Fred, the Candle-Maker

by Susanne Stubbs

Whatever we in Madonna House do day-to-day, and we do quite a variety of things, is a means to contact people.

Karen Van De Loop, who runs our used book store, for example, has through the years, met myriads of people—people interested in antique and used books, whom she probably would not have met without the book connection.

If we sell coins in the gift shop, we are going to meet coin collectors, and our farmers meet farmers. It is the same with handicrafts. Let me tell you a story.

In the early 1970s, we had a guest whose name was Fred. Somehow, very early in his stay, Catherine Doherty learned that Fred knew how to make candles. In fact, he had had his own candle shop. So she assigned him to work in our handicrafts department.

It was summer and there was lots of work to be done outdoors, so Fred’s assignment probably wasn’t the most popular idea among the men staff. But Fred could make thousands of dollars for the missions by making candles we could sell in the gift shop.

Catherine might have had something else in mind as well.

Fred was a very severe alcoholic. As they would say in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), he had hit bottom, and a very hard bottom it was.

As I said, he had had his own candle shop—elsewhere in Ontario. He loved candles. He meditated about them and wrote poems about them. They were a spiritual experience for him. So in his shop, he liked to burn a lot of candles.

One night, when his lovely shop was full of burning candles, he got so drunk he fell asleep. And the shop burned down.

Since then, he had lost his wife, and he had lost his children. He was alienated and separated from them, and he wound up here at Madonna House. Somebody sent him here thinking maybe he could put his life back together here.

So Catherine said, “Let him make candles.” That is trusting the untrustworthy! I’m glad to say that St. Raphael’s, our handicraft center, didn’t burn down!

Fred stayed many months—at least four, maybe more. Then he went on his way, and he managed to live as a recovering alcoholic.

I think he achieved sobriety, and as far as I know, he maintained it for more than twenty-five years.

During those years, he would come back to visit, and I was kind of his contact person because I was the head of the handicraft center, and he always called me “Boss.” He’d say, “Where’s Boss?”

He was a kind of character. He told jokes and he was funny, but when he came to visit, I would inevitably be in the middle of something I thought was important.

Fred would come breezing in, saying, “Here I am.” Only slightly annoyed at being interrupted, I’d stop whatever I was doing, and we’d have a chat.

There was something about Fred; after he left, I would usually be smiling. I would say to myself, “I think I have just talked to a saint—a certain kind of saint.”

Here was this guy who was living in a bachelor apartment in a nearby city. He never did get his family back, and he probably had a very lonely life.

There were lots of things he could complain about, lots he could be bitter about, but he was never bitter. He was always positive, he was always fun, and in some odd way, he was full of hope. When he left, I felt I had been blessed.

So off and on, he visited for about 25 years, and we corresponded. Then one day I got an email from a friend of Fred’s saying that Fred had died. I was very sad; I had lost a friend.

Two months later—it was summer—a young man showed up at Madonna House. He walked in and asked, “Are you Susanne Stubbs?” and I said, “Yes.” I had never seen this fellow before.

Handing me a letter, he said, “Here, I want you to have this.” He was Fred’s son, and in cleaning out Fred’s apartment, he’d found the last letter I had written to Fred. Strangely enough, it was about suffering.

Fred had never stopped being creative, and in his later life, he turned to writing. He wrote a couple of books, and he told me he was now writing a book on suffering. So I sent him one of Catherine’s articles on suffering.

This son had found the envelope with my return address, and so he came here.

He said, “Madonna House has been my father’s support through the years, and I want to thank you.”

A short time later, the son dropped off a statue that was in Fred’s apartment as a gift to me. It was a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

This story and this beautiful friendship all began with candles. Again I learned that whatever we are doing, it often brings us into contact with people we would not meet any other way—people whom we can love and serve and who will enrich our lives.

This is one little story among thousands that could be told, that have been lived, in our Madonna House history.

Excerpted and adapted from a talk given by Susanne at a summer school when she was department head of our handicraft department.