I Was a Toxic Feminist

by Michelle Kuhr, current working guest

Marian Acres Missouri

Ever since the opening of Marian Acres in Missouri, I had had a great desire to visit this newest Madonna House. My dream came to fruition when I made plans to road trip to Combermere from my home in Austin, Texas. On the way north, I would stop in Salem, Missouri, for 10 days.

Having never visited a field house as a guest, I had few expectations about what would be different from the training center.

The greatest difference I discovered was an increase in the closeness of living together. With only three staff and myself, there was no way to blend into a crowd. I was able to have an up-close and personal view of my friends, Doreen Dykers, Patrick Stewart, and Paul Mitchell, and their Madonna House way of life.

What was even more intimidating than seeing them so closely was being seen by them that closely. This proximity meant that I could not spread out the stress or joy of a moment among many people. These three staff witnessed every step of my emotional journey as I experienced it. Certainly, I was on one.

I was coming out of Austin swept up in the feminist movement and with a resulting chip on my shoulder. I had held hands with bitterness and thrown around jargon like “toxic masculinity” and “male privilege” with scorn and contempt for men.

It seemed right to encourage all women to rise up and take what was theirs from the patriarchy we live in. If the men weren’t going to give women a seat at the table, then we would make a new table—a better one.

I saw the male gender as responsible for so many of the problems the world faced, and I wanted justice. I wanted them to be condemned for their crimes.

Yet, I soon became aware that this kind of feminism was in itself toxic and offered no solution or healing to the pain I was experiencing. My feelings had bubbled up from places of anger and hurt, and I knew that the peace Jesus wanted to give me would not be born from following those emotions down the road of resentment and hate. But where did that leave me?

My gaze turned to Our Lady. What would Marian femininity look like? It was with this question burning in my heart that I set out for Marian Acres.

Marian Acres is lovely. The property is situated at a lake that you look out on as you cook and do dishes, not unlike you do in Combermere. I quickly fell into the rhythm of daily life there, and it wasn’t long before I began to speak out about feminism.

Topics that I struggled with came tumbling out of my mouth as I sought wisdom and understanding from my friends who patiently and openly discussed these issues with me. It was refreshing to be there, in a beautiful place with those beautiful people, soaking up their kindness, patience, and love.

Since there was no Madonna House priest assigned to the house, we attended Mass at the parish in Salem three times a week and on Sunday. So we often drove into Salem.

In my life, I had visited many small towns in various states and countries. It had been my experience that small towns often harbored harmful misogynistic mentalities, a stereotype furthered by main stream media. Small town—small mind.

I am not proud to admit that this was the kind of thinking I had when I first came to Salem—population 5000. I was armed to the teeth and weary when I was introduced to the community. Everyone was perfectly nice, but then, it’s easy to be nice on the surface.

It wasn’t until after Mass on Sunday that I began to see how truly generous that community was. Every week, the parishioners put on a breakfast. Many churches do this, but usually it entails a few doughnuts or a breakfast taco sale.

Here an entire feast was set out before me, laid out for all to enjoy. Friends sat at tables, welcoming everyone, laughing and happily chatting away. What’s more, the entire thing was free—donations accepted. There was a spirit of community that I had not encountered in a long time.

Later that week I was yet again amazed as the three staff and I went to Salem for the annual Christmas parade. Small town though it was, we wandered the streets greeting so many happy people, Catholic, Christian, and otherwise. Dozens of floats made their way down the roads throwing candy to the delighted children.

I was in awe as strangers respectfully interacted, shook hands and became friends. The whole town was truly one family, celebrating and sincerely wishing joy and happiness to one another.

The spirit of Salem really touched me, but a few days later a wave of frustration overtook my heart. It was December 11th, the eve of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I came face to face with my pain over the oppression of women. It was triggered by witnessing a harmful interaction between a man and a woman a few days earlier.

As I fell asleep, I prayed to Our Lady that I might find peace and love for all people, and I placed my sorrow into her hands.

Early the next morning I crept quietly into the chapel to sing las mañanitas to Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Mexican custom I had learned about in Combermere. I spent the day in thanksgiving, dutifully surrendering my pain to her, offering it as a bouquet of flowers.

That evening, Doreen and I went to a supper put on by the church ladies. I thought it would be women serving women, a small affair, but I was stunned.

Behind the kitchen counter, cooking and serving were the men of the community. They brought out a beautiful dinner and stood back as the women played games, collected prizes, drank and ate, laughed and shared their lives with one another.

I felt how those men truly honored and cared for their sisters in Christ, cared for me. My heart was deeply moved by their love.

I understood then that Our Lady was giving me a gift, inspiring me and healing me through her people in Salem. It is in these little homes of love that our world will be restored to Christ. May my heart be like that of Salem, a little home of love.

Michelle is one of the long-term working guests who chose to remain when we went into lock-down.