COMBERMERE, Ontario — Like many visitors to Madonna House Apostolate, Reyna Smith found more than she bargained for when she visited its main center in Combermere, a rural northern Ontario village.

All she wanted was a cheap place to stay. What she got was a sense that God was calling her to a consecrated lay life of poverty, chastity and obedience.

A restless 19-year-old, Reyna was on the first leg of a three-month travel adventure. Madonna House had seemed an ideal stopover. Its members staff a small center in her hometown of Winslow, Ariz., and the Smith family knew and liked them. But Reyna hadn't realized that visitors to Combermere are expected to share in the daily life of its community of priests and consecrated single laymen and women.

“I hated that!” Reyna laughs, ticking off the reasons. “Staying in a dorm with women from different cultures and backgrounds. No privacy. Lights out at 11. Daily Mass — when you've barely been making it to Sunday Mass. People telling you to pick up after yourself.”

She stayed for a month — “only because my money ran out” — then fled. Two months later, in August 1991, she was back. “Somehow,” she said, “I was seeing things differently.”

This June, after years of formation and service at the apostolate's houses in Combermere and the Yukon, Reyna will make her final promises as a Madonna House staff member.

The spirituality of Madonna House is summed up in the “Little Mandate.” Presented in the first person, as if spoken by Christ, this short distillation of Gospel directives came to foundress Catherine de Hueck Doherty over the course of many years.

Talk to any member about their experience of Madonna House, and you'll catch echoes of this “Little Mandate”:

— “Love — love — love, never counting the cost.”

Seeing the community's earnest attempt to live this out in the nitty-gritty of everyday life is what drew Reyna back. “There's such an honesty, a search for truth in relationships with God and each other. I saw that these were real people who had struggles and who didn't always get along. When they failed, though, they picked themselves up and kept trying to work things out.”

Living in this school of love gives Madonna House members a foundation from which to reach out to society's less loveable characters — people like the verbally abusive alcoholic Reyna used to encounter while giving out food at the Whitehorse, Yukon, center.

“Why am I trying to be nice to this guy?” Reyna would fume. “I can't stand him. He's mean, he's drunk, he stinks….”

Then one day her nemesis showed up sober, said it was the anniversary of his mother's death, and spoke about his life. Reyna melted.

“I'd been so tempted to treat this man cynically. But here was a real person, with joys and fears and tears,” she said. “It brought me to my knees again, and my heart opened up with compassion. This kind of thing happens all the time.”

— “ Go into the marketplace and stay with Me … pray … fast … pray always … fast.”

In “the marketplace” isn't where Angela Redmond once envisioned she'd be serving God. Drawn to contemplative religious life after stumbling on St. Thérèse of Lisieux's Story of a Soul during her senior year of college, Angela spent one happy but vaguely unsettled year with cloistered Dominicans in Lukfin, Texas. Then her novice director recommended a period of vocation discernment in Combermere. Angela went unenthusiastically, with “no idea” and no interest as to what a lay Christian community might be. Eventually, she realized that God was inviting her to Madonna House.

Today, almost 18 years later,Angela lives out her calling to contemplation at the apostolate's house of prayer and hospitality on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C. It was opened in 1981 at the request of Cardinal James Hickey, who charged staffers with praying for the government and serving the spiritual needs of all comers.

“We're committed to offering every moment of every day in prayer,” Angela explains. Daily Mass, the Divine Office, and regular periods of solitary prayer and fasting form the rhythm of life. “But we try to bring Christ into every part of life, whether we're doing the dishes, visiting a nursing home, or listening to someone who stops by. It's spiritual work, but real work!”

— “Little — be always little … simple — poor — childlike.”

Maria Victoria Fausto was in a graduate theology program, struggling to write a paper on the rich young man whom Jesus looked at “and loved” (Mark 10:21), when she realized she could no longer postpone her own Yes to Christ. Joining Madonna House was her way of following Jesus and becoming poor for his sake.

Paving the way for this decision was a “moment of grace” that took place when Maria Victoria was 17. It happened five years after her family's immigration from the Philippines, at a time when Maria Victoria was desperate to fit into North American culture.

She was walking with friends when a poor-looking Vietnamese woman approached to ask directions.

“Your grandmother?” they teased.

Embarrassed, Maria Victoria gave the refugee a curt response and left. But the woman's deep, piercing look stayed with her.

“I recognized myself — my own poverty — in” that look, she said. “And something else, too. Words from the Gospel rose up in my heart: ‘When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. …’ It was a turning point.”

Madonna House members live out their promise of poverty by living simply and relying on God to provide what they need through other people's generosity.

Sometimes that's a challenge, Maria Victoria admits. “As the eldest child of immigrants, I found it hard to surrender my plans for worldly success. My parents struggled with that too—with things like seeing me wearing second-hand clothes. At the same, they've been very accepting, because they also see my joy.”

Loise Perrotta writes from St. Paul.

Advice for Troubled Parents

Wendell and Elise Redmond, of Jacksonville, Ark., have come to grips with their daughter's vocation to consecrated life at the Madonna House. They now see it as a blessing for the whole family — a view they came to over time, in two stages, they say.

At first they were shocked by Angela's decision to enter the cloistered Dominicans, says Elise.

“Despite having sometimes thought what a blessing it would be to have a child enter religious life — well, at the time, we didn't think it was a blessing! What stood out was our financial struggle to get Angela through school.”

Then, when Angela decided to join Madonna House instead, the Redmonds worried about what the group was like.

Was it a cult, or what? Meeting a Madonna House priest who was traveling through their area allayed their fears.

What can help parents whose daughters are considering some form of consecrated life? Based on their experience, the Redmonds offer three pieces of advice:

— “Trust your child's judgment.” Don't just reject the idea.

— “Visit the group and meet the people.” Wendell and Elise have been to Combermere a number of times and now consider Madonna House members “extended family.”

— “Ask yourself, ‘Doesn't God deserve the best?’ That's what our pastor asked me regarding Angela,” says Elise. “It put things in the proper perspective!”

— Louise Perrotta

The Baroness Who Started it All

“Did God save me from death in Russia so that I should … get rich again and give my soul a middle-aged spread?”

A young baroness who had fled the Communist Revolution and was climbing the ladder of success in North America, asked herself this question in a soul-searching moment in the late 1920s. Out of her decision to change course for a life of following Christ in radical love and service to the poor, Madonna House Apostolate was born.

It took time. But in 1947, Catherine de Hueck Doherty and her husband, Eddie, settled in remote, scenic Combermere, Ontario, and began what has become an international family of Catholic lay men, women and priests who seek “to live out the Gospel on a daily basis by forming a community of love.”

Madonna House is a public association of the faithful within the Roman Catholic Church, under the bishop of Pembroke, Ontario.

Members make promises of poverty, chastity and obedience. They renounce marriage, personal possessions and incomes, and they work wherever needed. The apostolate maintains more than a dozen “field houses” in North America, with additional centers in Brazil, Grenada, Ghana, Russia, England, France, Belgium. Each was opened at the invitation of the local bishop and has its own particular purpose.

Distinctive features of Madonna House include an emphasis on prayer and service to the poor; a rich liturgical life that draws on both Eastern and Western rites; poustinias (from the Russian word for “desert”) — places set apart for prayer and fasting; special programs for guests, including priests and families; an orientation to listen, pray, and talk with people seeking counsel.

— Louise Perrotta