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The Truth about Thomas Merton’s Spiritual Mother

“Baloney!” were the first words Thomas Merton heard her say.

The year was 1941 and Merton was teaching at St. Bonaventure University. The “Baroness,” as she was called in those times, Catherine de Hueck, was speaking on campus about the Catholic Church’s failure to work for racial equality.

Merton tells the story in his autobiography:

I was walking around the football field, as usual, in the dark. The Alumni Hall was full of lights. There was some speaker there. I knew Baroness de Hueck, who was working among the Negroes in Harlem, was going to speak. When I stepped in to the room there was a woman standing on the stage. As soon as I came in the door, the impression she was making on that room full of nuns and clerics and priests and various laypeople pervaded the place with such power that it nearly knocked me back down towards the stairs which I had just ascended. She had a strong voice, and strong convictions, and strong things to say. I realized it was the Baroness.

This wouldn’t be the last time Catherine’s preaching nearly knocked someone down the stairs. With a frankness that belied her Eastern roots, Catherine became a popular female preacher —one that had little patience for inaction.

Her intensity was so striking to the young Merton that he asked her if he could come visit her Friendship House in Harlem. Who was this fierce woman?

Best Kept Secret

I’m not sure why no one knows about Catherine.

In the early 20th century, she was widely known in Christian circles.

According to many scholars, it is thanks to her, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, that the contemplative life is known in Western Christianity. (Even Thomas Keating would have known about her.)

She was one of the first white women to work for racial justice for the Black population in Harlem, New York, in the 1930’s and 40’s. Decades before the civil rights movement.

And, it is through her guidance that a young Tom Merton discerned his vocation to the Trappist monastery.

Why does no one know who she is?

I’ve spoken to dozens of spiritual directors, contemplative teachers, and writers, and almost no one knows of Catherine de Hueck Doherty.

But her fiery and feisty life is inspirational in the least–and life-altering at best.

What made her so potent that nearly bowled Merton over?

Go and stand up and tell everybody the tiniest bit of truth God has sent you... Yes, you have what it takes. The shaft of God’s light is striking you straight in the face. For a while you are a little blinded by it, but soon you will learn to see fully in his light. - Catherine Doherty to Thomas Merton

A Spiritual Mother

Merton visited Catherine at the Friendship House the following day. He spends 8 pages of his autobiography describing his time there. They ate dinner with the motley crew gathered in that Harlem community. Tom was struck not only at the grave injustices the neighborhood experienced, but also at the radical lifestyle of the Friendship House volunteers. He writes:

For my own part, I knew it was good for me to be there, and so for two or three weeks I came down every night and ate dinner with the little community. After that, for two or three hours, I devoted myself to the task of what was euphemistically called ‘looking after the cubs.’ [...]

I felt for Friendship House a little of the nostalgia I had felt for Gethsemani [referring to his Holy Week retreat]. No, it was all too evident: I needed this support, this nearness of those who really loved Christ so much they seemed to see Him.

As Tom continued to volunteer, Catherine became more and more of an anam cara, or soul friend. In the language of the desert mothers and fathers, she became a spiritual mother to him. They wrote long letters back and forth: Tom, the 26 year old convert, and Catherine, the 46 year old Russian immigrant.

They begin to dialogue about his vocation. Catherine, ever potent, would call him straight on it. Merton recalls:

Then the Baroness said, ‘Tom, are you thinking of becoming a priest? People who ask all the questions you asked me in those letters usually want to become priests.’ Her words turned the knife in that old wound [of his thinking of the priesthood]. ‘Oh, no, I have no vocation to the priesthood.’

Not sure if he was ready to admit this to himself, Tom delayed. But he was flabbergasted by the impact Catherine was having not only among the poor, but with the male priests and bishops.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty, called "the Baroness," in the Friendship House in Harlem.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, called "the Baroness," in the Friendship House in Harlem.

Here she was, an immigrant woman with a thick Russian accent, preaching to the clergy. Tom writes:

We were in a restaurant having something to eat, and the Baroness was talking about priests, and about the spiritual life and gratitude... She had made what seemed to me to be certainly a good point. But I suddenly noticed that it had struck the two Friars like a bombshell.