Madonna House

What Kept Mamie Focused?

by Fr. Pat McNulty

There is one question I would like to ask Mamie: What drove you? What kept you focussed all those years, especially these last ten years or so when you lived in total, complete spiritual darkness? And I mean total. There was nothing.

She would come into the chapel and walk back and forth before the tabernacle like Anna in the temple. I’d often meet her there and she’d say to me, “Fr. Pat, I feel nothing. Is it real?”

I used to say to God, “What is wrong with you? This giant of faith who has poured out her whole life, and you just cast her aside in her final years when she could have been so joyful with you. What is that all about?”

That started me reading Catherine’s letters to the staff in those early years back when Mamie opened the first house, Maryhouse in the Yukon. There was one letter that struck me, and I read it and re-read it, and I think I discovered what it was that kept Mamie focussed and drove her.

I think it’s the thing that keeps us all focussed and drives us, especially those of us who knew Catherine personally but also people she calls her spiritual children—staff who came after her death and people who follow her spirituality through her books, tapes, Restoration, whatever.

You meet this woman who is in love with God, and loves to talk about it. Then when she’s done, you say, “I want what she’s got.”

And somehow this desire enters into your heart, and it grows and grows until you can put up with anything.

In one way, Mamie already had everything when she came: she had the Church, she had the sacramental life, she had a life of faith. She was already dedicated to Our Lady.

She had everything she needed, but then she met someone who really knew God, and it penetrated her heart, and it drove her, and it kept her at Madonna House and kept her focussed for the rest of her life.

In the early days of Madonna House, Catherine was constantly teaching and forming the staff. Then in 1954, when the first group opened the house in the Yukon, she continued to train them through what she called “staff letters.”

That was all they had of Catherine’s spirituality to feed them back then. That’s all Mamie, who was founding and running a mission house in the isolation and harsh physical conditions of the Sub-Arctic North, had.

They didn’t have all the things we have now: the books, the tapes, the hundreds of staff letters.

In those days, if you had a problem or a question and you were in the Yukon and you wrote a letter to Catherine or to your spiritual director, it could take weeks before you got an answer. They must have clung to those staff letters.

And what was in those first staff letters? The message over and over was, “Grow up!” “The time is now!”

At first you thought Catherine was teaching you how to wash the dishes and clean the house, but what she was really saying was: the time is now to focus on Jesus Christ through the life you are living now, now, now!

For Catherine this “now, now, now” was all about taking on the pain of Christ through your own pain. Now!

If I had been a staff worker in the Yukon in 1956, when I saw those first staff letters, I probably would have taken the first bus out of there. I probably would have thought, “I don’t need the pain of Christ. I have enough pain of my own.”

That whole staff letter, the eighth one written on December 7, 1956 was all about: don’t you see the pain of Christ, in the Church, in the bishops, in the priests, in the rich poor, in the intellectuals, all over the world?

Our job, Catherine said, was to assuage that pain in Jesus Christ. To believe that stark spirituality, those pioneers must have been given a very special grace.

That’s why God gives us people like Catherine Doherty in the Communion of Saints, people who see something about the love of Christ and have this gift, this charism, to teach us how to love the way Christ taught them how to love. Eventually, if you live this MH life long enough and faithfully enough, you “get it.”

There is something about the Madonna House life and Catherine Doherty that we who have this vocation get, and Mamie certainly got it deep in her heart. Got what?

That we want to love the way Catherine loved. We want to know God the way Catherine knew God. We want to be as free with God as Catherine was and as available as she was.

The staff letters—which Catherine wrote almost until her death—teach us the practical stuff and then lead us—bam—right into the heart of Christ.

My biggest challenge when I came to Madonna House was I could not let go of my own meagre vision of Faith.

I thought I knew more than this woman. I had years of education. I had been a parish priest for twelve years. But it wasn’t long before I realized that if I wanted to love God the way this woman loved God, I had to let go of all that and make a leap of faith.

Every member of Madonna House has to make that same leap sooner or later. But once you do, you are free. The pioneers had a special grace to make that leap quicker than anyone else, or they would not have survived.

Catherine knew Mamie’s heart. She knew that one day she would get this hidden call to assuage the pain of Christ, and it would keep her focussed for the rest of her life. Catherine even spoke of it in a poem dedicated to Mamie wherein she wrote,


[Your] heart is ready

To be enlarged, wounded

By a sword and lance

Of pain…

Oh, Jesus come.

Delay not…

Weak, poor, unworthy—

I will find strength

To lift your wounded Body

And bring it to the inn

Of my loving heart…

And if your pains linger,

I will kneel and beg from you

The strength, the grace,

To carry your pain

For you.


Yes indeed, Mamie Legris “got it” alright. As I bid my own fond farewell to this giant of the lay apostolate and a very dear friend of mine, I am reminded of an entry in the house diary by Catherine in January, 1951 after Mamie’s first visit.

“Mamie Legris is leaving today. As nice a girl as ever was. I am so glad she came.”

P.S. So am I, Mamie. So am I