29 Aug Closed
by Jane Hodgins
I wonder what would have happened if the gift shop had been open.
Canoeing along the Madawaska River in the mid-seventies, my boyfriend and I were mystified by the gold onion domes and crosses that loomed out of nowhere.
Then on the way back from our trip a few days later, I saw a sign by the side of the river that announced “Madonna House Gift Shop, ¼ mile.”
I said to my boyfriend, whose mother’s birthday was in a couple of weeks, “I’m going to go there. These places always have great things really cheap. Do you want to come?” He said no, he’d wait at the canoe.
Dwarfed by the towering pines on either side of the road, I walked from a small sand beach to the gift shop, looking forward to the inexpensive treasures I might find.
When I got there, I saw a sign on the door that said, “Closed.” I often wonder why I didn’t just turn around and go back to the canoe.
But along the road, I had noticed another sign, one that said, “Training Center.” Something in me said that I couldn’t just leave, that I should give them a donation. So, I crossed the road and knocked on the kitchen door of what I later found out was the main house.
I was greeted by a young woman who looked just like the hippie I was, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Only she was also wearing an apron and a cross with the words “Pax Caritas” on it. Hmmm.
I told her I wanted to leave a donation, and she said, “You’ll have to see Marité. We’re having tea soon. Would you like to join us?”
I demurred and continued through the kitchen.
Another woman in jeans and a peasant blouse like mine, also wearing an apron and a cross, asked if she could help me. I repeated what I’d said and was again told I’d need to see Marité and would I like to stay for tea?
“No thank you,” I replied.
A few feet further on, I encountered Marité, all 5-feet-nothing of her. When I gave her my $2 donation, she smiled her huge smile and thanked me as though I’d given her $100 and asked, “Would you like to stay for tea?”
I said yes. Ted would just have to wait.
On the dock, drinking a lovely yogurt and peach drink, I was flummoxed by all these “religious” people who looked like me and my friends but who wore these crosses and didn’t look anything like either nuns or priests.
Quite perturbed, I finally blurted out, “Who are you people?”
One of the women, Susan, said it was difficult to explain Madonna House, so would I like a tour.
I thought, “This is getting bigger than me,” and said OK.
As we walked over the causeway to the chapel, the mystery of the golden onion domes was revealed. Susan told me about the Russian baroness who had founded Madonna House. She even talked about the iconographers in the community and how icons were “written.”
I’d never seen a church without pews nor had I ever seen icons. I was transfixed. I asked if I could pray, as I’d been a very devout young Anglican before I was confirmed. Of course Susan said yes.
I knelt on the floor. I don’t know what I prayed, but I remember being very moved.
We made our way back to the main house and sat on the lawn looking up the river. I figured I’d better get back to the canoe and said I must be going, thanks for the tour.
Susan said, “Jane, some people come as guests so maybe one day you’ll come back to visit us.”
Having been taught to be polite, I smiled and said, “Yes, maybe I will,” while the thought bubble over my head said, “I’m outta here.”
I made it back to the canoe as fast as I could and, of course, my boyfriend said, “Where have you been?”
I’d probably been gone for at least an hour … and I hadn’t even gotten his mother a gift.
Something had been troubling me for many months, and as we paddled our canoe looking for a place to camp that night, I was filled with peace, something I hadn’t felt for a very long time.
The Madonna House community was at Mass at that time, something I wouldn’t find out until the next year when, as Catherine wrote me much later, “The Lord took you almost by your hair and brought you to where you wanted to be”—that is, Madonna House as a short-term working guest.
I’m sure that anyone who encountered me that afternoon knew that this girl hadn’t just randomly stumbled upon Madonna House. They knew that God had brought me there.
All of these thoughts flashed through my mind a couple of years ago at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Madonna House Gift Shop, where my husband John, my sister Judy, and I were privileged to be among the guests.
As Fr. David May and Susanne Stubbs, directors of Madonna House, thanked God and acknowledged with gratitude the founders of the magnificent gift shop which over the years has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the poor around the world, I couldn’t help thinking how ironic it was that its being closed is what first brought me to a long and grace-filled affiliation with Madonna House almost forty years ago.
Jane was received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2005 and, later on, her husband John, an Anglican priest, was also. On December 14, 2013, Fr. John was ordained a Catholic priest for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, the rite for Anglicans who have converted to Roman Catholicism.