by Mark Schlingerman.
Joseph Anthony Walker was 90 when he died. He thought he was going to be only 89 when his last birthday came up on May 17th, but we showed him that he was going to be 90.
When he realized this, I think he said to himself, "That’s enough. I want to be with the Lord and his Mother." I believe he started to decline about that time.
I visited him the morning before the night he died, and the night nurse told me he had said that he was going home that day and that Our Lady of Combermere was in the room with him.
Well, it is true. There was a picture of Our Lady of Combermere in his room at the nursing home. But could he have seen the reality beyond the picture? I think he did. There was a bit of heaven in Joe before, God willing, he went to heaven.
Paul Mitchell was with him when he died in peace and tranquility.
Since, in life, Joe seemed to be uncomfortable with the coming death of any brother or sister in Madonna House, perhaps his peace at the end of his own life came from his faithful prayer to Our Lady of Combermere: "By the grief you suffered on Calvary, when you beheld Jesus die on the cross, O Mother of God, obtain for me a happy death…."
The quote from Joe’s memorial card is from Psalm 33: This poor man called; the Lord heard him and rescued him from all his distress.
Joe was a poor man, though he was from a well-to-do family. His father, whom Joe never knew because he died just before Joe was born, obtained from Germany the patent and trademark of the thermos bottle and started and directed the Thermos Bottle Company of America. To say it more plainly, it was Joe’s father who brought the thermos to America.
Joe came to Madonna House in his early thirties. Attracted to the community and seeing that this Madonna House life could lead him to the Lord, he sought to respond to our Little Mandate* which says at the start: "Arise, go, sell all you possess, give it directly, personally to the poor."
The Lord accomplished this in Joe Walker. He died basically a penniless man, having given away all he possessed and having outlived any and all his own family.
The Little Mandate continues, "Take up My cross [the Lord’s cross], their cross [my neighbour’s] and follow me."
Joe’s first Madonna House assignment in 1956 was to help start our farm.
This city boy with few practical skills said of that assignment, "I had to go to a place where I knew nothing, nor how to deal with unknown things which were unfamiliar to me. In taking up my cross, I had to be prepared to carry the burdens of the new job and the crosses of my brothers, Joe and Ronnie."
Joe got to the essence of things. "Take up the cross."
The Little Mandate continues, "Take up the cross and follow Me [it is the Lord who speaks], going to the poor, being poor."
After the farm, Joe’s next assignment was to the soup kitchen we have in Edmonton: Marian Centre. He was there, going to the poor, serving the Brothers Christopher [men and later women from the streets, so to speak,] for almost 20 years.
In so doing, he became outwardly more of what he already was interiorly—a Brother Christopher himself. I believe the identification with the poor, in this special way, can be a gift from the Lord, and it has been for some of the laymen of Madonna House in particular. It was definitely Joe’s gift and he gave some of it to me! I will explain.
My first assignment as a staff worker was to Marian Centre Edmonton in 1976. My first impression of the building was one of high walls and stout doors. Yet we were open in those days to the street folk, all day, and I was all day in the midst of it all. Yet I still felt a separation—the server and the served—until I got to know Joe Walker.
Here was a man who could have walked in from the street any day. Here was a poor man, an awkward man, a very needy man, a man of faith. Here was my brother in the apostolate.
The separation I felt, dissolved, the walls got lower, the doors less secure, by the grace of God. I saw that in going to the poor, it was possible to be poor and, as the Little Mandate continues, "being poor, being one with them, one with Me [It is the Lord who speaks].
Isn’t this the desire of our hearts as believers, to be one with the Lord? This is a way to do that.
But this was not all that the Lord proposed for my education through Joe Walker.
At that time Joe had his own room, small and packed with his stuff. Maybe it was security. You could hardly move in his room. It was like many rooms of our friends I saw in cheap rooming houses in the inner city, stockpiled against who knows what calamity.
Mike Fagan, newly appointed director of Marian Centre, saw that it was time to call both of us forth. He told me I was to share a new room with Joe, and he told Joe to ask me, a brand new staff worker, what he could bring with him into the new room we were to share!
Michael was bold to ask this of us, a boldness in the tradition of Catherine Doherty who, animated by the Holy Spirit, would ask us, in the name of the Lord, to "Come higher, friend."
Joe caught that spirit and the call to come higher immediately and simply asked me to help him choose what to bring into the new room.
What a witness for me! Here was humility and obedience from an elder in the community; an elder who lived the life imperfectly, even poorly at times, but with great conviction, conviction that living the Little Mandate was a way to a life in Christ. Thank you, Joe.
Joe always had trouble with his body. Whereas his mind was clear and active, his body gave him trouble all his life. When he was old, he came to live at Our Lady of the Visitation, a wing added to St. Mary’s, a wing where we care for our elderly.
He came some time after I became director general of the laymen of Madonna House. Joe would have been eighty something at the time.
It came to me that his apostolic life had another chapter yet to be written, so to speak. The idea of him moving to a nursing home, going there on mission to the elderly, to be a prayer and welcoming presence there, came to me, and I proposed it to Joe.
He responded positively. It seems that, as he said in something he wrote years before, since his boyhood he had a desire to be a missionary. Here it was.
The Lord honors all dreams dreamt in him. A room became available at The Valley Manor in Barry’s Bay, a nearby town. He moved in four and a half years ago, and he took his mission seriously and effectively.
He became accepted as a man of prayer and of welcome. He also became, once again, a witness of the gift of this Madonna House life, which forms us into a life in Christ, so that we become simple, poor, and childlike in the Lord.
Joe Walker was indeed the poor man who called to the Lord. May he know—now—how great is the glory and boundless the mercy of the Lord our God.
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