Here are some memories from the 50th Anniversary Memory Night from staff who served in St. Joe’s.
Director, 1977-1983: Amy Willis and her brother Doug (all the names have been changed) were good friends of ours. One morning we got a phone call from Mrs. Carpenter, a home care worker who used to spend time with them. She said, "Doug is dead; you have to come." We were shocked! We called the police, and then left for Amy and Doug’s house.
They lived on this road that was like a roller coaster, and it was winter, so if you didn’t take a big run at it, you stalled between the hills and you were lost.
We went in, and sure enough, there’s Doug lying on the floor. Amy said they had been having their last cup of tea before retiring for the night, and Doug was going to bank up the wood stove—they didn’t have electricity. And then he just fell flat on the ground.
Amy couldn’t wake him up, and she was such a tiny thing she couldn’t move him. So she got a pillow and put it under his head and covered him with a blanket.
She thought she would walk to Mrs. Carpenter’s, but by the time she made it out to their mail box, she knew she wouldn’t make it, and then there would be two dead people! So she came back, and just sat there all night waiting.
It was very cold when we arrived, because she couldn’t re-light the stove. So we lit the stove and made some tea to warm her up. A lovely young policeman arrived in his cruiser, and after he heard the whole story he knew it was a natural death. But he did stay with us because he could see we were all pretty upset.
Amy wanted Doug to be taken to the funeral home in Barry’s Bay. The policeman had a radio in his car, and was able to contact the funeral home. So we waited.
The house was so small, that with Doug right there, if you moved from one end of the room to the other you had to step over him. Mrs. Carpenter had arrived by then, and she would wring her hands and say, "Oh the poor dear."
When we saw the hearse arriving, we took Amy upstairs so she wouldn’t be upset when they moved Doug.
After they had left, it all started getting to me, and the policeman said, "Sit down." And he just started talking to me, and it’s like he brought me back to terra firma, because we were supposed to be taking care of Amy.
Our pastor Fr. Legree arrived. Doug didn’t believe in banks, and everybody knew he kept his money in a trunk. And everybody knew he had a gun. So Mrs. Carpenter said to Fr. Legree, "We’ve got to do something about that money." He said, "You take it." She said, "I’m not taking it, you take it."
So he brought the money out, and he counted it and put it in rubber bands, and he wrote out a receipt for Amy. Mrs. Carpenter and I were the witnesses. He packed that up and he went off.
I said to the policeman, "You know he always said he had a gun. We don’t want to leave it here, but I don’t want it in my house either." We found the gun; it wasn’t loaded, but there were boxes and boxes of ammunition—he could have held up half the valley!
We got everything straightened out, and then Mrs. Carpenter said she’d take Amy to her house. Mrs. Carpenter was so lovely; she let Amy live with her for quite a while and she took such good care of her.
We had a wonderful friend named Norma who raised goats. She was very good with her goats, and she had a wonderful dog. She lived a couple miles back off the road, and off the grid—she didn’t have electricity. She didn’t have a phone, so you couldn’t let her know you were coming to visit.
When you got there, she always wanted to be hospitable and feed you. She’d make a great cup of coffee, grinding the beans with a hand grinder. And she’d make a cake, while you were there. You knew when you were going to visit you’d spend the whole day there.
Norma was diagnosed with breast cancer later in her life, and it was quite virulent. I was privileged to spend her last night at her house with her.
It was winter and 40 below and it was freezing cold and the wind was howling. When I got to the house, Norma was sitting in the kitchen with the propane oven door open but no wood stove going. I said, "Norma, what’s going on?"
"Well," she said, "I had a chimney fire this afternoon, so I don’t want to light a fire." I said, "I’m sure the creosote is all burned out. Let’s light a fire." She said, "No, no, we can’t have a fire."
So we sat around the propane stove, me in my down jacket, boots, everything.
She said, "I’m getting tired; let’s go upstairs." So we went upstairs with the oil lamp and she got under her big down quilt. Thankfully I had a down sleeping bag I had brought with me.
I was going to go into the room next to her, but she said, "Sit here on the bed with me until I fall asleep." The house is creaking and the wind is whistling, and I’m not comfortable. But then she started to reminisce. She said, "Listen to that wind; isn’t it beautiful? How I’m gonna miss this wind."
She was a very practical woman: she had sold the goats, knowing she’d have to leave the house, and she’d had her dog put down—she had taken care of all of her affairs.
Her love of life, and gratitude for the life that she’d lived, was such a gift to experience, and it was such a privilege to be with her.
The gift of being at St. Joe’s was entering into the depths of people’s lives like that, and they just welcomed you in whole-heartedly. This was a very healing thing for me to be able to walk with people like Norma.
Anne Marie Murphy
I was a brand new staff worker, and I inherited the Red Cross loan cupboard.
Part of the outline said you called people after they had something for 3 months; they could get a 3-month renewal; then we had to ask for it back to loan to someone else.
I phoned a lady who’d had a hospital bed for 6 months, and asked if we could use it now for someone else. She said, "Could I have it for another 3 months? Because I won’t be alive after that."
Well, I was just devastated that I had asked her, and so I assured her that she could keep it as long as she needed it. But when I hung up the phone, I knew I had to find out who this person was. So I went to visit her in her home. She lived for another year, and I went every week to visit.
One of the times I was visiting, she said she was afraid of dying. She said, "I haven’t done anything with my life, I don’t know if I’ll go to heaven," etc. And I’m a brand new staff worker thinking, where’s the priest! I’m not qualified to console the dying!
But there was nobody else around, so I told her what I’d heard about the mercy of God. And then all that week I prayed real hard for her.
The next week when I went in she was so peaceful, and I asked, "Oh, did you have a good week?" And she said, "I had a wonderful dream, and I saw my daughter [who had died in a car accident at the bridge in Combermere], and I saw these angels, and I saw this beautiful woman." And then she said, "I’m not afraid to die anymore." And I thought, Wow!
That has stayed with me, that God gave her what I couldn’t give her.
Over the course of that year, I met a lot of the other relatives. One day when I went, there was a group of men in the yard. They saw the cross and came over to ask a question.
"You’re from Madonna House?" they asked. I said, "Yes." "So, is it true they’re all bank robbers and prostitutes?" The only thing I could think of saying was, "Well, I can only answer for myself!"
For many years, St. Joseph’s House distributed Christmas gifts in the Valley. Over the year, the staff set aside donations which could be used as gifts. They then sorted them by family—they had a card catalog with names and ages—wrapped them all, and delivered them to up to 500 families in the area.
For the Christmas deliveries, there was a file with all the children’s names and ages, which was updated every year. All the gifts were for a specific child, and the whole family was known.
One year we went down towards Bancroft, and we stopped at a family who were very poor in every way. They worked in the carnival, and during the year they would go all over the place, but in the winter they came back and lived in this house.
And between the cracks in this house you could see outside. They had blankets hanging through the house for curtains. I’d never been in a poorer house in the whole time I’d been in this valley.
Usually when you go to someone’s house, they thank you for the gifts, or the next one would say, do come in for a cup of coffee and thank you so much, etc. But these people insisted that we come in and eat lunch with them.
We all had fried egg sandwiches. And when we left, they gave us a leg of ham. They had slaughtered a pig the day before, and they gave us a leg of it. That was the biggest gift I’d ever seen given to us when we went Christmas visiting, and that was the poorest house that I ever visited.
Mary Beth Mitchell
Mary Beth was our beekeeper in the early 70s. I was never assigned to the RA, but feel connected. One day we received a call from a couple in Renfrew who had some beekeeping equipment to donate. There was an amazing amount of things: hives and a beautiful honey extractor and other good beekeeping tools.
While I was having tea with them, I asked, "This is such an incredible donation; how did you ever think of us?"
She said, "Back in the fifties we were having a really hard time of it; we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. And I was trying to figure out what I was going to do for the children for Christmas. So I was trying to make something but I’m not very good at that. And my husband was going out of his mind wondering what we were going to give the kids for Christmas.
"And lo and behold, the day before Christmas this truck pulled up, and it was from Madonna House, and it had a huge box full of gifts—one for each child, and one for my husband, and one for me.
"I was so thrilled to get all the presents for the children, that I could have cared less that I got something. But I got a beautiful pair of earrings."
And that’s why they gave us this wonderful donation twenty years later.
Director, 2004-2012: I have a couple vignettes. Another Christmas tradition each year was going caroling. One year I was driving on a new route, and we went into the house of a family we had known for many years through our shops. Now their children were adults.
The gentleman was alone that night, and didn’t seem to care about our singing. But after it, he named some songs he liked, and so we sang two more.
With tears in his eyes, he looked at me and said, "Christmas isn’t Christmas without Madonna House coming to visit; in my family it wasn’t Christmas until Mrs. Doherty came with the Staff."
This gentleman always waited for Madonna House, even though it was long since his childhood.
One day when the shops were open, a man came up to the outside shed and was smiling at me in a knowing way. I didn’t have a clue who he was. He bought something, and paid way over the amount.
He looked at me and smiled, and said, "You know, you made my childhood happen; without Madonna House, without St. Joe’s, we wouldn’t have had a Christmas at all."
Our dear friend Agnes Coulas was concerned about her husband Eddie, and so one night she went to Catherine and said, "My husband is a good man and takes good care of us. He works hard, but you know, he doesn’t really pray. And I’m kind of concerned about this."
And Catherine said to her, "Look at his hands. They are the hands of a man who works, who is given over to doing what God wants." Agnes said after that she never worried about Eddie anymore.
Friends shared their memories too.
I am a retired social worker and have lived in Bancroft about 16 years.
One evening I had gotten a phone call from a cousin in Toronto to tell me his sister had hanged herself in her grandparents’ basement. No one knew anything was even bothering her. It was a terrible experience.
Later that night, I got a phone call from my middle son. He had gotten into a serious situation and needed us to be with him in court.
I sat in my kitchen and looked out my window, and thought, what do you do? I needed God but how do I get it touch with him?
I knew Anne Marie at St. Joe’s. We were about the same age and were like sisters. So I drove up from Bancroft to Combermere (about an hour). I was sobbing and was just an absolute mess. But I got up to Combermere and Anne Marie.
I wasn’t originally Catholic, but I became one through my contacts with Madonna House. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be Catholic for sure.
I love the Church; it draws me closer and closer to Jesus. His love is always so apparent to me here at Madonna House. My phrase is, they walk the walk and live the talk.
I just want to have this privilege of saying thank you to each and every one of you for all you did for me. Thank you and God bless.
Shirley (Coulas) McLean
Daughter of Agnes and Eddie Coulas. I remember St. Joe’s, and them being in my home. They used to bring cod liver oil pills—yuk, I’d think, they’re back again!
I think of Dina, and I remember them raising and killing rabbits. I remember Sandra having my Mum over to show them how to clean their chickens. I remember Mary Jean, when I was little—she was so tall, and my Mom just thought the best of them.
I thought of them as part of my family. I was over at Madonna House when I was a teenager, and they were in my house. I don’t know what Combermere would be without St. Joe’s and Madonna House.
I just want to thank you all for allowing me to be here tonight, and on behalf of my Mum [Agnes died just this past year].
My family moved to the area about 25 years ago, and we’ve been pretty close to Madonna House all those years. I’ve grown up with Madonna House around and it’s been a great privilege.
My first memories of Madonna House or St Joe’s, is Sandy at my sister’s birth. Mom had thought it was a good idea for all of us to be in the room when my sister was being born. I remember standing in front of Sandy and she was holding my shoulders as I was throwing up on the floor!
Through most of my childhood, my memories of Madonna House are being around for an hour or two, when we visited them or they would visit us.
When I graduated from university, Alma [Coffman] had been bugging me for years to come and visit Madonna House. So I decided to come and visit, just to get Alma off my back!
But I’m very grateful that Alma was so persistent. I came for a month and I’ve been back twice after that and really it became my own to relate to and draw from, and that is really something that I have grown to cherish.
I’m getting married in October, and as my parents brought me and introduced me and exposed me to Madonna House, I’m looking forward to doing that with my own kids and having them experience Madonna House and just benefitting from having you here. It’s been wonderful!
When I was a little girl of about 5, I saw Catherine Doherty on TV, and my eyes were glued to the set. She came into my heart and I never forgot her.
Years later, a friend of mine was connected with Madonna House and I started getting Restoration. I had gotten married and was living up north in a very isolated area. I would get the mail and pick up Restoration, and walk the two miles home down a bush road, reading the paper and trying not to trip!
Our first contact was when we came down and got some liturgical vestments and things for the mission where we lived up north. Little did we know at that time that we would be back to live and Chee Chee would be with us.
Chee Chee, a special needs child whom we adopted, is named after Catherine—Catherine Marie. We would volunteer at St. Joe’s, Chee Chee and I. Diane was in the clothing room, and because Chi Chi was so tiny, she would sit in a box with some clothing and play with it while Diane and I would do the work.
Thank you so much for saying yes to us coming to help!
David and I moved here 3 years ago, so we’re fresh on the scene.
When we considered moving to the area, we’d drive down the road and see these people, you Madonna House people, with rosary beads. And I thought, where else would you see people walking down the street with rosary beads. It was beautiful and touching to see because we thought, this is a community that can work with us. Especially since we wanted to raise our children to love God and get to heaven.
Another memory is more recent: our son Alden wanted to pick berries from our yard and eat them. I said, "I don’t know what they are. Let me do some looking up on the Internet."
I couldn’t get a definitive answer, and I thought, "I know, I’m going to call Alma at St. Joe’s, the local horticulturist; she’ll know." And she gave very good advice: "Have him bring it to me, with leaves, and then I’ll see."
And so Alden rode his bike there and showed her and came home very happy, "I can eat them!" And he continues to pick them and eat them and share them with his friends.
Staff shared their gratitude for their time at St. Joe’s.
Early on I experienced how we journey with people between life and death at the RA.
We knew a woman in the Valley Manor who was dying, and we took turns sitting with her. One Sunday, Gloria [Lawton] was with her, and the woman did die that day.
Within an hour of returning from the Manor, another friend went into labor with her first child, and Gloria, who was a nurse, went in the ambulance to Pembroke with her. This couple had earlier asked her to be with them for the birth as they didn’t have family in the area. The child was born healthy.
So within hours, Gloria had been at the bedside of someone dying, and then at the bedside of a woman giving birth. This encapsulated RA life for me.
Though I had lived in Madonna House for a time, I didn’t feel like Combermere was my home until I was assigned to St. Joseph’s House. There I got to know people like Maxie and Stella Yaraskavitch.
One night Stella and I were walking home from Church. It was dark and Stella says, "Stop! There’s a bear!" And I said, "‘Stop, there’s a bear.’ There is no way I’m stopping!!" So I grabbed her hand and pulled her all the way to St. Joe’s.
We got there and she phones Maxie to pick her up, "Do you want to know what that stupid Madonna House person did? There was a bear, Maxie, and she pulled me all the way to St Joe’s!" [You usually don’t move if you think there is a bear around.]
The next morning Stella is in bed, it’s about 5 in the morning, and she hears the gun go off. And here’s Maxie in the bedroom, with the gun sticking out the bedroom window, and he shot the bear! Then Maxie boiled the jowl of the bear and brought me the teeth!
It’s like I have family here. I walk down the road and I feel like I know who lives everywhere and there is just—it’s 40 years now since I’ve been in Madonna House and our love story continues. It’s like I have sisters and brothers and my family and friends and this is my home and I thank you for that.
Anne Marie Murphy
I think of the people that came to live in Combermere while I was at St. Joe’s, and what courage it seemed like they had: to leave their life and come to this lovely countryside, but also to figure out how to make a living with their families.
It did so much for me to see them depending on God, as I had thrown my life in with God at that point. Catherine had always said how she fell in love with God when she was 6 years old. And I said to myself, "You should pray to fall in love with God." But it didn’t seem to be happening.
After 5 years of being at St. Joe’s I was transferred; this had been my first assignment and your first assignment is always dearest to your heart. When I was saying goodbye to people, I said to God, "Well, I didn’t fall in love with you but I fell in love with your people."
And that has always been with me through the years whenever I leave a place: I knew I had fallen in love with God’s people there.
When I grew up in downtown Toronto, I didn’t see a lot of happy, stable family life around me. As a little girl I remember looking around at my friends, trying to decide who was a happy family, who had father and mother and children in a house.
When I came here I was amazed, because I found the first stable families that I had really met, saw the first real family life. I am forever grateful for that, and for the friendship that people extended to us.
For example, I remember a family whose little girl had drowned. They were crushed, but it was a privilege to be in sorrow for them, and I was so grateful. It has been like that, people to whom I owe a great deal.
I am a nurse and many times I went on home deliveries. I was always struck by the heroism of the women of this Valley. I remember one lady delivered before we even got there. Those were heroic days, and that spirit is still here.
Every Saturday, our good friend Gloria Dusseault brought us a homemade cake. One Saturday she didn’t come at her usual time, and we wondered. But then Larry [her son] brought the cake in.
Gloria had broken her leg that morning—she had to get to the hospital to get her leg set—and insisted that Larry take the cake to the "girls". So he did.
Now in my memory, that was the first time the cake was missing a piece! But it was a wonderful gift.
Selling at St. Eddie’s shop was secondary to chit-chatting—learning names, getting to know people.
One day a lady came up with a pillow and a coffee maker in her arms. She’d never been here before, and she asked, "How much for this?" I said, "Fifty cents for the pillow, 25 cents for the coffee maker." And she looked at me as if I had two heads, "You mean the coffee maker costs less than the pillow?"
I said, "Yes; we know the pillow works."
At St. Joe’s you learn so many practical things that you didn’t learn in the city.
One of them was, what to do when a skunk family moves in under the clothing room. The aroma, the perfume, had begun rising, and the shop was open, and the people were coming in.
So, I put incense sticks in the cracks in the bins, and lit them, and—no one noticed the aroma.
Then someone suggested putting pine needles around.
I gathered them, and boiled them on top of the wood stove that used to be there, and it worked too—people didn’t smell a thing. And after about two weeks, the aroma really went away.
Such things really get you through.
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