Posted May 16, 2013 in MH Combermere ON:
Helping at St. Joe’s

by Toni Austin.

In the fall of l961, I was assigned to work at old St. Joe’s to help with the preparations for Christmas. I was a young working guest from Toronto, twenty years old.

Every year, Catherine saved suitable items from among the donations as Christmas gifts for families who did not have the means to buy them. These the staff and working guests would clean and fix and make like new.

Each child, according to his or her age and gender, would receive a doll, a truck, a game, or a toy of some sort. The mother would get some nice jewelry or perfume or something to wear. The father would get a shirt or playing cards or some such thing.

We prepared the gifts at old St. Joe’s, a building down the road from Madonna House. Old St. Joe’s had no electricity or running water. (The pump in the kitchen was inoperable in winter.)

One of my jobs each morning was to fetch water. We would bring a couple of pails from Madonna House in the back of a truck. We had no lids for the pails, so we put a piece of board in the water to help stabilize it. The water would still slosh around, but this way we had some to clean the toys, dishes, and such.

My first day working at St. Joe’s, I used an old bucksaw to cut some makeshift boards to make shelves to display the donations that would be used for Christmas gifts. I had watched my father using one, and I was quite proud of myself!

Rural living was not without challenges for a city girl. One day when I was alone in the house, I overloaded the woodstove, and the chimney turned red. There was no phone and no near neighbors. I was paralyzed with fear, and I prayed as I had never prayed in my life. Thank God, the fire died down on its own.

I worked in the daytime, but in the evenings, Santa’s elves in the form of Mary Ann Gilmore, Mary Jean Beaudoin, Irene Chauvin, and others on St. Joseph’s staff, would come down, and by the light of kerosene lamps, they would choose gifts for every person of every family.

There must have been a lot of laughter because wherever Mary Ann went, there was joy in the air.

Almost everyone in MH participated in decorating the small Christmas trees that we also gave as gifts. The men had cut down all kinds of small trees and mounted them on simple stands so that they stood tall and straight.

Then the women decorated them with whipped-up soap and anything else we had on hand: baubles, broken bits of jewelry, tinsel, and small glittery things. We also made paper snowflakes.

When Christmas drew near, I was invited one day to go with Mary Jean to deliver some of the gifts. The homes that we went to were very poor.

At one place on the road, Mary Jean stopped the truck, and we got out. Then carrying our gifts, a small Christmas tree, and a Christmas cake, we walked on a narrow path through the snow to a black tar-papered house.

Mary Jean knocked on the door. A quivery voice inside asked; "Who is it?"

"It’s the girls from Madonna House," Mary Jean said, and we entered.

An elderly woman wrapped in a shawl flew to Mary Jean and embraced her. The woman was diminutive, Mary Jean, tall and gangly. The small arms encircled Mary Jean as if she were a long-lost daughter.

My heart leapt when I saw that embrace. Something in me said, "I want to be part of this, too."

The house was cold. The old kitchen stove was burning hard (fire and smoke were coming out of its cracks), but the house was on wooden blocks, and you could see snow through the cracks in the floor.

The woman served us tea in cracked, slightly stained cups. The tea was scalding hot, black, and bitter; the oilcloth on the table was worn. The little Christmas tree shimmered and seemed to dance in the corner.

What I was seeing was a friendship of equals, and the love and naturalness just shone.

There was nothing, absolutely nothing, extraordinary that I could put my finger on in that scene, but I felt as if I had been inserted into the life of the first Christians sharing very simply what they had with one another.

For me, it was a God-moment, one that touched me profoundly.

Later, I described the whole scene to Catherine. She was sitting on a desk in her red ballet slippers that had holes on the bottom, swinging her legs. She was wearing red lipstick, and her large earrings caught the sunlight from outside.

She said: "Do you want to become an applicant"?

I gulped.

But in that moment I realized that I had come to that point. I saw that if I was to be true to myself, I needed to take the risk.

I said, "Yes."


If you enjoy our articles, we ask you to please consider subscribing to the print edition of Restoration; it's only $10 a year, and will help us stay in print. Thanks, and God bless you!


Restoration Contents

Next article:
Growing Up Near St. Joe's

Previous article:
Memories of the Early Days



RSS 2.0RSS feed

Madonna House - A Training Centre for the Lay Apostolate