Once at a lecture in Savannah, she was nearly beaten to death by a group of white Catholic women.
When Catherine de Hueck first arrived in New York City, she recalled, “the actual sight was simply overwhelming.” Then, she writes, she “did the strangest thing.” Standing outside Grand Central Station, she “looked at the immensity of New York, and said out loud, ‘You do not frighten me … I’ll conquer you.'”
A nearby policeman said: “Atta girl!”
An impoverished Russian aristocrat, Catherine took a variety of jobs: laundress, waitress, cashier at Macy’s, personal trainer. It was a lonely time: “There is no greater loneliness than being in a crowd of people you don’t know.” At one restaurant, she soon discovered she was expected to provide additional services to male customers. She changed her uniform, threw it at her boss, and said: “I am not porno material!”
Born Ekaterina Fyodorovna Kolyschkine in 1896, Catherine grew up in the aristocratic privilege of Czarist Russia, traveling throughout Europe with her parents. At 15, she was married to her cousin, Baron Boris de Hueck, an arranged marriage. During World War I, they both served in the army, he an officer and she a nurse. She was decorated for bravery under fire.
As Russia collapsed, the couple returned to St. Petersburg, where they found “nothing to eat.” Forced to rummage through garbage cans, they were attacked as “aristocrats.” They escaped from Russia, hiding along the way in pig sties. Westerners, Catherine insisted, couldn’t understand real starvation, “never having really experienced [food’s] complete absence.”
Finding refuge in England, Catherine was received into the Catholic Church. Raised Orthodox, she had been taught by Catholic nuns at an early age. From there, she and Boris made their way to Canada, where the two would eventually divorce. In New York, she sought work, not a cause. A lecture bureau asked her to speak on pre-revolutionary Russia for a handsome salary, which she agreed to do.
Then, all of a sudden, she gave it up to go live with the poor in the middle of the Great Depression:
During those days I was in the throes of hearing the Lord say, “Sell what you possess … come follow me,” and I was running away from him. One night, while dancing with this man, I heard laughter, a very gentle and kind laughter. I heard what I thought was the voice of God laughing and saying: “You can’t escape me, Catherine, you can’t.” I pleaded a headache and went home. Some new phase of my life was about to begin.
She began her new work in Canada and then came back to New York. Two things shocked her: the extent of white racism, and the living conditions in Harlem. At Columbia University, she asked a professor why African-Americans weren’t discussed. He responded: “Oh, we don’t study the Negro. We study American history.” The United States, she wrote, “had this marvelous Constitution, but it doesn’t apply to Negroes.”
In Harlem, she found “a no-man’s land of fear and doubt.” Where was God in it all? she asked. In 1938, Catherine founded Friendship House, an interracial apostolate dedicated to fighting segregation. Like her friend Dorothy Day, the “B.” (the Baroness), as they called her, attracted idealistic young people nationwide. One volunteer recalled:
White people, black people—talking, laughing, friendly, sipping coffee. How simple the solution all seemed then: the sooner we of different races learned to work together, to pray together, to eat, to study, to laugh together, the sooner we’d be on the way to interracial justice.
Advocating civil rights in America, she discovered, could be as deadly as revolutionary Russia. She was spit at and called a “n*gger lover.” At a Catholic women’s group, she was berated for eating “with dirty n*ggers.” When a woman told her, “You smell of the Negro,” Catherine lost her temper: “And you stink of hell!” Once at a lecture in Savannah, she was nearly beaten to death by a group of white Catholic women.
“You have to preach the Gospel, without compromise, or shut up,” Catherine said. “One or the other. I tried to preach it without compromise.” She always ended her lectures the same way:
Sooner or later, all of us are going to die. We will appear before God for judgment. The Lord will look at us and say, “I was naked and you didn’t clothe me. I was hungry and you didn’t give me anything to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me a drink. I was sick and you didn’t nurse me. I was in prison and you didn’t come to visit me.” And we shall say, “Lord, when did I not do these things?” I would stop here, pause, and in a very loud voice say, “When I was a Negro and you were a white American Catholic.” That’s when the rotten eggs and tomatoes would start to fly!
One of Catherine’s key supporters was New York’s Cardinal Patrick J. Hayes, who was “always worried” about her. After she organized a study group at Friendship House, the local pastor visited her:
“Listen to me, you Russian nitwit. What are you trying to do? Make them think they are loved just because they have become Catholics? You are giving them the raw Gospel and it isn’t getting you anywhere. Stop it!” I said, “Father, would you like to come with me to see the Cardinal? If he orders me to stop, I will stop.” “Oh, hell,” he said. On the way out he slammed the door and smashed the glass in the window.”
Catherine would eventually marry Edward J “Eddie” Doherty, with whom she co-founded the Madonna House Apostolate, and move back to Canada, where she continued to be involved in apostolic work, including — again like Dorothy Day — the founding of a newspaper, Restoration, which continues to publish.
Wherever she worked, Baroness Catherine de Hueck Doherty sought to actualize the Gospel message in the present moment. As the Servant of God once told a Fordham University Jesuit: “I have never read anywhere in the gospel where Christ says to wait twenty years before living the gospel. The Good News is for now.”
This is lightly edited from a previous online publish in 2013, by permission of the author.