What a beautiful legacy:
For nearly half a century, Gérard Lafrenière was devoted to his wife, and, by all accounts, fulfilled his vows to love, honour and cherish her. Yet, he had another love, too.
In 2009, two years after his wife of 49 years, Gisèle Viau, died, Lafrenière fulfilled the vocation that had been with him since childhood. He became a Catholic priest, with his wife’s blessing.
“This is something that has been in my life for the past 65 years,” he told the Citizen on the day of his ordination. “You never know what the Lord has in store for you. I had to put it aside for a while and take a different avenue.”
On Saturday, three years after becoming a priest, Father Lafrenière’s died at the age of 83.
Those who knew him describe him as a modest but exceptional man who had a great gift for consoling others.
“He was very loved,” said his son Georges Lafrenière.
“He was the type of person who was always willing to listen to you, really listen,” said Leonard Larabie, a longtime member of the congregation of St. Joseph d’Orléans, who knew Lafrenière for nearly four decades. “He knew how to listen and how to comfort people.”
“He was a man with a very deep faith,” said Royal Galipeau, the Conservative MP for Ottawa-Orléans, who remembers Lafrenière signing his nomination papers when he entered politics in the 1980s.
“He didn’t care about promoting himself. He just fit himself in where he thought he was best needed.”
Even though Lafrenière officially retired in November when a liver ailment left him frail and shaky, he continued, unofficially, to used what energy he had left to take calls from the church and members of the congregation.
“He really worked until the end,” said his son Georges. “He was doing a lot of phoning from his bed.”
That, say friends, was typical. “He never retired,” said Larabie. “He was too busy. He just never slowed down.”
Even so, it took Lafrenière a long time to get to where he wanted to be. He grew up on a farm near Plaisance, Que., one of several children. He knew as a boy of nine or 10 that he had a vocation, he want to be a priest. When he was 14 he began studies at the Ottawa junior seminary, but left after less than three years because of poor health. He assumed he’d never be a priest.
Lafrenière eventually married, had children and embarked on a career in the insurance business. His faith, however, never dimmed. He kept the church at the centre of his life, serving as a deacon at the Parish of St. Joseph d’Orléans for almost 30 years.
His wife, Gisèle Viau, shared his faith, according to friends. And shortly before she died in August 2007, she urged him to fulfil his vocation.
“That story is true,” said Larabie. “I heard it from him personally. She understood. This man was in love with his wife all her life, but at the bottom of his heart he felt he was destined to be a priest.”
“They had a marriage that was full of love,” said Galipeau. “She certainly knew about his faith and his sense of vocation.”
After his wife’s death, Lafrenière’s friends reiterated her encouragement. He’d fulfilled his vows to his wife, they said, and now he should make other vows.
On March 25, 2009, Lafrenière was ordained by Archbishop Terence Prendergast at St. Joseph’s in Orléans. At the time, he was told that he was the first person his age in Ottawa to be ordained. Four days later, he held his first mass.
He was, it seems, a popular priest. The fact that he was married for so many years gave him insight that was unique among priests, says Debbie Guindon, who worked with Lafrenière to prepare couples for marriage.
The knowledge that comes with being a husband and father drew long lineups outside his confessional. “Everybody wanted to go to confession to him because he was very open and spiritual and he would really guide you in your confession,” Guindon said. “He was a good-hearted person. Very loving.”
About a week ago, the old priest finally slowed down. “I put my hand in his hand,” said his son, “and I said in his ear, ‘Daddy, it’s OK, you can go and see mom. I’m sure she’s waiting for you.’”
Visitation will be held Tuesday at Heritage Funeral Home, 2871 St. Joseph Blvd., from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Another visitation will be held at the Parish of St. Joseph d’Orléans on Wednesday at 9 a.m., followed by a Eucharistic celebration at 10 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Canadian Liver Foundation or to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
‘He really worked until the end…’ Oh, I pray that that may be said of me too.