Madonna House

I Met Christ in the Poor

by Doreen Dykers

When I was a child, I wanted to be a missionary in Africa. Though this dream faded during my teenage years, it resurfaced when I was in my early twenties. I looked into a few possibilities but, in one way or another, all the doors closed. I was disappointed and said to the Lord, “I guess I’m just not cut out for missionary life.”

Then Our Lady brought me to Madonna House. There I found my spiritual home and forgot about being a missionary.

The day after I was officially received as a member of Madonna House, on June 8, 1989, I left for my first assignment: Marian Centre, a soup kitchen in Regina, Saskatchewan, in Western Canada.

The dining room at Marian Centre was full of hungry men who’d come for a bowl of stew. I had never seen such a large group of people who looked so down and out. It would have been natural for me to feel fear and repulsion in the face of such misery. That is not what happened.

Instead, God gave me a seismic grace: to see Christ in each of those men. At the same time, I knew I was loved and accepted as I was, and I knew it in a way that I had never known it before. The love of Christ radiating out from the hearts of these men was overwhelming.

That moment of grace has stayed with me and has remained a light that has led the way in my journey with God. My dream of being a missionary began to take hold in a way I’d never imagined possible.

I will now tell you three stories that describe encounters I’ve had with three different people who lived in poverty and who changed my life.

Recently, I drove a fellow staff worker to the hospital for a medical appointment. When we arrived, she asked me to meet her in forty minutes.

I had volunteered to give a talk for our summer program and decided to use this time to work on it. I wandered through the corridors looking for a quiet place. Through a window, I saw a gazebo. Was it open? Yes. Was it empty? Yes.

So I went there. Not only was it open and empty, but it was also full of light and the scent of cedar panelling. But my solitude did not last long.

Within minutes, the door opened and a woman entered pushing a man in a wheel chair. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said, “but he’ll probably make noise.” With that, she turned the wheelchair around so that the back of the man was facing me.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“George. He can’t talk.”

“Can he hear? Can he understand?”

The woman nodded.

Obviously the man was severely handicapped, but did he have to be turned away from me? I felt like I’d been cut off. So I asked the woman, “Can I see him?”

“He’s a very private person. He likes to have his own space.”

“I can understand that. Does George have any family?”

At this point, George became agitated. “George, I’m sorry,” I said. “No more personal questions.” George calmed down immediately.

“He’s not usually quiet like this,” his caretaker said.

Not long after that, it was time for me to go. As I reached the door, I turned and saw George’s face. He was looking intently at me, absolutely serene. I like to think that George and I made a real connection.

In 2002, Victoria Fausto, Julie Coxe, and I opened Madonna House Vancouver. The first letter that arrived in the mail surprised us. It contained an enthusiastic welcome from a woman named Rosa Chapman. She wrote, “For over fifty years, I have been praying for Madonna House to come to Vancouver.”

Rosa lived in a low income housing complex for seniors. The first time I arrived on her doorstep, the front door was slightly ajar. I knocked and heard, “Come in.”

A slight, elderly woman was lying on a couch. Her eyes were closed. “I’m just finishing my nap,” she said. “Sit down for a few minutes.”

I remember thinking, “This is a rather unusual situation.” But strangely enough, I felt at ease in the presence of this very eccentric and holy soul.

I soon discovered that Rosa was poor in many ways. She did not behave according to socially acceptable norms, and as a result most people avoided her. There were only a few who could see beyond her prickly exterior and learn from her spiritual wisdom.

Rosa’s parents were Russian Jews. Her mother died when Rosa was a child, so she spent part of her childhood in an orphanage.

As a young woman, Rosa liked to ski in the mountains around Vancouver. On one of her trips, she found a taxi driver who was willing to let her bring her skis into his cab. Rosa jumped in and, as they drove off, she started asking him questions about the meaning of life. He told her he didn’t have any answers but offered to take her to someone who would.

This turned out to be a Catholic priest who became a real friend to Rosa. After a time, she requested instructions in the faith and eventually became Catholic.

Rosa had a lively, personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. She also loved Catherine Doherty and believed that God worked powerfully through her.

Rosa met Catherine in the 1950s when she came to Combermere for a visit. She told me that when she was swimming in the Madawaska River in front of the main house, Catherine had called out to her, “Rosa, come here.”

When she did, Catherine said, “Rosa, tell me about yourself.” Rosa responded, “Before or after I was born?”

Catherine seemed to like that answer. She said to Rosa, “You’ll be okay. You don’t need this place.” So Rosa left.

When we met her, Rosa was a poustinik, who spent most of her time in solitude and prayer. Some mornings she had breakfast in a nearby café where she listened to troubled young people.

Rosa became a close friend of MH Vancouver and remained so until she died at the age of 89.

During the twelve years that I served the poor in our soup kitchen in Regina, I got to know many of the Brother Christophers. I’d like to tell you about one of them, a man named Rodney (not his real name). Rodney was one of the regulars who stood on the steps of the nearby church before and after daily Mass begging for change.

He knew that I was from Marian Centre and had no money to offer, but he seemed equally grateful for a smile and being greeted by name. These simple gestures mean a lot to the lonely and rejected people who live on the streets.

One summer day, I arrived early for Mass. Rodney was sitting on the front steps smoking a cigarette and looking quiet and thoughtful. I sat down beside him to enjoy a few moments of companionable silence.

A car drove slowly past us and someone shouted out to Rodney, “You lazy bum! Why don’t you get a job!” Then the car sped away. I was very upset.

“Rodney,” I said. “I am so sorry. You are a good man. That person has no right to talk to you like that.”

During this entire scene, Rodney maintained his composure and did not say anything to retaliate or defend himself. Finally he said to me, “That’s okay. That was my wife.”

How do you love a person who is ugly in your eyes or whose behaviour is strange? What if you feel uncomfortable or afraid?

Loving the poor is not easy. It requires a decision to love, and it takes effort. It means entering into the world of the other, which is mission territory.

But those who are poor in the eyes of the world—the ones who are looked upon as burdens on society—these are God’s greatest treasures. They are the ones in whom the fire of Christ shines most brightly. They are the ones who can lead us into the Father’s love.