A Life Poured Out

by Fr. Blair Bernard

Linda Lambeth tells us that in 1978 something of tremendous significance took place in her life. She was running the gift shop, and one evening she received a call from Catherine Doherty to come to her cabin. Catherine was, at the time, 82 years old.

Here’s how Linda described it: “Catherine was in her nightgown, sitting at her desk, with her head down. When I approached, it was obvious that she had been crying. When she did speak, amid tears, she said, ‘Will you take care of the poor? I am tired now. I can’t do it anymore. Will you take care of the poor? All my life I have taken care of the poor. Will you take care of the poor for me now? I am so tired.’

“From that moment I knew that this was a Sacred Trust placed in my hands, not for myself, but for the shop and indeed for the whole apostolate. For me it was the beginning of the great flame that Catherine was passing on to us.”

Asked one day why she founded Madonna House, Catherine answered, “to take care of the poor.”

It says volumes about Linda Lambeth that our foundress turned to her to begin the process of handing over to the children of her spirit the responsibility of taking care of the poor.

Shortly after that, Catherine spelled out what this would entail for Linda and indeed for all of us here at Madonna House, when she wrote: “Madonna House is you, walking in my footsteps—I walking in Jesus Christ’s footsteps, and all the staff, all my spiritual children, walking in Christ’s footsteps, which blend with mine.”

Many were the ways that Linda Lambeth would walk in Catherine’s footsteps.

We begin in 1960 when Linda at the age of 22 took first promises of poverty, chastity and obedience, following the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ.

Catherine very quickly recognized Linda’s obvious capabilities, and it was not long before Linda became one of those asked to implement one of Catherine’s “dreams dreamt in the Lord,”—the handicraft center. This was followed by the implementing of a second dream—a gift shop, which Linda ran for years.

I would argue that this is the most unique gift shop in North America. It is such because all its stock is donated and all the proceeds from its sale is given to the poor. This is a brand-new form of capitalism!

Customers at first did not understand how this gift shop operated, and Catherine knew that it was important that they do. So she entrusted Linda with another work. She asked her to put together into a binder letters and photos from both the donors and the missionaries who received money from the shop.

The letters from missionaries were testimonials about how their works of building schools and running orphanages and other works has been aided by the funds that had been received from the Madonna House Gift Shop.

The results of putting that binder out in the shop where it could be looked at were profound.

It produced spontaneous generosity from the customers. Linda told us that after one long, hectic day, she checked the donation box in the gift shop and found an old mine cut diamond ring, later valued at $9,000.

Generosity from other donors also came forth. William Kurelek, a well-known Canadian artist, donated some of his paintings. We were even given a painting by A.Y. Jackson, an even more famous artist, one of the Group of Seven.

“Will you take care of the poor for me?” Linda took care of the poor by running the gift shop and all the works that involved her in. She sometimes worked late into the night.

Catherine also sent Linda to establish a handicraft co-op in Carriacou, West Indies, and a handicraft centre and gift shop at our house in Edmonton. The crafts produced in Combermere continue to be sold in the gift shop.

Now you might ask yourself, besides raising money for them, do handicrafts have anything to do with the poor and taking care of the poor?

According to Catherine, handicrafts are an apostolic tool. Linda described this in a 1973 newsletter from Marian Centre Edmonton, where she was running a handicraft centre, a gift shop, and also handicraft classes.

“Some come to take handicraft classes to make beauty out of the junk, to restore things to Christ. Others because they are really lonely. Others seek to touch Christ through Madonna House members teaching and present in the classes. Others have experienced some tragedy and need to reach out beyond themselves.”

Another apostolate also grew out of our sending money to the missionaries: contact with the missionaries throughout the world. Catherine, Linda, and other staff, currently Linda Owen, corresponded and continue to correspond with these missionaries and to send them, using gift shop money, Madonna House books, and pamphlets and Restoration.

Linda tells us that one day out of the blue, Catherine said to her, “I want contact with Africa.”

Linda thought to herself, how am I going to do that? Eventually she wrote letters to all the bishops in Africa. At a later date she sent copies of the book Poustinia to all the bishops in South America and India.

Catherine, you see, had a lot of vision and those who do can be very inconvenient because they have a thousand and one inspirations and someone has to carry them out. Linda was one of those people for Catherine.

She would certainly understand a saying of Stanley Vishnewski, a close assistant to Dorothy Day right from the beginning of the Catholic Worker: “It takes a martyr to live with a saint.”

Catherine even sent Linda on a long visit to India to make personal contact with the bishops and missionaries and to see the charities the gift shop supported.

“Will you take care of the poor for me?” Catherine took care of the poor during the Depression in Friendship House, Toronto, and later did the same in Harlem, the biggest African-American neighborhood in New York. There she also fought racism.

In the 1960s Catherine started talking about a new poverty she recognized in the affluent First World, that of loneliness.

Finally, one night, shortly before she died, Catherine phoned Fr. Briere, a Madonna House priest, and said to him, “I have discovered tonight that the real poverty in this world is the poverty of those who have no faith. That is why God has put onto my heart to write and to write for those who are spiritually starved.”

And how were people to get these writings? Linda Lambeth ended up starting Madonna House Publications to recover and put back into print books Catherine had written which would have otherwise gone out of print and been lost.

Lost by book publishing companies that went out of business and by book publishing companies which obviously were operated to run a profit.

Linda gathered all those books back for us—many books by our foundress, books which would be languishing on dusty bookshelves in storage warehouses of book publishing companies that no longer were making money off those books.

I would like to argue that the essence of Madonna House spirituality is poustinia and “people of the towel and water.”

And if it wasn’t for Linda, books like Poustinia and The People of the Towel and the Water would have been confined to libraries. One thinks also of minor classics like Molchanie (The Silence of God), a work that Catherine described as being, in her estimation, “as good as Poustinia.”

Today, Madonna House Publications is the primary way that the community interfaces with the world. Our web site is run through Madonna House Publications, also our facebook site.

Moreover, Catherine’s books have gone out, thanks to MH Publications, to literally tens of thousands of people.

Countless people from all over the world have learned about Madonna House and Catherine Doherty through our books and website, and some of those have come here to be working guests. A few have even stayed to become members of the community.

What does that have to do with taking care of the poor? Catherine described it well when she wrote, “Books console, uplift, heal, bring hope and bring people back to the faith that they have lost.” Books, as Catherine knew, console the poor.

In her role as founder and department head of Madonna House Publications, Linda would put on book tables at various conferences, especially those for youth, such as World Youth Day, Focus, and CCO.

“Will you take care of the poor for me?” St. Vincent de Paul once said, “God surely loves the poor and he surely loves those who love the poor.”

Because of that we have every reason to believe that Linda will hear those words: Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been found trustworthy in small things. I will entrust you with greater things. Come and enter the joy of your Master (Mt 25:21).

Adapted from the homily at Linda’s funeral Mass