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Posted July 10, 2015 in Memorials:
Her Yes Was Yes

by Susanne Stubbs and Helen Hodson.

Mary Bridget Theresa Legris (March 31, 1916 – March 27, 2015) was known to us only as Mamie. It is safe to say that she held a unique place of honor in our Madonna House family.

At her death, Mamie, along with Marité Langlois, has lived the Madonna House vocation longer than any member—so far! And she was the first director general of women after Catherine Doherty, the foundress.

Mamie was someone Catherine could always count on. She saw in her unshakable loyalty, stability, generosity and inner strength.

Mamie joined a fledgling community in the early 1950s, and Catherine saw in her someone who could carry it on and pass on the spirit of our apostolate. A woman of great integrity, her yes was yes, and her no was no.

Mamie’s apostolic life was to take her to 26 countries, but she was born very near Combermere, in the small village of Dacre. She was the fourth of eleven children and grew up in the Mount St. Patrick parish where she also went to school, eventually becoming a teacher.

By age 35, she had taught in three local schools and at a local native reservation. Mamie first heard about MH through her sister, who happened to be working at the bank in Barry’s Bay, a town very near Combermere.

In Mamie’s words, "She was telling me about the baroness that used to come with all kinds of money, American money. I think it scared the hides off the people in the bank. One time, my sister said: ‘Let’s go over to Combermere, and you can see where the baroness and her husband live.’"

 

They just slowly drove past: "There was really nothing, just a little house, and weeds all over the place, nothing like it is today."

 

In 1950, Mamie heard Catherine and Eddie speak at teachers’ conventions in the Ottawa Valley, and they invited people to come and visit Madonna House. So, Mamie and her mother decided to stop in on Thanksgiving Day and "see what was going on."

 

Mamie later wrote to Catherine and visited again over New Year. Catherine convinced Mamie to come for two weeks for the summer school. This led to a return visit and Mamie never left.

"I gave my car to Madonna House; I left my fur coat at home and that was about what anyone had in 1951. It seemed like insanity or something. I guess it was faith."

By April 1952, she was on her first promises retreat: "We didn’t take promises at that time. We got our cross and became staff workers. This was the 23rd of April, and then on May 3rd we made our promise of stability—four of us."

 

This was the beginning of a long apostolic adventure.

Just two years later, Mamie was sent, with Kathleen O’Herin and Louis Stoeckle, to open the first mission of Madonna House, Combermere—in Whitehorse, Yukon.

On May 8, they began the now famous (in MH) 5,195 mile "Trek in a Truck." They named the truck Mickey, for St. Michael the Archangel.

On June 11th, they entered the Yukon for the first time. "We took some pictures and all celebrated with a cigarette!"

 

From Whitehorse Mamie wrote about: "our neat, brown shingled, one story barracks building.

Kathleen and I sleep on a fold up couch which, with a large desk, is the office furniture. We keep our underclothing in boxes under the desk and hang up our dresses in the bathroom that is off the office."

Later, she remembered: "We brought our water in a barrel; there was no running water, no toilets or anything. We had just a bucket in the bathroom for the toilet; so that was the way we lived. Louie was provided with a tarpaper shack to live in."

 

In 1956, she wrote, "Our house became a three ring circus. Trying to have Mass in the library, feeding people in there on three long tables, having put away bed clothes (people we took in were sleeping on the floor)—it was all quite a test.

"Our house was quite a conglomeration of transient men from all over the world and Indian women and men and babies, often without their mothers."

In 1957, Mamie had a break from the Yukon and travelled with Catherine to Rome. Catherine was a delegate at the Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate.

They also spent two months travelling in Italy, France, England and Belgium, visiting Catherine’s family and connecting with others who were involved in the lay apostolate.

Catherine recalled: "I watched Mamie, who was split wide open, I mean her heart, mind and soul, as she came in contact with the English, French, Italian, African, Asian lay apostles.

"Like a bolt of lightning she saw that, isolated in the distant Yukon Territory at Maryhouse, they were factually part of the very heart of the Church."

Periodically, while still assigned to the Yukon and later while carrying out duties in Combermere, Catherine sent Mamie out as a "scout" to investigate possibilities of opening new missions. Mamie would meet bishops, tour the area, and report back to Catherine.

These forays included Carriacou, West Indies, and Pakistan. During the latter trip, after enduring a monsoon, she returned through Rangoon, Bangkok, Manila, Tokyo and San Francisco!

When finally assigned to Combermere again in 1964, Mamie became the assistant director general. Catherine put Mamie in charge of training, especially the staff worker applicants.

I, Suzanne, was one of those applicants, and I can testify that Mamie never lacked the courage to say, "Friend, come higher," even if the "friend" had no desire to ascend! Mamie trained generations of staff, and she taught mostly by example (until her last days).

Catherine continued also to send Mamie out across several countries on visitations and to investigate possible foundations. On one of these trips, Mamie saw Bishop Nick d’Antonio of the Diocese of Juticalpa, Honduras.

She wrote back, "Bishop Nick is a gem, and he is very anxious to get some Madonna House staff. His life has been threatened several times. Anyone who practices truth and justice here is likely to get a bullet in the head."

 

Catherine responded that she (herself) would like to pack her bags and go!

In 1969, Catherine decided to retire and Mamie was elected director general of women, an arrangement which lasted but two years.

It soon became evident that Catherine, as foundress, would need to remain also as director until her death. It was no secret that both Catherine and Mamie suffered deeply through this attempted transition.

In May 1971 Catherine wrote:

"Mamie spontaneously presented Fr. Callahan, Louie and myself [directors general at the time] her letter of resignation. It was the last thing I personally expected her to do. It is a beautiful letter, humble, direct, simple. It would be wonderful if she continued to work at my side, but for the moment I suggested that she go for a long overdue vacation."

This "vacation" also included, at Catherine’s request, another trip to Carriacou and then Peru, where she served as local director pro-tem when some staff needed to return to Combermere.

In Peru, the staff lived in a barriada (Spanish for slum).

In 1972, Mamie went to support the staff in the Holy Land, where we had opened a field house.

For the Annunciation that year: "Since it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, I decided to go to Nazareth to the Basilica of the Annunciation for Mass.

"You wouldn’t believe how good Latin sounded to my ears after hearing Mass in Arabic for five months of Sundays. I took it on myself to renew everyone’s fiat at that hallowed grotto.

"What knowledge I have gained during these months in Israel! All of us realize that we are westerners and have much more than Arabic to learn. Daily we make many a faux pas."

After a few more short assignments in 1976, Mamie opened the house in Cleveland at the request of Bishop [later Cardinal] Hickey.

The closing of the house in Cleveland came very suddenly in 1986, following an attack on Mamie and Josephine Halfman. In Mamie’s words, "A fellow broke into our house and pretty near killed the two of us. This guy that broke in went through five locks to get upstairs. Five locks!"

 

The man brutally attacked the two women, who fought back: "It was like wrestling with Satan. We prayed aloud and at one point Jo grabbed the holy water bottle and threw blessed water around. All we got from our intruder was ‘sssss’."

He eventually left leaving the two women shaken, black and blue, and grateful to be alive. "We got out of there, we closed the house and came home. So that was the end of MH Cleveland."

 

Mamie’s globetrotting days were not over. In 1988, she went to Brazil to meet Dom Nivaldo, who wanted Madonna House to come to his diocese and to look for a property.

The next year, though she didn’t speak any Portuguese, Mamie returned as local director of the new Brazilian foundation where she stayed until 1990. "Everyone wants our plans for the future of our work here. We are getting wise enough to say we have none. We are here and await God’s timetable."

 

In July of 1990 (Mamie was now aged 74), she was back in the Yukon. At this time she became a poustinik in Coudert House:

"It is 26 years since I left Maryhouse and the hostel and 11 years since I was in the Yukon for our silver jubilee, but I was not prepared to see such a lovely and well developed city as Whitehorse."

At Coudert House, Mamie was the soul of hospitality. "Some people called me their spiritual director. Some came regularly to get stuff off their chest. We had great visits and lots of fun together."

 

Turning 76 at Coudert House, Mamie wrote: "The words from Psalm 71 ‘Do not reject me now I am old, nor desert me now my strength is failing’ are a very serious plea."

But age did not deter Mamie from further adventures. In July 1993, Mamie joined a Rotary Club tour to Magadan in the Russian Far East: "I was not aware that we had an invitation to open a house there, nor that it would happen in the immediate future."

 

In November 1996 she was hit by a car pulling away from a parking spot and her leg was broken. She no sooner had the cast off, when she received news that she was to return to Combermere.

She wrote, "On February 27th I will say goodbye to the Yukon. I’ve been thinking of how one instant can change your life forever. That is surely true of death, but also true of the ups and downs of life. My Yukon years have been a great privilege. I shall miss the Yukon, and I shall not pass this way again."

 

So in 1997 Mamie returned to Combermere, where she did some home visiting in the area and helped at the handicraft center, Publications, and the Pioneer Museum.

Each year she enjoyed accompanying the applicants on their "Valley Tour," giving a wonderful commentary on the area she knew and loved.

In May 2003, Marité Langlois and Mamie became the first staff to celebrate 50 years in Promises.

At that time, Jean Fox said of Mamie, "If God gives me one drop of the faith Mamie has, I will be grateful for the rest of my life. Madonna House was built on the faith of these two women, and if it weren’t for them, the rest of us wouldn’t be here."

 

Despite thinking she would not return to the Yukon, God had one more trip in mind for Mamie. In 2004, Mamie accompanied Fr. Bob Pelton, Trudy Moessner and Janine Gobeil to Whitehorse for the 50th anniversary of Maryhouse in 2004.

Gradually, Mamie became more limited by arthritis, severe hearing loss, and failing eyesight. She once said that her deafness created another kind of poustinia for her. But she never lost her desire to live life to the full. She helped in the household, wherever she could, even if she was simply folding towels.

Mamie had kept up a voluminous correspondence throughout her life. When her sight failed, she dictated letters to willing helpers.

She would ask people to read to her newsletters from our Madonna House field houses. She never missed a staff meeting; she could hear the proceedings through a special sound system for the hearing impaired.

Mamie’s life was lived and it ended in great simplicity, adventurous and fruitful as it was. What was her secret, one might ask? Once, when Mamie was asked, "How do you persevere?" She answered, "Get up each morning and make the cereal."

This article is adapted from a talk at Mamie’s wake service. Quotes are taken from Mamie’s letters and taped interviews.

 

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