Catherine and Jean Vanier

Catherine: Cause Newsletter #16 — Fall 2008

From the Postulator’s Desk

Jean Vanier with Catherine Doherty at Madonna House, 1971.

Jean Vanier with Catherine Doherty at Madonna House, 1971.

The gospel influence of Catherine on others is one indication of the work of the Holy Spirit in her life. Such influences are significant for the evaluation of her holiness. My last newsletter was about Catherine’s influence on Thomas Merton. Although Catherine’s contacts with Jean Vanier were less frequent, you will see that he considers her and, even more, her community, to be major influences in his journey to L’Arche.

Jean Vanier is one of the most internationally known followers of Jesus. But for those who might not know who he is, a little introduction would be helpful.

He is the founder of L’Arche and co-founder of Faith and Light, two international networks of communities for people with disabilities and the friends who share their lives. A recent measure of his stature is the fact that he was chosen to be one of the speakers at the opening day of the Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City, June 2008.

He is the son of the former Governor General of Canada, George Vanier; and Jean’s mother, Pauline, shared in his apostolate for a number of years. The couple’s exemplary Christian lives are also quite renowned. Both are being considered for the possible opening of a cause for their canonization.

Jean Vanier in Paris, 1952.

Jean Vanier in Paris, 1952.

Jean has many best-selling books and has received numerous awards. He has been described as “a Canadian who inspires the world.” He lives in Trosly, France, where he founded the community of L’Arche in 1964. The following quotes concerning Catherine are from his most recent book, Jean Vanier, Our Life Together. A Memoir in Letters. (Harper/Collins Publishers Ltd: Toronto, 2007.) (During this first visit to Friendship House, which he now describes, Catherine was not in Harlem. In 1947 she went to Ontario, where she started the Madonna House community in Combermere.) Jean writes:

“On my journey towards the founding of L’Arche, I encountered community movements that, like L’Arche, were both counter-cultural—not driven by success or ambition or competition— and yet very much of their time, of a time when people were searching, willing to see where the Spirit of God could lead, and concerned with the pain of others.”

[He then mentions the communities of the Little Sisters and Brothers of Charles de Foucauld and Dorothy Day.]

“Another influential community founder for L’Arche was Catherine Doherty. She was born to an aristocratic and devout Orthodox family in Russia. She married Baron de Hueck at the age of fifteen, but after the Russian Revolution, they fled as refugees to Canada, experienced terrible poverty, and eventually separated. She worked her way to prosperity again, only to give it all up to live among the poor in the slums of Toronto during the Depression. She also came to know Dorothy Day. Many young people followed Catherine’s Gospel way of life. Together they called themselves Friendship House and they lived the spirituality of Francis of Assisi—community life, poverty, compassion, peacemaking and a reverence for God’s creation. Later she moved to Harlem and started another house devoted primarily to the needs of the inner-city black community. This is where I first came to know the community in 1950.

“At the time, I was reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain, and when my ship, the HMCS Magnificent, docked in New York, I followed his path to Friendship House and spent many days in the community. I even invited them all aboard the ship for Easter dinner! Eventually Catherine and her second husband, journalist Eddie Doherty, returned to Canada and founded Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. Madonna House consists of men and women and priests who live a life of voluntary poverty, celibacy and obedience.” (pp.62-63)

Kathryn Spink, in her book, The Miracle, the Message, the Story: Jean Vanier and L’Arche (Novalis, 2007), gives another account of Jean’s first visit to Friendship House:

“In April 1950, after a voyage to Cuba on exercises with the US Navy, the Maggie put into New York. At the time Jean Vanier was reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain. Discovering how much the author had been influenced by Friendship House, founded by Catherine Doherty in Harlem for the city’s down-and-outs, he telephoned the community and spent all his free time in New York with the occupants. He was deeply and spontaneously drawn to their life amongst the poor black Americans. They had a large store from where they distributed food and clothing. They themselves lived very simply in two apartments. On Easter Day Jean Vanier took them a large leg of lamb and at one point invited them all to come and eat in the officers’ dining room on board the Magnificent. Fifteen men and women in varying states of poor attire formed a curious gathering in such formal surroundings but one very much in the spirit of the gospels.” (pp. 28-29)

A Gold Mine of Letters

Recently I came across this quote from Cardinal Newman. In a letter to his sister, Jemima, in May 1836, he wrote: “It has ever been a hobby of mine (unless it be a truism, not a hobby) that a man’s life lies in his letters. So, not only for the interest of a biography, but for arriving at the inside of things, the publication of letters is the true method. Biographers varnish—assign motives, conjecture feelings—they interpret Lord Burleigh’s nods, but contemporary letters are facts.”

Jean Vanier with first members and volunteers of L'Arche, Trosly-Breuil, France, 1967.

Jean Vanier with first members and volunteers of L'Arche, Trosly-Breuil, France, 1967.

In keeping with this insight, it’s significant that Jean, in these closing years of his life, chose to put together a volume of his letters, from which I quoted above. Evidently he too believes that something of the “inside” of his own life is reflected most of all in his letters.

We are discovering in our archives thousands of Catherine’s letters which most of the community have never read. In my last few newsletters, I’ve been sharing some of her correspondence with Dorothy Day, Paul of Graymoor, and Thomas Merton. We also have several precious letters of hers to Jean.

In the years before the following letter, brief notes were passed back and forth between Catherine and Jean. In 1970 she wrote one of her longest to him, which eventually led to his visiting Combermere:

October 14, 1970

“Dearest Friend in Christ,

“Thank you for your beautiful book, Tears of Silence. I was deeply grateful for receiving it, for in some sort of a way I was going through the phase of silent tears myself.

“It is a beautiful book, and it speaks to me of the very things that bring forth my ‘silent tears.’ You know the Russian spirituality, dear friend, that keeps entering into the pain of the world constantly and in an ever deeper and in an ever greater depth.

“To weep for the world, to weep for one’s sins and the sins of others, to weep with those who weep, to weep sharing the sorrow of those who sorrow — that always has been the way of my people, and I guess I have inherited it somewhat.

“You know, I have always desired that some day you will come and visit us and tell us about the things that are in your heart that you talk about so well elsewhere. I have hesitated to ask you directly, dear Jean, because I know you have so many demands from so many people. And yet, somehow, I think that we should meet again, for I feel so intensely close to you and your work which is constantly in my prayers.

“I cherished my meeting with your mother. We have prayed together in the chapel of the Government House. Those moments of prayer are etched deeply in my heart. Believe it or not, they constantly give me strength, for your mother is one of the valiant women of God. She gives strength by just being, by just existing. I love her very dearly and I pray for her too.

“Strangely enough—but I don’t think it will seem strange to you—I pray to your father. It is not supposed to be done officially, but then, you know, the Russians believe in sobornost. They believe also very deeply in the communion of saints, which is this sobornost, this togetherness, this oneness, that sears so deeply and profoundly in our souls. So, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t pray to him, do you? For he beholds the face of God, of that I am absolutely sure. And he can help me, for he was wise.

“Yes, I want to thank you very deeply for your book. I will read it and re-read it. You must have written it with silent tears too, for the pain of the world rests heavily on your soul. I can sense this, but at the same time, you know that pain is the kiss of Christ. And you know that He will give you the strength to carry that pain and turn it into joy. We Russians say the tears wash the world clean when they are the tears that the Lord gives us. And even while we weep, we know the peace of the Lord and his tremendous joy, so infinite, so quiet, so deeply hidden.

“You might be interested in our poustinias, our Hermitages, our Prayer Houses — call them what you will—which we have started on my Island. But did you know that we have an Island? Come and see if you can, dear friend. I enclose some of my writings on the Poustinia. They are as yet clunkish, for I still have difficulty in translating the Russian ideals into English. I don’t mean language-wise, but I mean spirituality-wise. You know what I mean. So thank you for your book, Lovingly yours, Catherine Doherty”

Jean with Catherine at Madonna House, 1971.

Jean with Catherine at Madonna House, 1971.

In February 1971, Jean made that visit to Madonna House. He had given a retreat to the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucauld in Ottawa. Jean states:

“At the end of the retreat, I visited Madonna House, a community of some forty-five permanent members, twelve priests and thirty visitors and trainees. It is a very young, lively Christian community. Their prayer and liturgy are very beautiful and alive in the Spirit. They all live off the land and their sixty cows. I was happy to be there but unfortunately my visit was very short. I spoke in the evening and after my talk the group burst out in song. I feel a strong union with everyone here. Catherine Doherty, a woman of seventy-two years, founded Madonna House.” (Jean Vanier, p. 83)

I wasn’t at Madonna House when Jean visited; I missed him by several months. He opened his talk there with a much more colorful account of his visit to Harlem than the two above rather prosaic renditions!

Excerpt from a talk by Jean Vanier, Madonna House, February 21, 1971:

“It’s good to be amongst you. My association with Catherine [she was present in the audience] dates far back, but she doesn’t know it. I spent eight years in the navy — four at the naval academy and then the last four cruising around. I loved the navy and I was happy, but Jesus wanted something else. So He called me, gradually, from that first love to not feel quite at home with my fellow officers. And I began to realize that in a short while I’d have to resign my commission. But I was sort of waiting. I was on the aircraft carrier Magnificent and we docked in New York. This was in 1950. And as I was reading Thomas Merton I’d heard that there was a group of fellows down in Harlem. So when I had a leave I went down. I remember very well Anne Foley and Jim Guinan. I don’t remember any others.

“I felt really close to them. I invited them all to dinner on the aircraft carrier. They were a pretty screwball crowd (laughter) and I think I really had to resign once they had been there! Suddenly there were these ten people coming into the mess and, well, you know, they were sort of crazy! We were very staid officers.

“Shortly afterwards I handed in my resignation. I had a great love for that little community. I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned this: I was very close to joining them. [Italics added] I left the navy, but it didn’t work out like that. Jesus didn’t seem to want it, and so I didn’t go. I sent them, I remember, a number of my uniforms. I don’t know what they did with them. That little community played a great deal of influence in my mind and in my being because it corresponded in so many ways to a call of what I felt in myself. A very impoverished and simple life, living off Providence in a very simple way, living in the Negro section of New York with the rejected, the totally rejected. I’ve always felt deeply linked to them. I haven’t expressed this before in this way. I am deeply grateful because, without any doubt, as I have said, they had a very deep influence upon me.” (Unpublished transcript, Madonna House Archives)

Jean Vanier and his spiritual director Père Thomas Philippe, France, 1964.

Jean Vanier and his spiritual director Père Thomas Philippe, France, 1964.

Another beautiful letter of Catherine to Jean will be of interest. It expresses her maternal instinct towards him, as well as her testimony about his holiness:

August 27, 1974: “Dear Friend in Christ: Pax Caritas.

“I received your letter wishing me what I most desire — to live always in the heart of the risen Christ! Thank you.

“You have been very much in my heart, too, in a very special manner. You know, Jean, I love you very much. I love your mother and I have loved your father, but toward you I have a very special love in the heart of Christ. And so my daily prayers are with you. And I have been worried about you.

“Truly, how stupid and how idiotic it is to worry about you who, in a manner of speaking, is the darling of the world, and a very beautiful spiritual darling of many, many people. I mean it in this sense: how idiotic to worry about a person like you who leads thousands to God! But here I am, worrying. Although I must admit it isn’t an ordinary worry like people worry about money or jobs or so.

“Please pray for me because I think I should not write this letter; yet here I am writing it. I worry about your fragmentation — another stupid word that doesn’t apply to you at all, my very dear. How can one worry about the fragmentation of a saint, at least one who is on the way to sanctity like you. But here I am, praying for you constantly. Something intangible, something that I can’t catch, something that bothers me and that I must write to you about, even though I feel a fool for doing so.

“I wish that in some sort of a way you spared yourself, not for yourself: you would never do that. But for God. I wish you took a rest. But who am I to tell you that; and yet I do.

“Anyhow this is a foolish letter. I should never send it, but I am sending it probably because I am a fool myself.

“Anyhow, in unity of love and prayer, my dear, I will continue to pray daily for you and for your mother and your intentions. Your mother, too, is intensely dear to me. Somehow, I don’t know how, she sustains me. Her prayers are intensely powerful. I haven’t seen her in a long time and yet there she is, sustaining me.

“Pray for our humble Apostolate that in its small but constant growth it will not lose its original simplicity. With much love, Catherine”

One of the most significant aspects of Jean’s story is that he was initially influenced not so much by Catherine personally as by her spirit that permeated the members of the community she formed. The fact that the community was able to be such an inspiration to Jean is a sign of how deeply Catherine, in the power of the Spirit, could transmit her spirituality and vision. This is another indication of her deep Gospel way of life: the ability to transmit to others what she herself had received.

As I began writing this newsletter I thought to myself: Why don’t I write Jean and ask him for a testimony about Catherine? I did, and here is his gracious reply. (Note, again, his emphasis on the community as the primary source of his inspiration.)

Trosly le 20.05.08

“My dear Robert,

“Yes, I certainly feel that Catherine is ‘holy’ material and could and should be honored by the church. She had a strong and beautiful vision of the church. The church as community, the church as a place of welcome, the church open to the poor, committed to the poor. I visited Madonna House in 1971, and also was close to Friendship House in Harlem in 1950.

“She was holy and called people to holiness. She called people to live the gospel message and to love Jesus. Her life, but even more the community she inspired, [ital. added] and the vision of ‘Poustinia’ as a place to meet God and be with God, are important for the church and for the world. In communion with Jesus, Jean.”

People often remark that the greatest ‘miracle’ of Catherine’s is the community she founded. Jean’s experience in Harlem is a tribute to the fidelity of those who were faithful in living Catherine’s vision enough to inspire Jean as he searched for a gospel vision for his own life. It takes holiness to found a community, and to give it an enduring foundation. It will be the challenge of the present members of her community to be as faithful to her vision as were the early pioneers that welcomed Jean into Friendship House in 1950.

— Fr. Bob Wild


Testimony of Bishop O’Neil in Regina, Sask., November 6, 1953, after a talk by Catherine:

Statue of Catherine of Siena by Francis Rich

Statue of Catherine of Siena by Frances Rich

“One day in Russia, two parents brought their girl to be baptized. The priest must have asked them what name they wanted to give their daughter. They answered, ‘Catherina.’ Were they thinking of Catherine of Alexandria, patroness of philosophers, whose intelligence was unequalled in her time? Were they thinking of Catherine of Genoa, who soared into the heights of the mystical life? Or were they thinking of Catherine of Siena who set Popes and Bishops straight when, as today, they needed being set straight so much in so many places? Whatever their thoughts, they chose well and prophetically, for our speaker would do credit to each of the Catherines. Because she has in common with them a burning love of God. And He endowed her with many of their gifts. I thank our Catherine who came to us, because she brought God closer to me and, I know, to you. Someday she may be known as Catherine of Canada. May God bless and keep her. Thank you.”

All the Catherines

In a letter to a seminarian in 1980 who inquired about her name, Catherine wrote: “All the Catherines had a deep influence in my life. I pray to all of them. I must admit that the biggest influences are Catherine of Siena, because my mother named me after her, and Catherine of Alexandria, because she is the patron saint of Russia. She was a philosopher and had brilliant ideas about many things.

“However, Catherine of Genoa appeals to me because she was a widow and I am a widow. Also she was married at the age of 16 and so was I, and thereby she became quite a patroness of mine. She had an intense temperament, and so did I; but unfortunately she did not have too much humor and wit, but I have a lot of it.

“Another thing that she, Catherine of Genoa, gave to me was, as it were, her infinite trust in God. Faith and trust are the two columns of my life, and I pray to her for more of the same. Then, of course, she also looked after the sick, the sad, and the poor, and that’s what my life is all about, and that’s how she influenced me.”

Testimony of Paul Harris

Paul Harris is one of our oldest friends, having spent six months as a visiting volunteer in 1947-48 in Combermere, when only Catherine, Eddie and Grace Flewellling were there. He told me that on his first visit, after having a cup of tea, Catherine said she had to go out and would he mind mopping the floor! (Catherine had a genius for making you feel part of the family.) He is internationally known for his writing and lecturing on the method of prayer of Dom John Main. Paul writes:

“Perhaps one of B’s strongest virtues was her fidelity to the details of ordinary life. Constantly, over the years, she demonstrated a compassion to so many people suffering some personal crisis or trauma. Thousands of letters sent over the years to those in need of psychological/spiritual assistance could testify to this.

“For example, in 1973, I had a sorrowful event in my life. Immediately I received a note (which I still possess) which reads as follows: ‘Dear Paul, my prayers are with you. It is a sorrow-filled Christmas for you, yet in sorrow you will find joy. The wood of the crib is the wood of the Cross — beyond it is healing and resurrection. Love B’

“This short note was both compassionate and spiritually insightful and gave me strength and courage at a time of great pain. It showed me the B’s compassion and fidelity to a hundred little things. I’m sure my note was just one of many sent out that particular day.” Ottawa, 1992

Favours Received

“My dearest Catherine [diary entry],

Well, good news for a change. It seems the miracle has begun. Not completed but is on the way. I went for the doctor’s appointment and he sent me for a CAT scan. They had me wait and told me that my heart looked good and was not filling, which was suspected. I went home and thought no news was good news, so I waited to call my doctor for the whole report. Finally I got up the courage to call. The secretary said it was good. I asked what that meant, was the cancer growing, and she said no. I was happy but confused. I still didn’t feel great and wondered what it meant.

“Yesterday I went to the chemo room with my appointment with the internist before I receive my meds. I asked if he could look up the CAT scan and tell us what exactly it said. He said well your liver is clear!!!!!

“I asked what that meant. My husband and I were both stunned as we were expecting bad news. My liver was clear. (It was completely studded when we started this and was never supposed to clear). He turned on the screen and showed us the actual CAT scan. We watched as it went through my liver and came back saying clear. He then showed us the one after my last chemo and it stopped in a few places and measured lumps. But this time they were nowhere to be seen. He showed us how the spleen looked clear and no lymph nodes were enlarged. Good sign. He also said except for the scarring on the lungs they too looked clear. There were still me-stasis to the bones but he couldn’t read that part.

“I am not feeling the best yet but my body needs to regroup. Thank you, Catherine, for your part in this step towards a miracle. It seems the last few lumps have gone after my last treatment was done, so can we claim a miracle? I am not sure. I love you, Catherine. Thank again. Your daughter in Christ.” — CLS, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, April 2008

Catherine in print and media

Catherine Doherty has been the subject of many books, and she herself was a prolific speaker and author with dozens of published works. We hope to introduce you to these popular and important works, considered by many to be modern spiritual classics. The following title is featured in this newsletter:

They Called Her the Baroness: The Life of Catherine de Hueck Doherty by Lorene Hanley Duquin

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