By Anna Farrow
TORONTO (OSV News) — After nearly 50 years serving as a cellphone-free refuge for prayer and silence in the center of Ottawa, Ontario, a mission house of the Madonna House Apostolate is closing its doors.
Despite the closure, the apostolate itself is welcoming five new applicants, or novices, into formation this September.
Madonna House, a community of lay men and women and priests in Combermere, Ontario, was founded by Russian emigre and Catholic convert Catherine Doherty in 1947.
The two pillars of Madonna House charism are communality — or what Elizabeth Bassarear, the apostolate’s director general of women, calls “incarnational living” — and “poustinia,” the Russian word for desert and Doherty’s word for a retreat into silence and fasting.
The Ottawa House of Prayer was founded in 1974 as a house of “poustinia.”
“It’s a place where people can come to speak about God, be listened to and encounter God in the 24-hour, prayer and silence experience,” Bassarear told The Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper based in Toronto.
Over the years, the Madonna House Apostolate has established mission houses, or “field houses,” throughout Canada and internationally. The first was opened in Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon territory, in 1954.
Father David Linder, director general of Madonna House priests, noted the Ottawa house was “the most pure poustinia house” of the satellite communities.
“Poustinia houses are just one expression of the kinds of missions that we have. The houses in the Prairies have been very engaged with the urban poor, operating soup kitchens. Other missions are focused on catechesis,” he said.
There has been a variety in the character of each house, but also, Father Linder said, “an ebb and flow in the opening and closing of missions.”
“Twenty years ago, we had five more missions than we have now. We can’t keep all of the missions open. We listen carefully over the course of years, not just days or weeks, about how we need to distribute our limited resources,” he added.
However, this is not the standard tale of another religious community in decline.
The apostolate has a total of 188 members worldwide, the majority of whom are in Combermere; 126 are residents there and 12 of them are priests.
Madonna House has recently built a new kitchen addition to the main house in Combermere,
“because we believe God wants us to continue and he is still sending people,” Bassarear said.
For most of its 50 years, Madonna House Ottawa was a two-person operation, and for all of those 50 years, consecrated laywoman Arlene Becker was there.
Truly a “poustinia in the marketplace,” the work of Becker and the house included not only welcoming the many who came seeking a place of silence, but also praying outside the abortion clinic on Bank Street in Ottawa, and the distribution of holy cards to the trick-or-treating children of the neighborhood at Halloween.
Becker, now elderly and unable to manage the demands of running a retreat house, has taken up residence in Combermere.
The apostolate needs “to balance accompanying the elderly members of the community while maintaining a place for younger people to come,” said Bassarear.
Anna Farrow is a staff writer for The Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper based in Toronto that covers all of Canada.