Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian

For four decades, an old brick house with a wide porch in downtown Roanoke has been, as it calls itself, a “visible prayer presence” for the people of the diocese — and anyone who visits. Since opening its blue front door on May 31, 1979, the Feast of the Visitation, Madonna House has served as a place of prayer and listening and home to a Catholic community whose consecrated lives are spent in prayer and service. 

Madonna House in Roanoke was honored at a Mass of Thanksgiving at Our Lady of Nazareth Parish, Thursday, June 20, with Bishop Barry C. Knestout presiding. Pictured from left: Roanoke member Jean Doucet, Larry Klein and Elizabeth Bassarear, directors from Canada, and Marie Therese McLaughlin, director in Roanoke. (Photo/Karen Melendez)

To honor the 40-year anniversary of the Madonna House Roanoke Foundation, Bishop Barry C. Knestout presided at a Mass of Thanksgiving on Thursday, June 20 at Our Lady of Nazareth (OLN) Parish. Priests, deacons and seminarians from the area, along with local Madonna House members Marie Therese McLaughlin and Jean Doucet, and their directors from Canada, Father David Linder, Elizabeth Bassarear and Larry Klein, attended.

Also present were members of area Benedictine, Carmelite, Dominican, Franciscan and Cursillo communities.

“Today we celebrate the presence of Madonna House in this community,” said Bishop Knestout. “And we express gratitude for their love, hospitality, prayer, spiritual direction and sacrifice.”

At the conclusion of Mass, the Madonna House members stood and sang “Rejoice Virgin Mary” a cappella to give thanks. 

McLaughlin explained that it is a Russian song, essentially the “Hail Mary,” introduced by Madonna House foundress Catherine Doherty, who was born and raised in Russia. 

“This is a song we sing in our community; I’ve sung it for the 45 years I’ve been a member of Madonna House,” McLaughlin said later. 

Many people told her after the Mass that they began to cry during that song. 

“It’s a beautiful song, but they also said that to see all of us standing up there, men and women together, and a priest among us, was very moving,” she said.

‘Nazareth spirituality’

Before and after Mass, visitors paged through thick albums full of images of the past 40 years that were displayed in the narthex. A large reception was held in the fellowship hall following the Mass.

 “It was a celebration of joy of our Christian community,” said McLaughlin. 

She was touched that so many people attended, including a non-Catholic woman who had grown up near the house and who said she had always felt welcome there as a child.

“Ours is a Nazareth spiritualty,” she explained. “Just like Jesus, Mary and Joseph; they lived together in their family life for the glory of God.” 

Madonna House in Roanoke is one of more than 20 such houses around the world. The organization was founded in 1947 in the village of Combermere, Ontario, by Doherty (1896-1985), a secular Franciscan who had fled Russia during the Revolution. She sought to serve God through serving the poor and marginalized people she saw around her.

The Madonna House Apostolate includes laypeople and priests who make a lifetime promise of poverty, chastity and obedience. McLaughlin explained that some people are simply called to this life — a unique Catholic community that welcomes men and women.

At the Roanoke location, there have been solely women. Usually a local director and two other women live at the local house, and they come and go as they are assigned by the main training center in Combermere. 

McLaughlin has been the director for four of the seven years she has been in Roanoke. Doucet, who recently celebrated 25 years as a Madonna House member, has been in Roanoke for four years. A third woman will arrive soon.

“We usually don’t know each other ahead of time,” McLaughlin explained, adding that part of their apostolate is learning to live in community. 

Every day members celebrate Mass and spend time in prayer, including recitation of the rosary. Once a week, members have a private, day-long retreat, or “poustinia” (“desert” in Russian) for fasting, prayer, reflection and quiet time with God. Poustinia rooms are also available to the public for a day of silence and solitude. 

Every Madonna House has a blue front door. 

“It’s the house of Our Lady,” McLaughlin said. “Everyone who comes through one of the blue doors receives a special blessing from her.”

‘A call to trust’

All Madonna House members live “by the grace of God” through donations, McLaughlin said. There are regular financial gifts from benefactors, and other donations, such as food from friends and sometimes from strangers, who often become friends. Volunteers help around the property.

Members maintain vegetable gardens for food, and other items often simply appear. 

“If we are doing God’s work, he will provide whatever we need,” McLaughlin said.

She told the story of how when she helped to open a house in Michigan years ago, she tacked a list of needed items to the refrigerator door: grains, lentils, beans, oatmeal and milk. It was 10 p.m., she was the only one there and she went to bed. 

“By 6 a.m. all those things were on the back porch, but nobody else had seen that list,” she said. She never learned who brought them.

“This life is the call to trust,” McLaughlin said.

‘Visible prayer presence’ 

The house at 828 Campbell Ave. SW, built around 1897, once served as the convent for the nuns from Our Lady of Nazareth Parish next door.

“It really adds something to the Roanoke Catholic community,” said Father Ken Shuping, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Salem, who concelebrated the Thanksgiving Mass. 

He noted that, by celebrating Mass and offering poustinia, in addition to simply welcoming visitors, “Madonna House is a visible prayer presence. It gives people a chance to come together to talk about spiritual matters.”

Madonna House in Roanoke is not an agency, McLaughlin explained, although some locations have soup kitchens and other food offerings. Because the house is flanked by Roanoke Area Ministries (RAM) on one side and St. Francis House food pantry on the other, those in need are directed there. 

But if someone simply needs a listening ear and a prayer, they are welcome to sit and visit. 

“It’s so important for people to realize that they don’t have to do huge things,” said McLaughlin. “Just do little things well for the love of God.”