Posted June 08, 2010:
The Story of Our Lady of Combermere

by Catherine & Eddie Doherty & others.

It all began very simply. In Russia where I grew up and in many parts of Europe, women are apt to call on Our Lady by the name of their village or country. So in our early days in Combermere, I began to invoke her under the title of Our Lady of Combermere.

When I set the bread before I went to Mass, around 5 a.m., I would say, "Our Lady of Combermere, watch over this bread and make it rise." I would talk to her several times a day. When planting seeds, I would ask her blessing on them. Looking after the chickens, I asked her to make them lay more eggs. If I went traveling or nursing, I would ask her to protect me.

They were days of hard work and many inconveniences, yet glad and joyous ones. What could have been more simple and natural to me than to call on Our Lady giving her the local, musical name of "Combermere?’’

Then as time went on, things began to happen. There was nothing spectacular or extraordinary in them. It was only when we began to look back that we realized that one event followed another and another.

The first thing was the arrival of Fr. Gene Cullinane, a student of languages, who had specialized in archaic, forgotten expressions. He told us that the word "`Combermere’’ had a twofold meaning and that the first part of the word, combe, was a very old French word for "a plateau in the mountains.’’ The second part, mère, is still the French word for "mother."’

So the word "Combermere"’ means mother of a plateau in the mountains."’ We were all astonished and delighted because Madonna House is, in fact, located on a plateau in the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains!

Then on the occasion of the blessing of our first chapel in 1953, Fr. Cullinane brought us a song to Our Lady of Combermere. The music had been composed by a priest friend of his and he himself had written the words. We adopted that song, made it our hymn, and have been singing it ever since.

Time passed. One day a visitor asked if we had thought of how Our Lady of Combermere should look. None of us had.

But as the discussion continued, we decided that if we had to draw a picture of Our Lady of Combermere, we would place her near our lovely blue Madawaska River, which flows very close to Madonna House, her arms open in a gesture of welcome and benediction.

A few weeks later, the mail brought a picture of Our Lady drawn by a nun. It was a nice picture but not quite how we imagined Our Lady of Combermere. But we were glad to have it and framed it and hung it in a place of honor.

Some time later, Fr. Gene gave us a prayer to go with the picture. It was truly beautiful, and we began to say it.

One summer a woman came and immediately fell in love with Our lady of Combermere. She took a supply of her pictures and prayers home with her.

A few months later, we received a letter from her saying that, after making a novena to Our Lady of Combermere, she had received a great favor from her.

In gratitude to her, she would like to give us a life sized statue, preferably in bronze, to be placed outdoors at Madonna House, thus making a shrine to Our Lady of Combermere. She would help us beg money to get it.

We were quite worried for we knew that one cannot have a public shrine to Our Lady under a title that has not been approved by Rome.

When we asked our bishop, he informed us that no new title could be used or funds collected until the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome had been consulted. He told us that it could take many years before we got a response.

We wrote to them, of course, immediately, and when we told her this, our friend replied that we were not to worry. Our Lady of Combermere, she was sure, would see that we received a favorable reply—and that it would be soon! We must confess, we did not quite share her faith.

Great then was our astonishment and delight when, in less than two months, we received a letter informing us that the Sacred Congregation of Rites had left it to the discretion of our local bishop to approve the title and statue.

Our bishop, Bishop William Smith of Pembroke, graciously granted us permission to erect a statue under the title of Our Lady of Combermere and to have it blessed and to have medals cast in her honor.

Our hearts were singing alleluias and we were overflowing with gratitude. But the question of how Our Lady should look remained unsettled.

We prayed and thought and discussed the matter. A large donation of Catholic magazines had come to us, and one day we decided to prayerfully look them over. Perhaps we would find a picture that would strike us all as the very statue we wanted of Our Lady of Combermere.

The first magazine we opened showed us that statue! There she was just as I had seen her with the eyes of my soul! The magazine showed a statue of Our Lady hastening with arms wide open to welcome and embrace someone, against a background very similar to ours. She seemed to fit right in. We all decided that this was it.

Though the picture did not give the name of the statue, the caption revealed that it was located in Santa Barbara, California, and was called "The Questing Madonna."

Well, Our Lady of Combermere was definitely a questing Madonna in our minds, too, for she was the patroness of our apostolate, questing and seeking souls for her Son, which we are trying to do with her.

We found out that the sculptor was a woman, a well-known artist, Frances Rich. We wrote to her. We were afraid that the fees of such a great artist would be beyond our ability to pay, and so we told her very frankly how the whole thing came about and how we had selected her statue.

To our astonishment, Miss Rich graciously waived any fee. She loved the story of Our Lady of Combermere, and she felt very happy to be able to bring her to Combermere. All she asked was the price of casting it in bronze from her model and the shipping charges. The work would have to be done in Florence, Italy.

We agreed at once though we didn’t have the money to pay for it. We planned to beg for it. We felt sure that Our Lady of Combermere wanted to come here and that she would provide. We started a bourse in her honor, and when the money was needed, it was there.

The statue arrived on April 26, 1960, and was erected on May 17th, the thirteenth anniversary of the opening of Madonna House.

This humblest and least pretentious shrine was officially blessed by Bishop Smith, the ordinary of our diocese on June 8th.

About that day, Eddie Doherty said, "Combermere is a mere crossroads village lost in the vastness of this Canadian province, a community that has seldom boasted more than a few hundred people. But perhaps Our Lady loves the humble places like Fatima and Lourdes and a hundred other shrines.

"There was no miracle that produced this shrine. It was only the coming of a beautiful statue and perhaps the love of the people in and around Madonna House that caused it to become a place of devotion and of pilgrimage."

Madonna House celebrates the feast of Our Lady of Combermere every year on June 8th.

Excerpted and adapted from the booklet, "Our Lady of Combermere," (1999), available from Madonna House Publications.


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