They Called Her The Baroness: The
Life of Catherine De Hueck
Lorene H. Duquin
Alba House Publications, 1995
Was Catherine ("The Baroness" or "The B" to her followers) ne Kolyschkine, and successively surnamed DeHueck and Doherty, an old-world charlatan or a modern-world saint? Journalist Lorene Hanley Duquin tries to answer that question in her biography of this extraordinary woman ( tracing with great patience and perseverance the often confusing details of her subject's long life.
Born in Tsarist Russia in 1896 of a Russian-Polish (Catholic) father and English-Russian (Orthodox) mother, raised partly in Egypt, married to a cousin at the age of fifteen, decorated for bravery under fire in World War I, and nearly killed by Bolsheviks shortly after, Catherine soon found herself a refugee in England, next in Canada, then in the United States, and finally in Canada again. There her marriage fell apart, and while trying to raise her son on her own, she alternately worked as a lecturer, washer-woman, nursing-student, booking-agent, as a magazine correspondent in Europe, and even as a waitress and bar- maid, all this either before, during, or after founding several "Friendship Houses" partly in response to a vow she had made to God.
The first of these was in Toronto, where after remarkable success in ministering to the material and spiritual needs of poor immigrants, she was eventually run out of town by conservative Catholics who resented her championing of the Church's social teachings. Her second foundation was in Harlem after Dorothy Day, the foundress of the Catholic Worker Movement, urged her to come to work among the Blacks in New York. From that experience, her outspoken championing of civil rights and her repeated calls for the desegregation of Catholic institutions around the U.S. again earned her much suspicion. Her third Friendship House was in Chicago where Archbishop Sheil was desirous of off-setting Communist appeals to the blue-collar working class.
Yet even while these last two foundations began to spawn offshoots in other cities, Catherine was brusquely ousted from the movement by her own followers when, after finally receiving an annulment of her first marriage, she married again, this time to Eddie Doherty, the highest-paid newspaper reporter in America in those days. Yet out of this rejection was born another lay-apostolate center of quite a different character, in rural northeastern Ontario, now known as "Madonna House Apostolate". This time its members (including Catherine and her new husband, who was eventually ordained a priest) were expected to take "promises" to live in simple poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience to the demands of their mission.
There are now about twenty or so off-shoots of Madonna House around the world -- including in Africa, in South America, and lately, even in Russia itself. The community's membership currently numbers over two-hundred women and men (including a dozen or so priests), while nearly a hundred associate priests and deacons try to live the Madonna House spirit off on their own. Combining a strong liturgical and contemplative bent inspired by Catherine's own blend of Eastern and Western Christian spirituality with an emphasis on the corporal as well as spiritual works of mercy, the movement continues to grow, even now some fifteen years since her death, with about a dozen new applicants each year, while requests continue to arrive from bishops around the world for one of her houses in their own diocese.
So was she a charlatan? She seems to have stretched the truth now and then -- or in the case of her real age, shrank it a bit - - no doubt a hang-over from her anti-communist lecture circuit days. She could also name-drop without too much prodding: writers George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, and Hillaire Belloc, philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev, Jacques Maritain, and Bertrand Russell, even Winston Churchill -- she knew them all, or at least claimed she did. Sometimes, especially during her early years in the apostlate, her religious affiliation itself seemed questionable, with Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy both vying for her allegiance.
Was she bossy and overbearing, as many of her enemies claimed? No question about it. Her presence in any group could be overwhelming, to say the least. But underneath her thick accent and brusque Russian mannerisms burned an inner fire that was almost palpable in its intensity. It is becoming ever clearer from her diaries that she was truly a mystic, and not without the dangers that this sometimes implies. Even when silent she was a lot like the calm eye of a cyclone that rearranges everything on the periphery. Few ever came in contact with her without being effected by her, whether the effect be pro or con. She was a "charismatic" in the deepest sense of the word. Her ability to bring back priests to their calling, or simply (and often bluntly) tell anyone what they needed to know about themselves, was a special gift of hers -- one that I experienced more than once during the last fifteen or so years of her life that I was privileged to know her.
No doubt this book will not be the last to be written about this truly extraordinary woman. With the process already underway with an eye towards her possible canonization, a great deal more about her will still have to come to light. But Duquin's book will no doubt quicken the pace.
Richard W. Kropf (updated January 11, 2005) _________________________________________________________________
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