Combermere Diary

by Paulette Curran

Question: How has Madonna House Combermere fared in the COVID-19 crisis? We have been touched that many, many of our friends have gotten in touch to ask us this.

The short answer is this: thanks be to God none of us has or has had the virus. The rest of this column will attempt to answer further.

First of all, though we continue to keep to our schedule as much as we can, for us as for most of you, many of the details of our everyday life have had to change. These changes fit well into Lent, though. New sacrifices were suddenly added to our lives.

Moreover, the words from Ash Wednesday, “Repent and believe the Good News” and “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return,” took on a stark reality.

Nobody, of course, knows what will be happening by the time you receive this paper, but at the time of this writing, April 24th, the changes I will tell you about are still in effect here.

How do you protect a community of approximately 120 people from a deadly virus that could enter into some innocent person who has no symptoms?

We have two big advantages: we live in a relatively isolated area and we have our home-grown food.

On the other hand, we live very closely together and have a number of vulnerable elderly and infirm members.

A pandemic committee was formed which includes our directors (both general and local), our head nurse, and four others

Our director general of priests, Fr. David Linder, has kept in close contact with our bishop. The committee is keeping informed about changing government regulations and is reading, studying, discussing, and making decisions.

Near the beginning of the crisis, for a week or so, a letter with new directives and changes came out almost every day.

Fr. David Linder led a very small procession with the Blessed Sacrament (a fuller one would have been too many people together) through both the main house and St. Mary’s. As part of this ritual, prayers were said for protection from the virus and included cursing it.

Along with those supernatural means, we of course are using practical ones.

First of all, we are making sure that as much as possible, no one enters our house. That means no new working guests and no tours. The long-term working guests who were with us when the crisis started, however, could stay on if they wished. Almost all of them chose to do so.

Gatherings of the whole community were cancelled: Stations of the Cross and a staff meeting, for example.

Not many people were away since it was Lent, but those who were went into self-isolation when they returned. So did anyone with any kind of suspicious symptom.

We are doing like the monasteries of old: designating just a couple of people to be “externs,” to do necessary errands and bring people to necessary medical appointments.

The rest of us, like most of the world, are staying put. And staying put doesn’t just mean staying nearby.

Madonna House Combermere has within it three more or less separate communities: the main house or training center, St. Mary’s, and the farm. Normally, there is a lot of back and forth.

But now, in order to protect all of us, each house is separated from the others as much as possible, especially St. Mary’s where our most vulnerable members live.

Separated as in no direct contact. Two people from St. Mary’s, wearing masks, the same people every day, brings mail (outside and in-house) to and from the main house twice a day.

Our most vulnerable members were being more and more isolated. At this point, they can, for example, take walks, those who are able to, but they have no direct contact with the rest of St. Mary’s.

These elders are troopers. When gently told of these changes, one of them said, “It’s all right. We’ve done harder things than this in our time in Madonna House.”

We were told that all the changes, the ones mentioned and others, would be stressful, and they are—and we were urged to be extra-gentle with one another, push against our irritability, and be quick to forgive and ask for forgiveness.

And in truth, these things we are experiencing are inconveniences. Well, some of us have experienced more than inconveniences. Two among us have suffered fractures just before or during this time and had to be isolated when they returned from the hospital.

Someone else is in pain and unable to have the surgery she needs. One of us lost a parent at this time and was unable to be with the dying person or go to the funeral.

These things concretely unite us with people suffering similar and worse things throughout the world.

We also have one new work, a new service that is a direct way of serving at this time. A local nursing home has asked us to make masks for them, and the staff at the gift shop, which will not be opening until July 1st at the earliest, is doing this.

Then Holy Week and Easter came. Here at Madonna House, taught by our foundress that Easter is the most important feast of the year and that it needs to be celebrated majorly, we have always had very festive celebrations for this feast.

Well this year, to make things simpler and also as a concrete way of being in union with all the people who have had to do without so much these days, we did things more simply.

Though we did pysanky (Ukrainian and Russian Easter egg decorating) during Lent, we did not do our North American-style Easter egg decorating, and our food throughout Easter week was less festive than usual.

We did, however, decorate beautifully, including buying Easter lilies and other flowers. Beauty is not a luxury; it is a need. And we had our usual festive Easter supper.

Though it had a bit of a serious undertone, Easter was joyous. After all, no matter what is happening, the deeper reality is that Christ is risen.

And over Eastertime, we did some spontaneous things to cheer each other up. The directors general sang Easter songs outside the windows of St. Mary’s.

The “under 36s” (years of age, that is) of St. Mary’s put on a short Easter play—outside the glass entry doors to our “locked-down” assisted-living wing.

St. Mary’s recorded a message for the main house which included wishing us Happy Easter in 14 languages. The main house, for our part, made a video for them and our mission houses of scenes of life here during pandemic time.

And how has our new addition been faring in all this? The shell is finished and since residential construction is considered an essential service in Ontario, we have been able to continue with the rest: plumbing, electrical, etc.

In summary, I would say that we are doing well. No one has gotten the coronavirus, as I said before, and the house, though there is a subtle somber undertone, is peaceful.

Continuing our schedule as much as we can helps, as does our habit of obedience and our trust in our directors. They are doing a heroic job of leading us in a difficult time. And most of all, we are trusting that God has us all in his loving, all-powerful hands—whatever suffering we have to endure now or in the future.