CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG
Mother Mary Bernadette founded a new religious order, the Queenship of Mary.
When Alice Fougère had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ in 1998, she had no idea God's plans included her founding a new religious order.
"I was living a very ordinary life and all of a sudden I truly experienced the Lord," she said.
Now in consecrated life with a new name, Mother Mary Bernadette, 62, is the visionary leader of the Queenship of Mary, a new religious order in the Ottawa Archdiocese.
A lifelong Catholic, Mother Mary Bernadette recalls a childhood devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she shared with her mother. A regular Mass attender, she said she lacked a personal relationship with Jesus. Consequently, "my faith would be on and off."
Trained in the business world, she was on a work-related trip to Montreal in 1998 when she slipped into the city's majestic Mary Queen of the World cathedral where her encounter with God took place.
In a profound experience of prayer, she "realized the Lord was very much alive and supposed to be the centre of my life," she said. She began attending Mass an extra day a week and reading spiritual writings.
Reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux's The Story of a Soul launched her on "an intense spiritual journey." This journey led to much self-examination and a deepening prayer life. She also came across St. Theresa of Avila's writings.
These two Carmelite saints set the framework of the spirituality that would eventually inspire the Queenship of Mary, she said. St. Theresa of Avila is the new order's patron saint.
Early on in the journey, her "life took a turn" where her circumstances became "really hard," and she "went through a period of a lot of suffering because of my faith."
At this low point, she decided to follow St. Louis de Monfort's program of prayer for a 33-day consecration to the Blessed Mother. In fact, she did the consecration three years in a row and each time she was able to conclude the journey at a Marian pilgrimage site in Europe.
In 2003, she sensed God calling her to open a home in Halifax, for young women who were discerning a call on their life whether to be married, go into religious life or into consecrated single life.
At the time, she was working at Dalhousie University, running a centre at the business school she had created to help graduates and MBAs find jobs and make a successful transition to the work world.
Her home, Queenship House, attracted two young women the first year. She moved to a better location the second year and attracted four or five. The third year, they moved to a still larger house.
At Fatima in 2005, while deep in prayer, Mother Mary Bernadette had the words "now to be consecrated" impressed upon her.
She chose Ottawa for her new community. She visited then Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais to tell him about how her Catholic women's house was developing into a religious community and asked permission to set it up in his diocese. He said yes.
Ottawa attracted her because of the Companions of the Cross, a community of priests founded by Father Bob Bedard, she said. "A lot was happening there spiritually," she said of the nation's capital.
In Halifax, a Companions priest Father Ben St. Croix had been instrumental in supporting her vision for the new religious order. She at first thought her new order would work closely with the Companions.
In 2007, Gervais retired and the pope named her Halifax archbishop, Terrence Prendergast, as his replacement. She saw this as providential since Prendergast already knew them.
She arrived in Ottawa and began to work with a canon lawyer to create the constitution for the new order. The initial plan was to work closely with the Companions of the Cross. However, the Queenship of Mary's charism is to pray for all priests, she said. "We were thinking we were going one way, but the Lord was directing us in another way."
In 2007, to meet the requirements of canon law, Mother Mary Bernadette and four others enrolled in a novitiate program. Prendergast asked them to find a well-established religious institute community to take them into their program. The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary allowed the five to join their three novices in formation.
On March 26, 2012, the date of the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary that year, Prendergast blessed their habits and accepted their first vows. Soon, they bought a former Anglican rectory with money from an anonymous donor plus a loan from a credit union.
Five months later, on the feast of the Queenship of Mary, the archbishop led a Eucharistic Procession through the streets to the convent where Jesus was reposed in their new chapel, she said.
About 200 people accompanied the procession with lit candles and knelt on the lawn as Prendergast performed the Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament before going inside to the chapel.
On the Annunciation in 2014, the sisters will make their third profession of vows. A year later, they will be "perpetually professed," she said.
"Our charism is to pray for priests, to support them in the New Evangelization, to grow in personal holiness by living our vows and by extending ourselves generously to everyone by love," she said.
The community of five founding members hopes to eventually outgrow their present location. Mother Mary Bernadette's vision is to acquire 100 acres somewhere in the Ottawa Archdiocese and build a motherhouse with a chapel and retreat centre.
She hopes to establish perpetual adoration in the chapel as well as a fully-enclosed contemplative community within the Queenship of Mary community.
The community is now both contemplative and active. "The contemplative part leads to the active part," she said. The day starts at 5:30 a.m. and the sisters are in prayer by 6 a.m. Most of the morning is taken up with prayer, including Mass, adoration and praying the rosary.
In their active life, they help out at the parish, preparing the sacraments, visiting the sick, helping with the youth group, washing the linens. They have also become known for their hospitality, having put on receptions and lunches for conferences. They also attend pro-life activities in the diocese.
"We're prayer warriors," said Mother Mary Bernadette.