by Scott Eagan, farm manager.
One day in May 1957, the silence of St. Martha’s office was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone. Picking up the phone, staff worker Lucille Dupuis heard the excited and determined voice of Catherine Doherty: "Lucille, please write out a check for $6,000. We’re going to buy a farm!"
"But Catherine," Lucille responded, "you know we don’t have $6,000."
"Sweetheart, write the check. God will send the money."
This is how St. Benedict’s Acres, the Madonna House farm, began. Or nearly so, for in order to tell this story, we must go back to two other events that led to this moment of faith.
A few weeks earlier, Catherine, along with Fr. John Callahan, Ronnie MacDonell, and Trudi Cortens, drove up a narrow, winding country road to look at an abandoned farm ten kilometers from Madonna House.
There they met Mr. Patty Fitzgerald, a local man who dabbled in real estate. He showed them the house, barns, and fields and told Catherine that she needed this farm.
Catherine later said, "I responded immediately inwardly, but was very quiet outwardly. I explained to him that I couldn’t possibly raise money for any high-priced farm…. I prayed while looking at the farm, and something told me that this was it, the beginning of the fulfillment of a dream I’d dreamt in God.
"I dreamt a dream in God of a handicraft center and a gift shop. I dreamt of artists coming and scholars. But long before I dreamt about these things, I dreamt about a farm.
"In the steaming streets of Harlem, in the cold, windy streets of the Toronto slums, my mind would fly away to my native land and to my family’s farm. I would think about the simple, old ways these farms were worked and the good tiredness that came to all of us."
Actually, the story of our farm began way before 1957. Almost eighty years before that, around 1880, a Mr. Thomas Kelly and his wife Abigail arrived in Carlow Township to take possession of a piece of hilly, forested land which had been given to them by the province of Ontario on the condition that they clear ten acres, build a 14 x 20 foot cabin, and maintain the access road adjoining their property.
These pioneers carved out a homestead in the wilderness, and several generations of the Kelly family lived and worked on this farm. They were followed by the family of Frank Coulas and finally, for a short time in the 1950s, by Dalton and Adelaine Regan.
Each of these families left its mark and story on this land that was destined to come under the stewardship of Madonna House.
In 1957, when Madonna House bought this farm, there wasn’t much to start with—little if any fencing, a dusty old farmhouse with broken windows (and a sleigh stored in the kitchen), no electricity, and poor, worn-out soil. But there was the land and several barns and sheds, and there was the will to try.
Most important of all, there was faith, faith that God, through the generosity of many benefactors, would pay for the farm, and faith that this land could be transformed, ever so slowly, into a productive farm to feed the increasing number of staff workers and guests coming to Madonna House.
Faith, too, that workers would come and that they could learn how to make the land produce, faith that they could learn to become farmers.
On May 31, 1957 Ronnie MacDonell, Joe Hogan, and Joe Walker moved our few cows and our tractor from the borrowed plot of land where we had been doing some farming, up to our very own farm near the old Craigmont Mine.
Of those first three Madonna House farmers, only Ronnie, who had grown up on a farm, had any farm experience. The other two had grown up in cities.
That first year, these three men sometimes plowed all day and all night to get the first crop in. Meanwhile, Kathleen O’Herin, Lucille Dupuis, Kathy Rodman, and other women cleaned and fixed up the house.
Gradually, over the years, the fields were stoned, the barns repaired, electricity brought in, fences built, and prize-winning herds developed.
The list of MH staff who established and worked the farm includes (in addition to the three already mentioned) Louis Stoeckle, Michael Fagan, Sherman Everson, Albert Osterberger, Mary Davis, Sandra Woods, Fr. Paul Béchard, Ray Gene Neubig, Doug Guss, Larry Klein, and many more.
There is hardly a staff worker of Madonna House who has not worked at St. Ben’s at some time, and a complete list of the people who have worked here would also include the literally thousands of working guests who poured their energy and prayer into our farm.
Over the past fifty years, we have survived much and learned much. And we have more to learn in farming ways, both old and new, and further to grow in their wisdom.
Over the years, our foundress Catherine Doherty patiently led us to follow a vision, a path in agriculture, which she called "apostolic farming." This vision of farming comes out of the long and great tradition of the monasteries of Europe and the farms of old Russia. And it comes out of what has been lived by generations of ordinary, faith-filled farmers worldwide.
Over the years, this vision of apostolic farming poured out of Catherine’s heart in numerous meetings with the staff farmers who came to her for direction and inspiration.
"Apostolic farming must be love that spills itself onto the earth," she taught us, "love that not only cherishes the earth, works it, and gets the best out of it without harming it, but also loves the land as God loves it."
Catherine’s patient love and steadfast commitment to farming plunged our hands into the nitty-gritty work. Forking out cow, sheep, horse, and chicken barns, preserving thousands of pounds of produce, and milking cows morning and afternoon every day for fifty years, became for us holy work.
Over the years, though we use some modern farming methods, we have acquired the skills, not only to farm with hand tools and tractors, but also to cultivate gardens, plow fields, and do logging using horses. This was done at the suggestion of Catherine, who wanted us to identify with our neighbors, work simply, and prepare for working in the missions.
Catherine’s faith, both directly and through many lay and priest staff, has fed a multitude of people both literally and spiritually.
Now, fifty years later, after many failures and successes and through much struggle and hard work, our farm includes five acres of vegetable gardens, a windmill that pumps water into a cement cistern buried in the hillside high above the farm, and irrigation ponds and equipment for seasons of drought.
It also includes a large machine shop, root cellars, a canning kitchen, a milking parlor and cheese house, and green houses.
Catherine’s vision, which is now contained in the book Apostolic Farming, has sustained the hearts, not only of Madonna House farmers, but of many small farmers throughout the world. It brings an old yet ever-new perspective to those who desire to work the land for the glory of God.
Join us then in our celebration of fifty years of trying to be faithful to God and his people, by giving thanks to him with us for his love and faithfulness. Pray that many others will be inspired, in a similar way, to be good stewards of farm and forestland as a way of spreading the Gospel.
And be assured of our great gratitude to all those who have helped us, workers and benefactors alike, since 1957.
P.S. Are you wondering how the bank responded back in 1957 to that check that was written to pay for St. Ben’s Farm?
A few days after the check was sent, the bank phoned our office, and this is what they said: "We know you don’t have the money to cover that check, but we’re going to honor it because we know the money will come in." (They’d had experience with that sort of thing happening with Madonna House checks.)
Within two years, Madonna House had received enough money to pay for the farm.
Thanks be to God! Alleluia!
—Except for those in Lucille Dupuis’ story, all the quotes of Catherine Doherty are from Apostolic Farming, available from Madonna House Publications.
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