Mary “Mamie” Legris was once asked about the single most important lesson she’d learned from several decades of travel, which brought her all over the world from Pakistan to Honduras to Russia to open missions of Madonna House.
“Always carry a bottle opener,” she told a friend, remembering a time when she was stuck in Bangkok overnight, under curfew, unable to drink the water or open the pair of beers she had in her room.
It was the kind of practical-mindedness Legris was known for.
The long-time Whitehorse resident, devout Catholic and former director of Maryhouse passed away in Combermere, Ont. on March 27, just four days shy of her 99th birthday.
For years, she welcomed a constant stream of visitors to her small home on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Cook Street.
Barbara Evans would visit her for tea and toast in the early ‘90s, and would seek advice about raising children. They would talk about spirituality, life, the world and just about anything in between.
“She always had encouraging words, she was a great listener,” Evans said.
“She made me feel like I could continue on parenting, and that everything would be alright. We all know people in our lives who inspire us in some way to be better human beings, and Mamie was one of those people.”
Evans recalled when she wanted to make some extra money, so began to sell roses in bars during the evening.
It was good money, but she was nervous about it. Legris hatched a plan to help her get through those Friday nights.
“I’d go over to her home around 9 p.m., when it was a bit slow, for tea and toast,” she said.
“One time, she took me into the chapel and asked God to protect me, because it was a bit of a rough crowd on those nights. She also asked him to help me sell all my roses.
“I remember saying, ‘I don’t think we’re allowed to ask God for that,’ and she said, ‘Oh no, we can ask God for anything we want.”
Evans even made a few trips to see Legris in Combermere after she’d moved back there in 1997.
She always wanted to know what was going on in the Yukon, and how everyone was doing up here, Evans said.
And despite her illnesses – she became increasingly deaf and blind over the years – it never stopped her from writing letters to friends and relatives around the world.
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It was the early 1950s, after teaching in the Ottawa area for 17 years, when Legris realized that God was her calling.
Catherine Doherty, the Roman Catholic social worker who founded the Madonna House Apostolate to serve the poor, assigned Legris as director of Maryhouse in Whitehorse, where she was part of a group that opened shelters for men and women.
Over the course of several weeks in the spring of 1954, Legris drove across the country with two other members, stopping along the way to give talks and ask for supplies.
They collected cupboards, beds, mattresses and other furniture, which they packed on the back of a Chevrolet 1300 truck.
“The Alaska Highway wasn’t what it is today,” said close friend and former Maryhouse director Trudy Moessner.
“They were basically driving through dust the whole way.”
In Whitehorse, Legris lived in a home that had “quiet rooms” in the basement, also known as poustinias, where people from all walks of life could come and spend time away from the world.
It was like an oasis, according to Truska Gorrell.
“To visit Mamie at her home, a visitor could feel a sense of space, of entering a humble and loving world within the busy city of Whitehorse,” she wrote.
Evans and Gorrell both spent time in Legris’ home when they needed to recharge their spiritual batteries.
“I remember one young man, who Mamie and I both knew, who was struggling with addictions, the justice system and his family,” Gorrell wrote.
“Society had almost written him off but Mamie’s door was always open to him, she cared about him, she prayed for him and her loving care was always a support for him.”
Renee Alford first met Legris in 1955.
She remembers her as a warm, caring woman who contributed to the region by helping the poor and “showing what a lay apostle is called to do by her example and dedicated service to the parishioners.”
“She was my friend and I’m grateful for what she did for me and my family,” Alford wrote.
“But I was also inspired by what her vocation and work represented for the development of important new concepts in the life of the Catholic church.”
After 10 years in Whitehorse, Legris became a trusted member of Madonna House and was sent all over the world to scout and open mission homes.
She visited the West Indies, Israel, Peru and the Middle East, among other places, and always befriended local residents despite the language barrier.
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Legris moved back to the territory around 1989, which is when Moessner first met her.
At her 75th birthday party, Legris was asked what she wanted to do.
“She said she wanted to go snowmobiling, which she had never done,” Moessner said, so they took her to Haines Junction for the day.
On the ride back to Whitehorse, Moessner asked her if she’d had a good day.
“Yes, it was fabulous, but I didn’t get to drive one,” Legris answered.
For several years, they would often go on camping trips together.
They drove up the Dempster Highway and camped at Lapie Canyon near Ross River one summer.
Father Pierre Veyrat, a French Oblate priest who had accompanied them, shot a moose one day and Legris cooked up delicious steaks the same evening, Moessner said.
Legris would sleep in the back of their old silver GMC Suburban on a foam mattress, a space she called the ‘Hilton suite.’
“One night we were above the Arctic Circle, camping in a tent while Mamie was in the Hilton, and she said she’d been awake all night keeping guard for bears,” Moessner said.
“When you were with her, you were the most important person in the world. She always said the deepest deprivation was loneliness, and people need friends.”
Moessner said she’s met plenty of women who have stayed at the Maryhouse in the later stages of pregnancy, and even for a short period after their babies were born.
She’s asked them what it was like to spend that time in a cramped room with other women, babies and young children.
“One woman said it was a holiday,” Moessner said.
“‘Mamie looked after us with so much love, treated me like a queen and cooked these fabulous meals. I didn’t get that at home.’”
Contact Myles Dolphin at