Part chapel, part living room, Fredrick Schubert's 'friendship houses'
bring the Gospel to the gutters of Ottawa
BY DAVID MORRISON
Fredrick Schubert first met Anna three years ago,
when she walked into Schubert's Catholic "friendship house and drop-in center"
called Our Lady of His Mercy, and announced she was a witch.
"I think she hoped to shock me" Schubert said
of the encounter. "But I just reached over for two cups and said, 'Oh really,
I have never met a witch. Let's sit down and talk about it' "
Anna, who has since left her life as a prostitute,
is now seeking baptism in the Church for herself and her two children, joining
the growing crowd of people who entered Schubert's storefront haven looking for
one thing and walked out instead with Jesus Christ.
Evangelization, according to Schubert, consists in large part of "the constant
myriad of little things done well for love of God and love of neighbor."
Schubert should know. Over the past five years, he has taken this approach to
evangelization in two poor neighborhoods of Ottawa, making a space where Anna
and those like her can experience, hands-on, God's kingdom.
"We really exist to bring the message of the Divine Merry - who Jesus is - to
those who need to hear it the most," Schubert told Our Sunday Visitor. "We exist
to show the people in these places - the most marginalized, the most socially
stigmatized - that Jesus loves them, the Church loves them and we love them as well.
Our message is the Gospel we live among them."
Newcomers to Schubert's two Our Lady of His Mercy centers, which are really just
storefronts on shabby streets, often have a hard time at first comprehending just
what sort of places these are.
Clean, yet cluttered with the most amazing collection of Catholic devotional and
educational materials, the Wellington Street center, on Ottawa's West side,
stands out among the other businesses like a down in a line of bankers.
But inside, the curious atmosphere of living room and chapel invites even world-weary
reporters to sit down, relax and study the shrines to Mary, Joseph and the Divine Mercy
that take up three of the four walls.
"Some people just come in and want something to eat," Schubert explained, "and so we
fill that need and perform that corporal work of mercy. But whether they come in at
first for soup or coffee or conversation, they get it under the eyes of Our Lady.
And many, eventually, begin to ask questions."
Schubert, a convert from the Lutheran church who lives somewhat precariously in a
small apartment above the west-side center, felt called to open the centers after
working and living with the Madonna House community, founded by the indefatigable
Catholic and Russian émigré, Catherine de Hueck Doherty.
"The centers are really a continuation of her work in the friendship-house apostolate,
which she began in the 1920s," Schubert said. "It was really her vision for a lay-run,
direct-access apostolate, situated right on the street, where people who need it most
can most easily find it".
Doherty's work and his experience at Madonna House inspired him to invest his centers
with something he calls "Nazareth spirituality," which he defines as an emphasis on
poverty, simplicity, ordinariness and hiddenness.
"We live in the neighborhood like the Holy Family lived in Nazareth - hidden, ordinary
and very much a part of the street life in front of the center, but crucially removed
from it as well," he said.
Schubert's approach has yielded striking results, though he is quick to credit the
Holy Spirit, more than his own efforts, for the lives he has helped remarkably change.
"We just make the space on the street and in our lives," Schubert said. "The Holy Spirit
decides how He wants to fill the space."
In addition to Anna, Schubert speaks with affection about Robert, a young man once so
addicted to crack cocaine that three times he was declared dead on emergency-room gurneys,
only to be revived again. Now, Robert is a graduate with the equivalent of an associate's
degree in engineering and has a steady job.
"God has a way of bringing us the people who need to here," Schubert said.
In addition to distributing food, offering space to Alcoholics Anonymous and other
12-step groups arid providing essential hospitality, the Our Lady of His Mercy centers
give people a place to pray.
Schubert schedules prayers twice a day, including the Divine Mercy chaplet every day
at 3 p.m. A schoolroom chalkboard takes up part of one wall, a place where visitors
can leave their prayer requests.
"The prayer times here are really the most extraordinary," Schubert said. "Praying
here is the first time that some of these people have ever prayed in public - and the
first time they have ever opened themselves to the possibility that perhaps someone
listens to their prayer."
And as if all this weren't enough, Schubert and his codirector, Bill McEachern, don't
even have to beg for the roughly $2,000 per month it takes to keep it all going, getting
no money from either the diocese or the city of Ottawa.
"Our Lady of His Mercy centers are entirely fumed by God and His providence," Schubert
said, "Everyday we pray for our daily bread and mean it in a very tangible and intimate
way. And everyday, in some way, God has provided. Even if it's the $300 I need slipped
under the door the night before I had to have it."
If there is anything Schubert tends to lack, its patience, particularly for a Church
which, he said, has "become spiritually poor" even as it has grown materially more
"This really isn't hard to do," he said, waving his arm expansively to take in the
small room and kitchen. "Every parish in North America could do it for a pittance and,
if we did, we would see the biggest Catholic revolution the world has ever seen."
"Really, people at the margins don't need a whole lot. Most of our work here consists
of being big brothers and sisters to them and bringing along big hearts. They just want
to be listened to. Here, we listen people into existence."
Morrison writes from Arlington, Va.
For more information, contact:
Our Lady of His Mercy,
1071 Wellington St. West,
Ottawa, Ontario, CAN K1Y 2Y2