She was born Ekaterina (Catherine) Fyodorovna Kolyschkine in Nizhny Novgorod, Russian Empire. Her parents, Fyodor and Emma Kolyschkine, belonged to the minor nobility and were devout members of the Russian Orthodox Church who had their child baptized in St. Petersburg on September 15, 1896. She was not baptized on the same day that she was born because her mother was worried she might get a disease since she was born on a train.
Schooled abroad because of her father's job, Catherine and her family returned to St. Petersburg in 1910, where she was enrolled in the prestigious Princess Obolensky Academy. In 1912, aged 15, she made what turned out to be a disastrous marriage with her first cousin, Boris de Hueck (1889–1947).
At the outbreak of World War I, Catherine de Hueck became a Red Cross nurse at the front, experiencing the horrors of battle firsthand. On her return to St. Petersburg, she and Boris barely escaped the turmoil of the Russian Revolution with their lives, nearly starving to death as refugees in Finland. Together they made their way to England, where Catherine was received into communion with the Roman Catholic Church on November 27, 1919, becoming a Russian Greek-Catholic.
Immigrating to Canada with Boris, Catherine gave birth to their only child, George, in Toronto in 1921. Soon she and Boris became more and more painfully estranged from one another, as he pursued extramarital affairs. To make ends meet, Catherine took various jobs and eventually became a lecturer, travelling a circuit that took her across North America.
Prosperous now, but deeply dissatisfied with a life of material comfort, her marriage in ruins, Catherine began to feel the promptings of a deeper call through a passage that leaped to her eyes every time she opened the Bible: "Arise — go... sell all you possess... take up your cross and follow Me." Consulting with various priests and the bishop of the diocese, she began her lay apostolate among the poor in Toronto in the early 1930s, calling it Friendship House.
Because her interracial approach was so different from what was being done at the time, she encountered much persecution and resistance, and Friendship House was forced to close in 1936. Catherine then went to Europe and spent a year investigating Catholic Action. On her return, she was given the chance to revive Friendship House in New York City among the poor in Harlem. In time, more than a dozen Friendship Houses would be founded in North America.
In 1943, having received an annulment of her first marriage, as she had married her cousin, which is forbidden in the Church, she married Eddie Doherty, one of America's foremost reporters, who had fallen in love with her while writing a story about her apostolate.
Serious disagreements arose between the staff of Friendship House and its foundress, particularly surrounding her marriage. When these could not be resolved, Catherine and Eddie moved to Combermere, Ontario, on May 17, 1947, naming their new rural apostolate Madonna House. This was to be the seedbed of an apostolate that, in the year 2000, numbered more than 200 staff workers and over 125 associate priests, deacons, and bishops, with 22 missionary field-houses throughout the world.
Catherine Doherty died on December 14, 1985 in Combermere at the age of 89. Since then, the cause for Catherine's canonization as a saint has been officially opened in the Catholic Church.
The Little Mandate
The core of Catherine Doherty's spirituality is summarized in a "distillation" of the Gospel which she called "The Little Mandate" — words which she believed she received from Jesus Christ and which guided her life. It reads:
Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love... love... love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour's feet. Go without fear into the depth of men's hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The spirituality expressed in The Little Mandate is also known as "the Madonna House way of life."
The duty of the moment
A central theme in Catherine Doherty's spirituality is the duty of the moment. As she herself put it:
"The duty of the moment is what you should be doing at any given time, in whatever place God has put you. You may not have Christ in a homeless person at your door, but you may have a little child. If you have a child, your duty of the moment may be to change a dirty diaper. So you do it. But you don't just change that diaper, you change it to the best of your ability, with great love for both God and that child.... There are all kinds of good Catholic things you can do, but whatever they are, you have to realize that there is always the duty of the moment to be done. And it must be done, because the duty of the moment is the duty of God."
Catherine Doherty is perhaps best known for having introduced the concept of poustinia to Roman Catholicism through her best-selling book, Poustinia, first published in 1975. A poustinia is a small, sparsely furnished cabin or room where one goes to pray and fast alone in the presence of God for 24 hours.
At the current stage in the process, a diocesan tribunal, as well as a historical commission, are examining Catherine's life and writings under the supervision of the Bishop of the Diocese of Pembroke.
Catherine's file in the Vatican is titled (in English) "Pembroke: Cause of the Beatification and Canonization of Servant of God Catherine de Hueck Doherty, lay faithful and foundress of the Apostolate called 'Madonna House'."
While she is now known best as simply Catherine Doherty, she first became well known by her first married name, Catherine de Hueck, and after her second marriage some of her books were published under the name Catherine de Hueck Doherty (the file in the Vatican detailing her cause for canonization carries this name at present). Her maiden name was Kolyschkine. Various forms of the name Catherine have also been used on rare occasions — Katie, Katia, Katerina, etc., and for a time she used the pseudonym Katie Hook. Catherine was often called "the Baroness" and, affectionately, "the B."