Combermere Diary

by Amy Barnes

At the time of this writing, the end of January, Ontario is in strict lockdown (a situation that we hope is over by the time you read this), so we are, once again, unable to receive new guests.

But lockdown or no lockdown, some things remain the same. As we always do, for example, we celebrated Christ’s Baptism, which the Eastern Churches call “the Theophany,” in Byzantine style as our Eastern brethren have a special grasp of the beauty, depth, and significance of this feast.

After the Divine Liturgy, according to the Eastern custom, our newly bi-ritual* celebrant, Fr. Denis Lemieux, processed to near the edge of the ice beyond our hockey rink and launched a crucifix (and thankfully not himself) into the Madawaska River, blessing all the waters of the world as a reminder of how Christ’s redemptive act transforms the whole of creation.

The Theophany marked the end of the Christmas season for us, and both the Main House and St. Mary’s were blessed that evening by musical performances to help us bid farewell to Christmastime.

St. Mary’s currently has an unusually large number of talented violinists—Fr. Brian Christie, Janine Gobeil, and Nancy Topping—and during St. Mary’s teatime, all three accompanied the members of the St. Mary’s community in singing some favorite Christmas carols.

The same evening at the Main House, Fr. Teodosy, a visiting Ukrainian Rite priest, led Fr. Kieran Kilcommons and Fr. Denis Lemieux, our two newly bi-ritual priests, in an enthusiastic singing of Ukrainian seasonal hymns.

After many months of protective isolation from COVID, Our Lady of the Visitation—the St. Mary’s wing where our most vulnerable members live—began receiving a visitor from either St. Mary’s or the Main House each evening for supper.

We have found it wonderful to reconnect with our sisters there, albeit in a limited and careful way, to share life with them and experience their hospitality.

In spite of having had to say goodbye to three of our brothers and sisters who died in recent months, the residents of OLV remain upbeat, courageous apostles, blessing visitors and caregivers alike with their friendship and prayers, and sometimes even warm biscuits.

One of the OLV residents, Jeannine Biron has been painting up a storm. Several of her paintings are currently on display in our arts and crafts building, St. Raphael’s.

Theresa Marsey’s funeral took place on December 30th in the midst of our Christmas festivities. As with our other funerals taking place this year, our celebrations were modified for the sake of social distancing, and we were pained not to be able to have Theresa’s friends and family from outside Madonna House, physically present at the funeral.

What was evident from our time of sharing, however, was how even in her physical sufferings and separation from many she loved, Theresa continued to share deeply the joys, sorrows and sufferings of a great number of people.

Theresa’s example reminds us that when one is united with others in prayerful communion, physical distance becomes somehow less important.

January 18-25 was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year at the Main House, during our after-lunch spiritual reading, several staff and guests shared excerpts and personal experiences about other Christian traditions that they know well.

Raandi King spoke about the Bruderhof (an Anabaptist community), Jeremiah Barker about Calvinism; Fr. Teodosy about Orthodoxy and the Ukrainian Catholic Church; and guest Solomon Ip “walked us through” a High Anglican Mass.

Fr. Bob Wild spoke about Vladimir Soloviev—an apostle of Church Unity—to both the Main House and St. Mary’s communities.

These presentations confirmed how—in spite of outstanding theological differences—the Churches are one in their love for Christ and in the sincere efforts of their faithful to follow Him.

At the end of January, something new began. Since January is the quietest time of year for us, the three directors general decided to schedule mini-retreats for the staff.

The theme of the retreat is “Reflecting on Our Promises in the Light of Our Charism of Sobornost.” Over the course of two full days, staff participate in conferences on poverty, chastity, and obedience, given by Raandi King, Steve Héroux, Peter Gravelle, Christina Milan, and Fr. David May.

Times of silence alternate with times of group sharing. The first group (of four in total) has just finished their retreat, and they comment that it is a blessing to “be on retreat together as members of MH” and they are grateful to the directors for deciding to try out this new idea. They comment that the retreat has helped them understand in a deeper way how love is the foundation of the three promises.

Work on the Main House addition continues daily: the walls and floors are almost complete. The bush crew (Scott Eagan, Darrin Prowse, Michael Amaral, Alec Bonacci, and Fr. Louis Labrecque, as well as other occasional helpers) is active each day at Carmel Hill, selectively cutting trees for firewood, as well as some cedar and hemlock that will be made into lumber.

Outside our daily work, we are always ready for recreation. In early January we had one day of perfect “packing snow.” We know how to seize such an opportunity when it presents itself, so a few snowmen sprang up at St. Mary’s and the Training Centre that day, and we’re happy to report that, as of this writing, they’re still standing.

Some staff have been attempting to ice fish: they’ve been having fun, even though they are catching no fish.

In November a guest, Emilialyn Carter, arrived with impressive abilities in lace crocheting. This has led to lots of crocheting at the Training Center, with a few people learning lace-making, and others (Flora Hye Jin Jeon and Maria Kim), crocheting a menagerie of cute colorful animals and tiny ornamental skates, some of which are currently on display in our main dining room.

The skates are displayed on a small wooden shelf made by Alec Bonacci, surrounded by tiny wooden hockey sticks and pucks made by applicant Daniel Wildish in a collaborative artistic effort made to resemble the Madonna House skate storage space.

A guest who is an artist, Paul Czagacbanian, led a popular workshop on acrylic painting, and Linda Owen is helping impart her skills in zhostovo (a kind of Russian folk painting) to the staff at our handicraft center.

Christina Milan is learning the trade of wool processing—spinning and dyeing—from Mary Davis who has many decades of accumulated knowledge and experience.

Many have been skiing, playing hockey, and snowshoeing.

Jeremiah Barker has made use of this quiet winter to write and publish, and he just received copies in the mail of the most recent edition of the magazine, Communio, featuring his article “Why We Need Julian of Norwich.”

With you, we are praying for an end to the pandemic and the opportunity for our hospitality to take on more normal dimensions. In the meantime, be assured of our union with each of you in the Blessed Sacrament and in Our Lady of Combermere.

*Possessing faculties to administer the sacraments in two different liturgical rites