Combermere Diary

by Paulette Curran

The word that comes to me for this column this month is “new life.” It is everywhere, of course, in nature during May and June.

In mid May, after an unusually cold spring, suddenly it felt, not like spring, but full summer.

Suddenly everything was bursting forth. Bright dandelions dotted the grass, and buds opened into tiny leaves, which amazingly soon were full-grown. Tulips bloomed and other flowers as well, and emerging shoots of every kind of greenery grew and grew.

(Cooler weather did and continues, of course, to return from time to time. But this is the nature of a Canadian summer. )

But for us, probably the biggest sign of new life and growing life manifested itself on June 8th, the Feast of Our Lady of Combermere and the day when our newest staff make or renew their promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience for one year, two years, or “forever.”

It is always a powerful day, for who can fail to be moved at seeing young people commit or re-commit their whole lives to God?

Family and friends come from near and far, and this year there were more local people than usual, for two of those making promises, Loretta Fritz and Meaghan Boyd, were from St. Joseph’s House, which serves the local areas, and a third, Trina Stitak, has only been recently transferred from there.

This year, too, along with the staff, Fr. Bob Mathieu, made his final promises as an associate priest of MH.

Bishop Michael Mulhall, the bishop of our diocese, was the celebrant, and he ended his homily with the words, “This is a day of great, great joy, for the church, for the Madonna House community, for the diocese, and for the bishop who witnesses it.”

But this time, instead of focussing on the details of Promises Day, I am going to talk about the three-day retreat those making promises make in preparation.

For these retreats are so beautiful and, as far as I know, unique in form, and I don’t remember ever telling you much about them.

Our promises retreats are very different from poustinia, our usual way of taking time out for individual prayer and solitude. These retreats are communal. And like most retreats, they include talks (just one a day) and times for silence.

They are also very festive and are a time when the whole community lavishes love upon the retreatants.

The staff of the handicraft department decorate their dining room beautifully, and they change the decorations every day.

People volunteer to cook or serve the table and wash dishes, and the meals are feast day meals. For we use foods which we, with our simple, health-food-like diet, don’t usually have.

Moreover, the cooks, most of whom don’t ordinarily work in the kitchen, besides wanting to show love to the retreatants, enjoy the opportunity for creativity.

These meals are a big part of facilitating one of the graces of these retreats—a bonding that happens in the group. It happens, too, during the day, which is not tightly structured.

A rhythm of solitude and being together generally happens, and this group laughed a lot and played some games. They even invited the directors general to play with them the night they came for supper.

Then there is one day between the retreat and promises. Those making first and final promises visit with their families and friends, and those renewing have a normal work day. I am always moved to see them working at this time, living what they have promised and will promise again the next day.

Another time of new life—well life anyhow—that takes place during this time of year, the first three weeks of May to be exact, was the meeting of the leaders of Madonna House,  both those here in Combermere and those in our missions across the United States and Canada and in Belgium, England, Russia, and the West Indies.

Their time together began with a retreat, and then they met together, dealing with problems, looking deeply into the spirit of Madonna House, and trying to discern how to respond to what Catherine, our foundress called “the signs of the times.” It was a time of listening to the Holy Spirit and to one another.

It was also a time of growing in unity and, hopefully, it was also a time of restoration for the directors.

One simple ceremony that took place during the meetings was that the director general of women, Susanne Stubbs, presented the new directors with hand-carved keys, a symbol of their authority.

This year, the keys, carved by Anne Marie Murphy, were given to Christina Milan director of our house in Winslow, Arizona, and Marie Therese McLaughlin, director of our house in Roanoke, Virginia.

The National March for Life took place as usual in Ottawa during the directors’ meetings, and while meetings were scheduled for that day, any directors who wished could attend the march—along with some of the rest of us.

A couple of weeks later, some of us again went to Ottawa, a drive of 2 ½ to 3 hours, to attend an anti-euthanasia and assisted suicide rally.

The next event of note was the Corpus Christi procession, which for quite a number of years now, has been a joint MH-parish event.

The procession, during which we said the rosary, began at St. Mary’s, continued to the parish church, and to the statue of our Lady of Combermere, and ended with Benediction at our island chapel. It was great processing with and then visiting with all the families.

This year, our members who live in our wing for the elderly had their own procession within St. Mary’s.

Speaking of the elderly, Joe Hogan and Theresa Davis celebrated their 60th anniversary as members of Madonna House, and Marité Langlois and Theresa Davis, their 90th birthdays.

Theresa is the local director of Madonna House Raleigh in the southern U.S., and Marité is the only living member of the first group of staff to make promises in Madonna House.

Fr. Bob Pelton gave Bishop-elect Scott McCaig his episcopal ordination retreat. He is now bishop of the Armed Forces of Canada. Fr. Zach Romanowsky gave a week-long retreat at a seminary, and Fr. Brian Christie helped with an Ignatian retreat for seminarians of the Companions of the Cross.

Carol Ann Gieske and Helen Porthouse put on a puppet show for 80 children at the Catholic school in the nearby town of Barry’s Bay.

Melanie Murphy gave us a talk on the subject of her staff study days in the beginning of the year: on playfulness and childlikeness.

The number of women guests continues to be low since the renovation of their dormitory is still in progress. Speaking of guests, here’s a comment by one who was here recently. “My stay has been like learning to live again.”

May God keep each of you in his peace, and may he give you joy in the beauties of summer.