Posted December 14, 2011:
Remembering the Early Days

by Bill Ryan.

Ever wonder what Madonna House was like back in its pioneering days? In this article, Bill Ryan, who celebrated his 50th anniversary as a staff worker this year, gives a light-hearted glimpse of those "good old days." It was read at his anniversary celebration, and we think you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

St. Paul says: God chose you from the beginning, to be saved by the sanctifying Spirit and by faith in the truth (2 Thes 2:13-14.) I was one of those chosen ones.

Fifty-one years ago, I came to Combermere and stayed there for 44 years before being assigned elsewhere. For 25 of those years, I lived with "the B," as we called our foundress, Catherine Doherty.

It all began in 1960. In July, I came for a week of summer school. In August, God asked me to return. In September, I became what used to be called, a "visiting volunteer," that is, someone seriously looking at the vocation.

In October, I wired my boss to quit my job. In November, Fr. Callahan, one of the leaders of the community, asked if I could type. I said "yes" and asked why. He said, "Oh, just wondering." In December, I learned that I’d been accepted as an applicant—before I asked!

In January 1961, just before I became an applicant, I was transferred to the men’s office for training. The day after, I found myself in charge of the men’s office! The man I replaced was off to Vancouver Island to check out the possibilities of opening a men’s house there.

In August 1961, having been in Combermere for less than a year, I became a staff worker. Things moved fast back then.

In this short time, I discovered that Madonna House is a family with a family spirit and a family enterprise.

When I came in 1960, Fr. Brière said that I wasn’t cut out for it. As an only child, I’d find it hard to learn family dynamics. He said three qualities were a sign of a call to our life: generosity, common sense, and flexibility.

Generosity was a willingness to give yourself wholeheartedly to the family enterprise. Common Sense meant having your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground. Flexibility meant you had the resilience to bounce back like a rubber ball; to "roll with the punches" like a good boxer (as the B used to say) and to see failure as nothing but "a stepping-stone to success."

On these three foundation stones, other strengths could be built. This was spelled out in an MH booklet published that year—Out of the Crucible. It listed some 30 courses being taught in Combermere.

Winter studies were varied, as were feast-day skits. For one All Saints Day, we dressed as Old Testament personages, and were presented in biblical order. Mary Beth Mitchell and I, as Adam and Eve, were the first to go on stage.

There was no hospital in the area, so we ran an emergency ambulance service; no volunteer fire-department, so we covered that too; no electricity in many outlying villages, so we took along a portable generator when we showed films there; no local library, so we set up a bookmobile; no men staff who could type, so I did office work. I also ended up as a part-time medic, fireman, movie presenter, and book provider. And that wasn’t all.

I helped build the freezer building at the farm. I dove underwater to pour cement piers for a boathouse, and I waded through icy waters to help move the island bridge to a new location so that a tea dock could be put up in its place.

And to make space for St. Joseph’s House, our new center for outreach to the local area, I helped tear down a horse stable.

After St. Joseph’s House was built, we formed a long "chain" from the main house to there. A librarian handed a pile of books to someone, who passed it on to the next person, who did the same.

This line went from the dining room to the basement, out the door, across the parking lot, down the highway, and into St. Joe’s (a half-mile away) where the books were given to a second librarian to be put on the newly-built shelves. This was family team-work in action.

I admired the way B had us move all those books to St. Joseph’s House, and I grieved with her when she told us that one of the staff had been killed in a car accident.

I challenged her, and "corrected" her, probing her personality for authenticity. She was a strong, passionate woman; I was a quiet, docile man.

Wanting to speak to our gardener, Mary Davis, she had me go to the back porch of the kitchen and bellow across the orchard: "Mary Dee-eee, Mary DEE-EEE." After doing this a few times, I built up the habit of speaking loudly when the need arose.

As housefather, I once startled a working guest by yelling at him across a crowded dining room: "Stop that! You can’t act that way in public!"

A professor from the Ottawa University graduate school (who’d given us a course in developmental psychology) sat at a nearby table, talking with an MH priest. They both were delighted by my sudden outburst. As for the working guest, he was thrilled! It was exactly what he was hungering for. So you could say that, by my strong words, I was "feeding the hungry"!

I also had to "clothe the naked" as it were, since I was responsible for the donated clothing that had been set aside for the men staff. The B discussed with me how much clothing a man should have. It was different from the needs that women had. They had a list of the maximum stuff allowed; the men were to be given a list of minimum requirements.

The men tended to dress sloppily, the B noted; and they expected the laundry to return cleaned items in double-quick time, as they didn’t keep much clothing on hand. The men called it "poverty." To the B, it was "bad stewardship."

If an item wasn’t in stock, the men pestered the clothing sorters to find something as quickly as possible, and complained if it wasn’t available. This was infantile, said the B. Men should take responsibility for their minds, hearts, bodies, and clothing.

In the spring, we received donations of winter clothes; in the fall, summer stuff. So the men had to learn to plan their needs six-months ahead of time.

The B wanted well-groomed men, ones that the apostolate could be proud of. So, in dictating her list to a secretary, she added a couple of unexpected items. Each man was to have a white silk scarf and a black homburg hat! She had in mind the way businessmen and politicians used to dress, and she was being dramatic.

Essentially, she wanted men who could be dressy when the occasion required. I still have my white silk scarf (a gift from a friend in New York City) but I never got—and never wanted!—a homburg hat.

The B liked to speak figuratively. For her, "feeding the hungry, clothing the naked" could take many forms. The poor needed to be fed with education, clothed with dignity.

The hippie generation needed to be fed with a sense of beauty and the skill to create that beauty. So here in Combermere, we built a handicraft center.

Modern youth needed to be clothed with a sense of history so as to appreciate their heritage. So, we built a pioneer museum.

Sometime in the 1960s, the B changed her emphasis from feeding others outwardly to feeding them inwardly.

I have many detailed memories of my first ten years as a staff worker, but I cannot share all of them with you here. I will share with you just one small story.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, saying: "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind." It is said that over 600 million people watched this on TV. Some said this technological feat was just a male obsession with mechanical toys, what they called "boys’ toys". Others saw it as a waste of money that could have been better spent on the poor.

When the news was announced in the MH dining room, I sat in breathless expectation for the B’s response. To my delight, she smiled broadly and remarked: "Isn’t that marvellous! Now we can open a training center on the moon and prepare ourselves to carry the Gospel Message to the stars!"

If I had to sum up my present view of our Madonna House way of life, it would be this: we are a vibrant and dynamic family, whose "family goal" is to bring the Gospel Message to the whole universe.

Nothing is alien to us. No person, place, or thing; no technique for apostolic activity—big or little, intellectual or practical, high-tech or low—is beyond our reach.

We go forth with "the towel and the water" to wash men’s feet: the towel of service and the water of love. But we live in mystery, taking (as Neil Armstrong said) "one small step" each day, seeking out the pitcher and basin into which we can pour our energies.

Following the B’s lead, we confront every trial (past, present, or future) directly. We do so with confidence and flexibility, since—like her—we recognize that God calls us to this magnificent task.

Our vision is unlimited. We can "go where no-one has gone before"—even reaching for the stars!

One day, space travellers may look on us earth-bound pilgrims and say, with a tinge of pride and envy: "Ah, the Twenty-First Century! Now those were the good old days."

Bill is now on staff at MH Belgium.


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