Posted May 14, 2013 in MH Combermere ON:
Memories of the Early Days

by Trudi Cortens, first director of St. Joseph’s House.

"Nothing is alien to the apostolate except sin," Catherine often told us, and that left her, and us, wide open to take on just about any kind of work to further our goal of "restoring the world to Christ."

Here are just a few of the works we undertook in response to the needs of the people of the area.

We established a branch of the Red Cross which offered many services including providing hospital and sick room equipment for home use. Among other things, we were successful in getting them to provide cod liver oil pills for every school child in the Valley, and later on we were able to arrange children’s swimming lessons under their umbrella.

Moreover, Mary Jean Beaudoin, a staff worker who was a nurse, did some school nursing. She discovered a number of children with eye and ear problems and was able to secure free care for them through the generosity of some specialists.

The Red Cross was thrilled with our first very successful Barry’s Bay blood donor clinic. Pleased to have the experience of giving their blood to "send to the city" where there was a need, people from a wide area showed up for it.

The day turned into a gala picnic with the local people providing a wonderful lunch under the blossoming apple trees. This was a first for the Ottawa Red Cross crew!

Though there was a dentist in the nearby town of Barry’s Bay, for many families living on seasonal work, this was a luxury they couldn’t afford. Dr. Peter Peloso, a good friend of Madonna House, came to the rescue. He begged for and provided equipment and supplies for a free dental clinic, which was held in a small room in our basement.

The adjacent room became both a waiting room and theatre, for there we showed films from the National Film Board for people waiting to see the dentist. We ourselves saw these films so many times we could have recited some of them by heart, but they did settle the nerves of some of the waiting patients. (Occasionally, there were hysterical moments.)

Catherine believed in libraries, and she started one for the local families that eventually became a unique, Canada-wide lending library by mail.

Education was a way of life for Catherine, and she was a genius at making opportunities available. She connected with Bert Anderson of the National Film Board of Canada, and we took their movies to the local villages, some of which had no electricity. One of the men staff would set up a generator which could be heard "put-putting" as the film played—often in one-room schools.

Dusty Miller, representing the Ontario Department of Education, also took an interest in our rural settlement house. On one of his visits, Mary Ann Gilmore proposed the idea of educational outreach to the local area which at that time did not have a public high school.

This was revolutionary! The project came to be known as the Rural Community Night School and ran successfully for many years. Classes were held in villages and hamlets where people came to learn sewing, typing, home nursing, First Aid, agriculture, animal husbandry, English, bookkeeping, municipal affairs, etc. etc. and to socialize with their neighbours.

It was fantastic! People from miles away signed up either to take or to give courses, and its success took both the government and the countryside by surprise.

One of our most delightful experiences was taking a census of the nearby parishes. This gave us the opportunity to visit every Catholic family in that area and many others as well.

As time passed, we took on teaching catechism, summer recreation programs for children, and art classes for adults.

The art class was taught by an art teacher, Hazel Devereaux, and her friend, A.Y. Jackson, a well-known Canadian artist, also came and taught from time to time. Tenny Stevenson, who ran a summer vacation spot in Combermere, organized a party for A.Y. Jackson’s 92nd birthday, and we were all invited.

Overall, the early R.A. days were a wonderful experience. We came to love and admire the many families we got to know, and we learned much about life as we visited and chatted with them over many cups of tea. We were also left with a deep admiration for the sacrifices many families made over the long winters when the men went to the lumber camps.

The women were left, often with small children, to tend to the basic farm work: to milk the cows, feed the chickens, and bring in the wood to keep the houses warm. Their loneliness in their isolated houses was no small thing.

Their spirit was amazing. The mother of one large family with few of this world’s goods, a woman to whom we had become very close, said to me one day, "I am not poor. You are only poor when you want something you don’t have. I don’t need anything." As someone with a promise of poverty, I have never forgotten her words.


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