On most weekdays people line up outside Edmonton's inner city Marian Centre before noon in search of free food or clothes.

PHOTO SUPPLIED

On most weekdays people line up outside Edmonton's inner city Marian Centre before noon in search of free food or clothes.

July 13, 2015
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Most days around noon one can see a long lineup of people, mostly men, waiting outside Edmonton's Marian Centre, 10528-98 St. They are there for the food and clothing that staff and volunteers will give them free of charge.

Whether it is stew or beef with vegetables, they eat with delight. For some, this is the best meal they will have all day.

The 11 people who run the operation – six women, four men, one priest – are members of the Madonna House Apostolate, a family of consecrated people who strive to incarnate the teachings of Jesus Christ by forming a community of love.

They come from all walks of life, from various countries and cultures, and have a wide variety of personalities and talents. They share a desire to serve God in a humble way of life. Their spirit is that of a family, modelled on the Holy Family of Nazareth -a community of perfect charity and love.

They live together in the U-shaped building, sharing joys and pains. About 15 volunteers come every day to help prepare and serve the meals and sort the clothes.

The poor have been flocking to the Marian Centre for 60 years and Madonna House will mark this milestone with an open house July 19 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald asked the group to come in 1955 to serve the transient population in Edmonton.

"We were invited here to serve the poor with the help of Edmontonians, and that's what we are still doing," says Miriam Stulberg, who has been with Madonna House since the early 1970s.

"We don't serve as many people as we did at one time because nowadays there are many groups serving the poor. When we started we were probably the only group serving the homeless population in this part of the city."

The Marian Centre serves anywhere from 100 to 200 people daily. Numbers are greater toward the end of the month. "We don't ask questions; we don't ask for papers. We really believe that Christ is in the breadline," Stulberg said.

Leadership of the community is shared by three people: a woman, a man and a priest. The men's house leader is Steve Heroux and the women's is Janet Bourdet. Father Tom Talentino is the chaplain.

To become a member of Madonna House, one can apply locally but most of the formation is imparted at the apostolate's headquarters in Combermere, Ont. It takes about seven years to become a full member.

Consecrated Life

At Madonna House, members don't make solemn vows as do members of religious orders but make promises of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The apostolate is under the authority of the bishop of Pembroke.

"We make these promises so we can be at the service of our brothers and sisters who are in need," explains Heroux.

Members wear ordinary street clothes. Their only distinguishing feature is a simple silver cross worn around their necks, with the inscription Pax Caritas, Latin for peace and love.

Life inside the community is orderly, but not regimented.

"We are religious people but our life is not cloistered," explained Heroux, 46. "We live here but we have some free time to go out and walk in the park or go to Churchill Square and see the events that happen there."

At 8:45 a.m., members gather for Morning Prayer and then have breakfast. Their day of work begins and is followed by lunch with the volunteers.

In the afternoon, after the volunteers have left, community members enjoy some free time before they gather again in the chapel at 5 p.m. for silent adoration and then Mass at 5:30 p.m. After supper they pray the rosary together which is followed by family time.

"We don't have like night prayer together as a community; anyone can go to bed at whatever time they want," explained Heroux.

EVANGELIZATION

Stulberg, who in 1998 was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, says the work at Marian Centre "is a great form of evangelization" because it reaches great numbers of people, from the poor in search of food and volunteers who want to help to grade school children who come to tour the facilities.

"It's very effective. It's the Gospel put into action, really. And you know what, when you touch the poor, it's you who are evangelized."

Heroux, a Quebec native, joined Madonna House in 1991 when he was 21. He had just finished college and decided to take a year to learn English and get ready for marriage.

He thought going to a community for a year would be a good way to do both. He had heard about Madonna House so he went there and never left.

"While I'm still learning English, I got married to Jesus Christ," he laughs.

UPS AND DOWNS

Life at Madonna House is like any life; it has its ups and downs. But Heroux believes Jesus wants him in this community, and he is happy to be part of it.

Miriam Stulberg and Steve Heroux are 2 of the 11 members of the Madonna House Apostolate who currently serve at Edmonton's Marian Centre.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Miriam Stulberg and Steve Heroux are 2 of the 11 members of the Madonna House Apostolate who currently serve at Edmonton's Marian Centre.

"I have come to see this community as my spouse if you want. Of course, I'm not married to anyone here. But they are my family, and they are the people I want to lay my life down for."

Heroux has served at local houses of Madonna House in Ontario, Brazil and Saskatchewan since he joined.

Stulberg, 68, is an American with a Jewish background. After finishing university she lived in Boston. She wanted to know if there was a God; in the process she began to get involved in radical politics.

"I realized I didn't know what I was doing, and I wanted to get away and really look at my motives."

She heard about Madonna House in rural Ontario. Although she knew nothing about the place, Stulberg took the bus to Combermere and realized the world she was looking for was being lived at Madonna House.

"People were trying to live in harmony rather than conflict, and somehow it was working," she explained.

"I realized that in the Madonna House spirit all you have to do is little things with love and the power of that goes out and touches the whole world."

That spoke to Stulberg, who was baptized at Madonna House in 1969 and took her first promises with the community in 1972.

"I found that life is with Christ and is a life no one can take from you ever."

Since joining Stulberg has been in leadership positions in several places, including Arizona, Saskatchewan, Ontario, France and Russia. She has been in Edmonton for seven years and is currently the community's bookkeeper.

Founded in 1947 by Catherine Doherty and her husband, Eddie Doherty, today Madonna House has more than 200 lay men, women, and priests in 18 houses in Canada, the U.S., Belgium, Russia and West Indies.