Spirit of Carmel spent an afternoon amidst the tangible love and faith which abounds in the Coderre home – a time filled with abundant joy and much laughter with the Coderre family. We spoke with Homer and Bertha Coderre, as well as their daughter, Sister Mary Jeanne Coderre, a Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.
Spirit of Carmel: How did the two of you first meet each other?
Homer: One day when my Dad returned from deer hunting in New Brunswick, Canada, he told me of a girl who lived on a 150 acre farm there. He said, “That girl can even milk cows.” Since I was a country boy, I thought that was great and I decided that I wanted to get to know that girl. My father had asked her if she would like to correspond and be a pen pal with his daughters. I overheard this, and still quite impressed with this girl who could milk cows, got her address from one of my sisters and wrote her a letter asking if she would like to be my pen pal. I sent a photo along with the letter. By return mail, she responded and that was the beginning of a long relationship. Bertha and I recently celebrated our 70th wedding anniversary!
Bertha: We were pen pals for about a year during 1938. In 1939, there was a big Sportsmen’s Show in Boston with a special round trip train fare that would let me travel from my home in New Brunswick, Canada to Boston (about 500 miles) for ten dollars. I arranged to meet Homer in the train station and told him I would be wearing a maroon coat and hat. He found me and met me with a kiss. A year and a half later, we were married and made our home in Auburn, Massachusetts.
Spirit of Carmel: Your daughter became a Carmelite Sister. Tell us about your family.
Homer: Religion was always a very important part of our lives. Both Bertha and I were baptized and raised Catholic. I was an altar boy. We were married at Sacred Heart Church in New Brunswick, a little country church. Our son Joseph was born the next year and Sister Mary Jeanne the following year.
Bertha: We lived out in the country and the priest came only on Sundays. Our little Church was across the river from our house, and we would often cross the river in our little boat to attend Mass. I never saw a Catholic nun until I met Homer’s sister, Sister Mary Cyril, RSM. Sister Mary Jeanne: I have many memories of visiting my aunt at her convent when I was still very small. To be a Sister was one of the many things on my list of life’s choices when I grew up. During my high school years, many other choices took precedence although I don’t think that the desire ever left my heart.
Spirit of Carmel: When did your daughter first show signs of a religious vocation?
Homer: When Sister Mary Jeanne was only five years old, she would come home from catechism class and invite all the non-Catholic children over to teach them what she had learned in class.
Bertha: Sister Mary Jeanne learned to love God at a very young age. One day when she was three or four, Homer was composting our trash. He was burying a large stuffed dog that he had removed the wheels from to use for one of his many projects. Sister Mary Jeanne was watching and she asked, “Daddy, will the dog go to heaven?” Homer replied, “No, only people go to heaven.” Sister Mary Jeanne thought for a moment and then with a twinkle in her eye responded, “Wouldn’t it be a good trick on God if it did!”
Spirit of Carmel: Tell us about your move from Auburn, Massachusetts to West Covina, California?
Homer: I liked Auburn very much, but I made a comment that I would like to see California before I died. At the time, work was slow and I thought I might be laid off. My sister and her husband moved to California, and we decided to do the same. Joe was eleven and Sister Mary Jeanne was ten years old. We arrived in California in December of 1953.
Bertha: With the two children and our dog we drove to California. Our new home was in West Covina in the San Gabriel Valley. That is where we still live.
Spirit of Carmel: How did Sister Mary Jeanne let you know about her vocation?
Homer: One night she asked me if I was in a good mood. She asked if I had any objections to her entering the convent. “Whatever is going to make you the happiest in this life is what will make me the happiest,” I remember telling her. After she entered the convent, I can say that I have never, ever, ever had a day when she did not radiate with happiness when we saw her. Some of our good friends didn’t understand how we could allow her to go into a convent. All I could think of was, “Well, my daughter is married to Christ, and she will always be happy. When a woman gets married, she sometimes experiences great unhappiness in her marriage. I know that my daughter made a wise choice and she has always been happy.”
It was interesting to me, that although I had no objection to her entering the convent, the first time I saw her after she had entered, I got the strangest feeling. My stomach did flip flops. It did something to me to see her wearing that postulant uniform. To see her transformed like that, it was then that the realization came.
Sister Mary Jeanne: In my senior year of high school, the Carmelite Sisters joined the teaching staff, and I remember so well the first time I met Sister Mary Gonzaga, my Spanish teacher. The thought involuntarily crossed my mind that if I ever entered the convent, this is the order I would choose. Some of my classmates and myself signed up to volunteer in the junior auxiliary at the Sacred Heart Retreat House, where we met more Carmelite Sisters, novices and postulants.
After graduating from high school, I attended a local junior college and became friends with a young lady named Carol who was going to join the Carmelite Sisters. One day, she asked me if I would like to go “along for the ride” when she visited the Vocation Directress of the Carmelite Sisters. I loved being with the Sisters and readily accepted. This time the twinkle was in God’s eye! After we arrived, my friend Carol went off with the Vocation Directress, and I was enjoying visiting with the Sisters. Sister Rosemary came to tell me that the Mother Superior wanted to see me in her office!
My name before entering Carmel was Carolyn, and at the Retreat House the sisters always called me Carol. When the Superior sent Sister to call Carol (the girl with the vocation), she called me by mistake! I was very shy and told Sister that I was sure that the Mother Superior did not want to see me. Sister answered that she did! I repeated with emphasis that I was sure she didn’t want to see me. Sister remained confident that she did! When we arrived at the Superior’s office, I told Sister, “Well, even if she wants to see me, I don’t want to see her!” Sister gently opened the door and ushered me inside.
After speaking with the Mother Superior for a little while, the Vocation Directress came in and with an astonished look on her face said, “You have the wrong Carol!” The Superior smiled and calmly responded, “This one is going to enter, too!” Carol and I did enter together, and then Carol left six days later.
Bertha: I wasn’t surprised. She would always be helping people, attending church even more frequently than we did, and Homer and I would notice her slipping away to her room to pray. She had a statue of the Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Grace and a picture of St. Therese, the Little Flower in her room. The statue of Our Lady glowed in the dark. We brought them from Massachusetts.
We know that she is happy, and it seems that anyone who meets her always remarks how fortunate we are to have a daughter like her. Sister Mary Jeanne has done a lot of things over her 50 years as a Carmelite. She worked many years as an x-ray and nuclear medicine technologist, worked in the schools where the Carmelite Sisters serve, and is currently administrator of Little Flower Educational Child Care in Los Angeles. She is also the archivist of the Community. We are very proud of her.
Sister Mary Jeanne: When God invites one to the unspeakable joy of being His Spouse, He gently removes all obstacles. My shyness would definitely have been an obstacle to my inquiring about entering Carmel on my own, yet such was His love that He arranged it for me! This has been the story over and over throughout my religious life. God takes our desire to give Him the little that we have, and He returns it one-hundred fold.
I have been blessed beyond recounting. My beloved parents have been supportive of everything that I have done. Their example of love and fidelity has inspired me in my own perseverance in my wonderful religious vocation as a spouse of Jesus Christ and a Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. w
On July 14, 2011, Homer and Bertha celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary , and Sister Mary Jeanne’s Golden Jubilee of 50 years as a Carmelite Sister is coming soon, June 29, 2012.
Article originally appeared in Fall 2011 edition of Spirit of Carmel