Posted May 02, 2013 in MH Combermere ON:
Fifty Years of Friendship

by Melanie Murphy.

There is movement in the quiet village of Combermere. Cars line Highway 517 on both sides as far as the eye can see. Clusters of people and vehicles are also gathered on the southeast corner where the road meets Highway 62. Everyone seems headed to an old gray-shingled house with blue trim or the brown house behind it.

January, March, May, July, September; the seasons change, the tourists come and go, yet once a week on Thursdays and Saturdays, from 2 – 4 p.m., this scene remains more or less the same. What is the attraction? What’s the draw?

The shops, my friend, the shops. The best deals in town. Everybody comes here. It’s the social hub, where you can get a deal and meet your neighbor. St. Joseph’s House, it’s called; part of Madonna House. It’s the place to be, St. Joe’s. "The girls" live there. You gotta go and check it out.

Ah yes, St. Joseph’s House. The place where you can get a piece of clothing for a quarter or two, where a dollar can still go a long way, and where even a penny had value (before it got phased out).

Whether you go to old St. Joe’s (the grey house where the clothing is kept) or the newer brown building, St. Ed’s, with its furniture sheds outside, you will be warmly greeted and your money well treated.

It can make a person wonder why. Why is everything so cheap? Why is everyone so kind? What’s in it for them? What’s the catch? Is there more to St. Joseph’s House than meets the eye?

Yes, my friend, there is. Do you see the green house behind the two shops? I invite you to come in. Go ahead, don’t be shy. That’s where the St. Joe’s girls live. Ring the bell, peek in the window, and go in. See all the people in there? See the families, children, young and old, single people, widows, and everyone in between?

There’s Peter Lyrette, the friendly "R.A. guy" sitting at the table. When he catches your eye and waves, you might notice the Madonna House cross around his neck. Pax, caritas, it says—peace and love. Ah, here comes the new director, Sandra Novecosky. "Come in, come in," she says with a big smile. "Please sit down. Would you like a cup of tea?"

And with that you are welcomed into an atmosphere of love.

If you want to understand St. Joseph’s House, ask yourself this: what is friendship? Is friendship a smile, a warm word, a cup of tea or coffee? That is what St. Joseph’s House is. Is friendship something expressed in concrete acts of love and service—coming to your aid when you are sick, hungry, alone, in need? That is what St. Joseph’s House does.

Is friendship noticing when you are not around, looking for you, and seeking you out? That is what St. Joseph’s House does or strives to do.

The history of St. Joseph’s House is a history of friendship. Its roots go back to Catherine Doherty, the foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate, who came to Combermere in 1947 with her husband, Eddie, and friend, Grace Flewwelling (called "Flewy").

Catherine had been invited by Bishop William Smith to serve the people of his rural diocese of Pembroke. She had already been here on holidays; she knew that the land was hard and that times had been tough. She knew, more than anything, that what the people of this area needed was friendship, friendship expressed in concrete acts of love.

With a passion in her heart for both God and neighbor, Catherine—often accompanied by Flewy—set out to meet the people of the Valley. Over a cup of tea, with loving and listening hearts, they got to know people through what Catherine called "the chit-chat apostolate."

It was through the chit-chat apostolate that Catherine discovered the various needs of the people and learned which ones she could respond to.

Chief among these was a need for medical assistance. Doctors were few and far away, and news of Catherine’s nursing abilities spread fast. Soon she began providing much needed help, especially to expectant mothers.

Catherine also worked with the local Women’s Institute to resurrect the local Red Cross chapter, and she helped the local community fundraise for the sickroom equipment which St Joseph’s House continued to lend out for many years.

Responding to other needs, she started a clothing room and a lending library, and organized activities for the local children. Every resource she needed, she begged for.

As the Madonna House community grew, as more and more people began coming from all parts of the world to live with them for a time and learn their Nazareth spirituality and gospel way of life, it became clear that the people of Combermere and the Madawaska Valley needed a separate house (a Madonna House mission house) to serve them.

So, slowly, over a period of years, the divide between Madonna House and the rural apostolate (R.A.) began. In 1959, a local director was appointed (Trudi Cortens), who was then succeeded by Mary Ann Gilmore in 1961.

In 1962, a house (St. Joseph’s House) was completed for the R.A. staff to move into, and on Feb. 14, 1963, they celebrated the first Mass in their chapel. This was designated as the official foundation day of St. Joseph’s House, even though the work with the people of the area, the work of the rural apostolate, was already sixteen years old.

The history of St. Joseph’s House is a testimony to the power of friendship. It was friendship that led to the establishment of a rural community night school in 1960. This school continued until the newly-built Barry’s Bay high school took it over in 1966.

It was friendship and love that were behind the famous Christmas boxes, items Madonna House and St. Joe’s begged for, collected, washed, and packaged throughout the year and delivered at Christmas time to hundreds of families in the local area.

It was friendship that was behind the lending library, the bookmobile, the recreation programs, and the art classes offered at various times in St. Joe’s history.

It was friendship that brought the staff to the aid of a sick friend and to cook and clean and babysit for expectant mothers.

It was friendship that reached out to youth, collected and distributed food to those in need, and sat with the grieving, the lost, and the dying.

"This is what we have been created for," said Catherine to her staff, "to love our neighbor, and through him, to love God."

Passionately, she declared, "Love is not abstract; it is a fire. It must spend itself in service. We must be a flame in the darkness, a lamp to our neighbor’s feet, a place where he can warm himself, a place where he can see the face of God."

"It is to love, to burn, that we have come together! Our life is senseless if we are here for any other reason than loving utterly, passionately, completely… Ours is an adventure with God, with life, with people, with each other."

If through this adventure of love and friendship for God and neighbor, St. Joseph’s House has given much, how much more and how deeply have the members of St. Joe’s received!

Here is just one early example: On April 15, 1964, the local director of St. Joseph’s House, Mary Ann Gilmore, was killed instantly in an automobile accident while transporting an elderly woman (Mrs. John Hudson) back from a doctor’s appointment.

The subsequent outpouring of love and kindness from the local people was a deep testimony to the friendship that was growing between us, a friendship that in subsequent years has continued to grow and expand even until this day. In a myriad of ways, whether for a card game or a meal, or to a funeral or baptism, we continue to be invited into the lives and hearts of the local people. This is for us both a privilege and a gift.

All of us who have served at St. Joseph’s House have been blessed. As one staff member expressed it before her departure from St. Joe’s in 1986, "There is deep gratitude in my heart for the privilege of living in this house…. I can’t help but recall the homilies of Fr. Briere and Fr. Pelton during Catherine’s wake and funeral, about the Valley and its people… about her great love for them and the welcoming and healing she received from them.

"When you’ve spent any length of time at St. Joe’s, you begin to feel this tangibly—the healing especially. This truly is Our Lady’s Valley." These sentiments could be echoed, I’m sure, by the other St. Joe "alumni" (more than 86 women and 35 men).

It is difficult to put in a few short lines a history as rich, as varied, and as deep as that of St. Joseph’s House and the rural apostolate. Its involvement has changed over the years as the needs of the people and the area have changed, yet the love and the friendship remain, finding ever new ways of expressing itself.

Like its patron, St. Joseph, much of what St. Joseph’s House does is hidden, and it is sometimes unnoticed or misunderstood. Yet, for those who have eyes to see beyond the dollar deals and fifty-cent bargains, there are other treasures to discover at St. Joseph’s House, true treasures of love and friendship that are of eternal value.


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