Hundreds turn out to celebrate the 75-year wonder of Madonna House

·2 min read

Combermere -- Rainy weather predictions last Sunday sounded foreboding but, in the end, it turned out a miraculous, sunny afternoon, at least along the Madawaska River near here. Hundreds upon hundreds of well-wishers arrived at an Open House in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the founding of Madonna House, a lay apostolate with nearly 200 staff workers. It was also an event to honour its founders, Catherine and Eddie Doherty who arrived here in 1947 and who now lay buried near its sacred grounds

Toni Austin was one of those well-wishers and old friends on hand. She was also one of the very few people here who could remember those early days when she first broke bread with Catherine and Eddie Doherty. In 1957, as a teenager, she arrived in Combermere with her parents and stayed at Cana Colony, a summer retreat run by Madonna House to enhance family life. Four years later, she came back again, looking for something more. Certainly not a vocation, she said, just something to help her get past Madonna House.

"In 1961, I was going to York University and worked all summer and had come up here for a break at the end of that summer," Ms. Austin said. "I wasn't coming to join. I was just coming to see more. I wanted to get it out of my system but in the end, I became convinced that this is where I could fit in."

After more than 60 years working on behalf of the lay apostolate, Ms. Austin says there's still a lot more to see at Madonna House. She worked mainly at its field houses helping to run everything from soup kitchens to adult education programs all over the world, from the Yukon to Brazil, from Europe to Africa. Throughout all those years, she never forgot her first meeting with Catherine Doherty, who went by the nickname of Bee.

"Bee was a woman who was gutsy, who smoked cigarettes, who wore red, red lipstick and who put it on at least five or six times a day," she said of her more than 25 years working alongside Catherine Doherty who died in 1985.

"But she was somebody who really understood people, who really met each person uniquely, individually and yet was someone at the same time who was alive with God. From her eyes and her way of being, she was something totally new and different. I had never seen it in anyone before nor even read about it."

In a phrase, Bee was one of a kind.

Barry Conway, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader