Catherine: Cause Newsletter #18 — Spring 2011
From the Postulator’s Desk of Fr. Bob Wild
It is quite common, as the Congregation for the Saints begins to examine the life of Servants of God, that certain problem areas emerge – “shadows” as some canon lawyers call them – which require further study. Those working at the Congregation say it would be the rare cause that did not present such problems.
Perhaps one of the most frequent problem areas in Catherine’s life that people bring up is her relationship with her son, George. It is common knowledge that George was sent to several boarding schools during the early years of his life. So people ask: How could a real, loving mother send her son to boarding schools during those formative years when he most needed a mother? Was he sent away so she could have more time for her apostolates? Did she not love her son? Was she lacking in the virtues of motherhood?
A major argument in Catherine’s favor would be that sending children to boarding schools was a very European practice. Catherine herself was sent to boarding schools; and still today it is very common in England. But it is not my intention, in this newsletter, to give other reasons to justify Catherine’s behavior, or even to present a more comprehensive picture of her relationship with her son. I want to share with you some recently discovered letters that Catherine wrote to George but were never given to him until much later in his life. As far as her cause is concerned, they express the heart of the matter – her great love for her son. This love would be the most important thing to know for those trying to discern Catherine’s holiness.
A short background to these letters.
Catherine was pregnant with child when she crossed the Atlantic, and George was born on July 17, 1921 in Toronto General Hospital. When he was baptized on August 14, Catherine, as promised, consecrated him to the Blessed Virgin Mary. When he was not quite 15 he ran away from home, and these letters were written shortly after that sad event. (A more detailed account of the mother/son relationship, and the multiple factors behind his running away from home, can be found in Lorie Duquin’s, They Called Her the Baroness.)
Letters to My Son that were never sent
Yesterday, I left the door open and the light burning in the hall. It seemed somehow as if that would be a symbol that, no matter what you did or how far away you went, the door of my heart would be always open for you, and the light of my love ready to guide you and receive you back home.
The night is so long. Thru the window I see the pattern of the branches, strange and haunting against the dark sky. My eyes, used to night, can distinguish the things in the room. They look unfamiliar, somehow unfriendly and forbidding, as is today the whole world to me. I cannot sleep because I listen to every footstep that re-echoes on the hard pavement outside, hoping against hope that one of them will slow down before the door, that your finger will fumble with the latch, and your beloved footsteps will slowly, quietly, be heard on the stairs. My arms hunger for you, little Punka. Somehow I feel so empty, so desolate. The pain is dull and sharp at the same time.
But all is silent, and the rare passer-by does not slow in his tired walk, but passes briskly or slowly, but always evenly, by.
Why did you do it? Why without a word have you left me and our house? Your room is so cozy. I had it cleaned today and in my aimless wanderings today I bought a bunch of daffodils to make it spring-like for you if you came back.
Where are you? I lie on my comfy bed. It seems so hot and cold at the same time. I shiver. Where are you at this moment? Riding the rails? Sleeping under a box car? I wonder if you are warm and how are your sinuses. Slowly I get up and light the light. It makes a golden splash on the floor, and brings back familiarity to my surroundings. I take a cigarette with trembling fingers.
Where have I failed? I look back. Why is it that my memory takes me to my own childhood. It is early morning. I got up with the sunrise, and ran down to the ocean for a dip. The pine forest smelled so sweet, and the deep carpet of pine needles was so soft to my bare feet. The beach was golden under the ray of the early sun. It was fun to run into the cold water, swim out and come back to the shore, and lying there in the already warm sun.
I remember, then, thinking about life: it looks so vast and big from the long perch of 14 years. I wondered when would I marry. I thought of children, too, in a funny, impersonal way, hoping foolishly I would have loads of them. And then I made a sort of little promise to myself: Whatever life may bring, I would make my children or child happy. And here I was in Canada, lying propped up in the middle of a dark night, smoking furiously, all hurt inside, and shivering slightly ever so often.
You had gone. I did not know why or where. All I knew that somehow, somewhere, I had failed. And yet I had loved you so much! Could one love too much? I wondered. Where have I failed!! That question came back again and again like a monotonous refrain, each time wounding me deeper. You were so very small. You called yourself Petia chuch chuch. You meshed so softly against my breast after you had drank from it all the nourishment you needed. I nursed you for a long time because I loved doing it. You were all mine then, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. I wonder where you are now? Can pain be so deep? Can a heart really be crushed?
I suffered so much when you were so little! Of these things I would never speak to you, even in a letter that shall never be sent. Why do I write this now that my cigarette is squashed and the room colder and darker than ever!?
Perhaps because there is no question of sleep. Perhaps because this exercise book, the pen, and the board from the chess game, are all here under my hand. Somehow I want to tell you of this night, where a deep sword entered my heart, and will, I think, stay with me until death!
I worked so hard to make you a home. Things did not go always right with me. Black periods came, but you were there and for you I battled, for I wanted to give you the real beautiful things of life as I saw them: Religion and Faith as foundations on which to build. You were so silent and solemn that day when I dedicated you to the Blessed Mother who gave you to me. Your big baby eyes followed the altar candles that were burrowing themselves in their looking like twin points of light in your brown eyes. You smiled when the priest blessed you, and then gently fell asleep in my arms that held you tight. Ever since She has been your real Mother. That must be why I prayed yesterday so desperately for you, my baby, before her altar.
What was it I was saying to her? “Mother of Christ, who knows of the pain of motherhood, cover my Petia with the Blue Mantle of your love. Keep him safe, bring him back to me.” Strange, I do not remember anything else I told her, and when finally I rose to go, my eyes and face were wet with tears. Yet, I did not know I was weeping!
Religion and Faith. These I wanted to give you, for these, without hesitation, I sacrificed so much. It is well you do not know about it.
Love of books and music were to be next, and a home as lovely and cozy as I could make it. All for you. And simple rules of life, sprinkled with faith, beauty and love. The joy of loving others because they are alter Christus. The happiness of sharing, the love of games and sports played for the sake of the game. Friends, few but staunch. All these I planned for you. And in all this I failed.
Religion seems to irk you. Faith is dimming, dark. You love reading. I do not know about music. You do not know, nor even seem to want to know, what sharing means. You do not see Christ in your neighbor. Games? You play reluctantly. You are restless and selfish. Oh, I have to say this because even love cannot make me blind to it.
You are lazy, and all your dreams seem to end up in a desire for wealth and comfort. You love adventure, perhaps that is why you have gone. I would have understood this. But also you should have stopped and for a moment thought of the price.
This night is one of them, and there will be many more like them, for me. I gave you all I knew how. I wanted to keep you in school in good clothes, etc. On Isabella St. I had to rent rooms and be away. Then F.H. came, and Cameron St. with people in it that were strangers? Little Petia, did you ever stop to think that there is a depression on, that jobs are few and scarce, that I am all alone? That no matter what, I have to work, and that this is a way out for us.
No, I suppose you did not stop to think. Perhaps it all looks different to you. Fathers and sons, or mothers and sons, the eternal gulf of years between them! How can it be bridged! The pain is so burning, so deep. A faint light is coming from the sky. The door is still unlatched. The light still burns in the hall. And in my heart I love you so! God how it hurts!
May 30, 1937:
In four days I sail to Spain and Europe, a foreign correspondent for the Sign. My world has toppled around me. F.H. is no more. Unjustly I have been accused of so many things that my head aches. Yet, somehow I would be happy, for being persecuted unjustly for His sake is a great joy and grace; but I cannot be happy. You have not come back, and “the light” and the “open door” that have been waiting so hospitably for you have waited in vain. I cannot sleep nor really think. I am all bruised inside by your absence. It is like a load that never leaves me. Yet, I love you so much. And as I write these words I consider if perhaps that is why you left, for at your age, which does not as yet understand, love can be a burden.
Strange that I suffered so much for your sake, to bring you up in the Faith. I was so poor. I had little to leave you when I die, so I wanted to give you real wealth, the Faith and education that will help you to enjoy real life, appreciate its beauty, and drink of its joys. I wanted to give you love of good books, with the keen delight that these old friends of mine bring. I wanted to give you love of music that lifts you up above the sordidness of the day into the pure realm of beauty that touches in song the hem of God’s garments.
I hoped to give you the love of poetry that somewhere between earth and heaven catches the music and brings it back to earth and weaves it with words that help us to live. I wanted to give you an appreciation for all beauty. I hoped to give you a naked tree against the background of snow and winter sky; flowers in the spring so pregnantly lovely against the brown of a naked earth; the sea so restless and so monotonous.
These things I wanted you to know. The joy of gliding down a snowy hill on long skis, the wind in your face. The feeling of cold water against your naked body on a hot day in summer. Long walks through the crisp golden days of autumn, or the mellow ones of spring. I dreamt I could give you travels together through the towns and countries of Europe, drinking in their meandering beauty; and a keen mind and a thirst for knowledge. Of these I dreamt for you.
And for all of these I was ready to give my life so that you might possess Faith, that gift that surpasseth understanding, and without which Life is death. Yours was to be (I hoped) that foretaste of heaven – Communion. I saw you “praying the Mass,” your heart lifted up to Him who loved you so as to die on the Cross. My eyes, dimmed by tears, saw you kneeling in the confessional, cleansing your soul to be spotless white, preparing to receive its God. Finding new visions and ways of serving God. I saw you, vital and young, walking through life, doing good for His sake, for the sake of pure Love and Beauty, gathering in your young strong hands the fruit of charity which are purity of heart and mind, strength of will, clean manhood, and a joy of living that can be only surpassed by the joy of dying.
Thus had I dreamed and suffered for my dreams. And now here they were, my little golden dreams, fragments of silver and gold all broken up at my feet. You had not understood, or I had not explained well enough. Your young face was set unto the other way, the way of the flesh!
Like millions before you, poor child, you found this earth’s pleasures fair. Like the prodigal son you went after the will of the wisp light. Women seemed fair to you, and gold called you, and that illusion of freedom that thinks that we alone are masters of our destinies. You wanted to be free of all discipline, not realizing that freedom is the result of it. And that without it there is a slavery worse than death.
You have gone, and I am alone. And I shall go into distant lands with the terrible burden of uncertainty about you. All I have left is prayer. It alone will be our bond. Wherever you are, my son, my prayers will be with you. I beg of our Lady to watch over you and keep you under the blue mantle of her love!
So, Catherine left for Europe 4 days later. The following citations are from Lorie Duquin’s biography, The Called Her the Baroness. (“Flewy” was Grace Flewelling, who lived with Catherine in Toronto, was perhaps her most faithful associate, and knew, as well as anyone, the situation with Catherine, Boris, and George.) Note that Boris sent George to England, and that his life-style was not exactly nurturing George’s need for a father!
“When Catherine arrived in London on the morning of June 14  the hotel clerk handed her a note from Flewy saying George had written and that ‘God will make everything work out okay.’ What Flewy did not tell Catherine is that George was hopping freight trains throughout the United States, and had no intention of coming home. He found jobs hoeing cotton in the deep south, picking peas in California, and pushing wheelchairs on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. He spent a few days in a South Carolina jail on vagrancy charges, but a kind woman bailed him out, and he skipped town.” (159)
“When Catherine returned to Brussels, a letter waited with the horrifying news that a vagrant had brutally beaten George and left him in a boxcar to die. When George regained consciousness, he called Boris, and begged to come home. Boris insisted, however, that George’s only option was a boarding school in England, and that he would have to work his way across the ocean on a cattle boat. George agreed to Boris’ terms. On August 28  Boris and one of his mistresses sailed for Europe on a luxury liner to arrange for George’s schooling. Catherine met them when they arrived. Her blood pressure was low, and she was exhausted from travel. She asked herself again and again whether she had failed as a mother, but Flewy insisted that Catherine had not failed, and that George had finally come to his senses: ‘He has the two examples of his parents. He cannot but see that the one who is striving to follow in the footsteps of the Divine Saviour is the one whom he can call upon for help and forgiveness for things he feels he has done that he may feel he shouldn’t have. If he doesn’t [see] now he will later, there is no doubt about that.’” (163-64)
Note of Catherine at the end of these letters: “Dear George – came across these in cleaning. Thought you would like to see them!” We do not have the date for when Catherine finally did send these letters to George, but these letters express, more than anything else I’ve ever read by Catherine, her attitude towards her son.
I add another Letter of Catherine’s that expresses her love for George.
Letter, April 10, 1955 [from Combermere]:
On this our greatest Russian Feast Day of the year [Easter], I feel like sitting down and writing to you. It was so good to have you here for a while (alas, so short a while). I was so hungry for the sight of you and a talk with you, son. It has been so very, very long.
I will always remember that long talk we had at St. Kate’s by the fireside. You may not realize it, but you came very close to me, closer perhaps than we have ever been. Petia tuch…tuch. I have been lonely for you.
There is no denying that you have a strange mother, yet one who loves you so deeply that I think the depth escapes you. Yet, you are coming closer. And with time, when I am gone, you will one day understand a love that is constant, never wavering, that does not hold on to anything, for its arms are cruciform, and it cannot “hold” anything, not even a son. But it has a pierced heart, and that is where it has laid him forever. That is where you are, now and for eternity.
Your sorrow is my sorrow. I said little. Words are weak, puny sounds that express little of the depths and the heights of a human understanding, a human love. I listened, and I KNEW, knew in a flash, that you had left unafraid. The loneliness, the wonder, the fears in the night, the temptations, the dark, murky depths stirred by all this. The wavering between the heights of faith and the abyss of unbelief. And again, loneliness and hunger for the beloved ones, especially your children.
And I knew more: I knew that you, like myself, will always be an exile, a stranger in a strange land, and that you loved Russia even as I do, silently, deeply. And all things Russian speak to you, just by being. I felt the bond. I knew I was not alone in my long loneliness, which I offered too, to Him who alone had drunk the cup of utter loneliness that was also utter desolation. He had sent me, in His mercy and love, that one evening by the fireside with my son, and the evening told me that I was not alone. I thanked God for that evening.
Exiles. You are not quite an exile, and yet in spirit you are. Who but exiles know the sharp pain of a day like this [Easter] when, although those around you love you and absorb the customs you present to them, yet they cannot feel the way we feel about Pascha, koolitch, pasanki eggs, and so on. They do not know the memories I have of language, cities, songs, and oh, so many other things. You know them from me, and from your blood.
I felt your desire “to belong,” and I wanted to say, “Child, you belong to my heart forever. Fear not. You belong to a great people. You belong to Mary and her divine Son. You are not alone. You never will be because you are rich in the treasures that count.”
I said nothing of these things then. But today when the thousand bells of Moscow ring in my ears, when the Easter greetings of my and your people sound in my ears, so gay and holy, today I wanted to write these few words because I wish so passionately that you were here with me, George. I think today I could tell you much of what is on and in my heart. Since you are not here, beloved son, I say them on paper.
I and others have often pointed out that Catherine’s sufferings can be a consolation for people in similar trials. Just to mention her experiences in the first 40 years of her life: she suffered the hardships of war, including the loss of relatives and friends; she was a refugee and knew the loss of one’s country; she was a stranger in a new land; she experienced poverty; she knew the pain of a failed marriage. And the above letters reveal that she knew the pain of so many good Christian moms and dads who have tried to give their children their faith only – at least for some years – to have that faith rejected. Catherine knew the pain of failing to pass on to her son the best she could give him. No doubt she made some mistake in this attempt, as most parents would admit as well. Is this not one of the greatest pains of many parents in the modern Christian and Catholic world? Catherine knew all about it.
Greetings in the Love and Peace of the Lord!
For many years I have heard many things about the good works and charitable acts of this beautiful and kind lady, Catherine Doherty. Upon my research and short study on the life and virtues of this lady I was really amazed, but not shocked, to discover that she is in line for glorification in heaven as one of the saints.
Servant of God Catherine Doherty, is in fact one of the modern day saints that the world really needs in this time of trials. As one of the best images of perfection, I owe many things to her, most specially that she is my guide, the guide that leads me on the right path in searching deeper for the meaning of life. ihope that this short testimony of faith would inspire others to call upon to Catherine Doherty as one of their intercessors.
— GPG/Sampaloc, Manila, Philippines/1/22/2009
Letter of Blessed Mother Teresa
to Fr. Phil Thibodeau (Associate Priest of Madonna House)
Mother House, 29 November 1994
Dear Fr. Thibodeau,
Thank you for your kind letter of 2 November which you sent me together with the reflections of Catherine Doherty on “I Thirst.” As you well know, this mystery of Christ’s life and death is at the center of who we are and what we do as Missionaries of Charity. That is why the words “I Thirst” appear near the crucifix in every M.C. chapel, and why the aim stated in our Constitution is for us “to quench the infinite thirst of Jesus for love of souls.” I am glad to have the prayer of Catherine Doherty on this beautiful mystery in which we are privileged to share every day.
Thanks, too, for the other pages of the book on the spirituality of Catherine Doherty. Let us thank God for all the gifts He has given the world through her.
— Mother Teresa, MC
I asked Catherine’s intercession, as my mother was in the middle of suffering a stroke. The effects could have been much worse. The staff and doctors are amazed at my mother’s recovery.
— 6/22/ 2009, KC, Urbandale, Iowa
One old friend, when faced with either living with the pain of a pinched nerve in her shoulder, or undergoing surgery that held a 50% chance of leaving her with a paralyzed arm, decided that instead she would ask Catherine for a miracle. So off she went with Catherine’s shawl over her shoulder, and the prayer novena in her hand. The next we saw of her she rather matter of factly shared with us how well her shoulder felt now, and this after months of pain and various treatments.
— February/1991/Alpena, MI