tertiary needs.

It's difficult to do but once engaged consistently, it changes a life profoundly -- or so says Ms. Murray: "Joy was what I experienced from Mary Davis when I first came to Madonna House. I saw women who were so happy; who loved what you were doing; I love this life; I believe so deeply in it.

"We're just this little, tiny pocket of people living a very humble, simple life and yet we know that like the radiation of God's grace throughout the world, it's in the thousands of people who have come and shared this life with us that we know we're all connected in God."

All Madonna House staff live in voluntary poverty, and depend on donations from benefactors for clothing, food, household goods and money to pay their bills. It's a life that allows them, they argue, to better understand the poor they serve daily. All are distinguished by a singular metal cross, hung from their necks and emblazoned with pax caritas -- peace and love.

Ordinary Work

Still, the main work of Madonna House has remained the same throughout all 75 years -- faithfully serving the poor, both physically and spiritually, if not psychologically.

"Bee eventually began to say that the greatest poverty in the world today is loneliness," Ms. Murray said. "In all our houses we encounter that; we may encounter it in rich people, poor people, middle-class people, everybody."

A unique entity in Madonna House is something called a 'poustina', a word derived from Russian meaning 'desert' but in Combermere it refers to a small, barely furnished hermit-like cabin or room used for the purpose of prayer, meditation and fasting.

Anyone can stay at Madonna House as a guest for dinner, overnight or even longer, often becoming working guests for a season or two, but to become a full-time staff worker, one is required to enter a two-year applicacy which, upon completion, allows the individual to make all the necessary and informed 'promises' to become a staff worker of Madonna House.

Fundamentally, Madonna House has many, many moving parts. It produces its own food, runs its own farm, runs a food service that feeds over 100 people three times a day, runs a family resort and publishes a monthly newspaper, The Restoration. As well, it runs a publishing house which continues to keep Catherine and Eddie Doherty's books in print. And yet, despite the diverse number of activities involved in the work-a-day world around Madonna House, one thing unites all the work the staff does.

"We call it the duty of the moment," says Christina Milan. "The work I have to do on any given day -- what is in front of me -- Am I putting a meal on the table? Am I cleaning something? Am I nursing somebody? Whatever it is I'm doing, the 'duty of the moment' is to do it with my whole heart, will all my energy, to give everything I have to this task, and to know that it is meaningful. It gives me meaning, it gives others meaning.

"There's something very concrete here," she says. "It's in every ordinary moment of human existence; it's shot through with power and meaning because God is here. God is present to us, and we encounter him here in that work."

In essence, ordinary, simple work done for the benefit of God and neighbour gives everyone at Madonna House meaning no matter who you are. Put another way, ordinary work around Madonna House is more than just ordinary work. It's shot through with love, faith, hope and charity -- those things that have always given dignity to humankind.

Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader