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Canadian Saints


"Canadian Saints" is a collection of essays on the lives of the fourteen canonized Canadian saints, written by fourteen contemporary Canadian authors of diverse background and a common faith.


saintsgayI grew up in a Catholic family, in a working class Catholic neighbourhood in New England where there were two parish churches less than ten minutes walk from each other.  One parish was largely Irish and Italian and the other completely French Canadian.  Each parish had its own convent, elementary school and high school.  Many of the Sisters in each convent had grown up in the neighbourhood, returning from their formation in Kentucky or Quebec to teach in the very schools they had attended a few years before.  Parishioners frequented both churches regularly and in large numbers.  The parish priests — no less than five in each rectory — knew their people well, and stood by them in times of poverty, war and the sorrows that have ever been a part of family life.  New jobs and new babies were celebrated around the neighbourhood; and immigrant parents and grandparents looked on proudly as they saw their offspring making their way forward, going off to college and new jobs that would have seemed impossible not that long before.  It was a good time and place to grow up in.  There was nothing idyllic about it; it was simply "home."  And a series of unspoken but important alliances existed between the two church groups.  If you had a misunderstanding with a parish priest or your child got in trouble once too often at the parish school, you would simply attend the other church while tempers "cooled down" and details were forgotten.  The French always made their "up the Avenue" to go to confession to the Irish priests, who didn't I know them and couldn't understand their thick accents; the Irish wandered down to the French parish for the same reason.  Confessional lines were sometimes long, but the penances were short and everyone left happy.

The Irish church, Saint John the Evangelist, was large and imposing, rebuilt in the early 1960s after a devastating fire had destroyed its earlier incarnation.  With its large rectory and parking lot, St. John's sat majestically atop a great wide staircase on a large avenue.  It was stately and beautiful within, its few statues of cool white marble, its windows rich with Tiffany tones.  It was only open on Sundays, so it was always somewhat remote and formal.  There was a basement church for daily Masses and the CCD children's Mass on Sunday; this was always open and usually had at least a few ladies, shopping bags beside them, praying the rosary at all hours.

The "French Church," for that was its usual title, was also large and beautiful, but also somehow cozier and even richer in colour.  It was built on ground-level of golden-yellow brick and surrounded by bushes, grass and trees.  Its twin square towers and Romanesque façade, seemed transported directly from France.  Rising up in the park in front of the main entrance was a massive stone statue of Saint Joan of Arc, clad in armour, with her battle flag in one hand and a sword in the other.  With her face raised towards heaven, she seemed both reassuring and very dramatic.  The French parish had grown from being a backstreet three-story wooden building with church, school and convent stacked one above the other, into an entire block of fine parish buildings, surrounded by the homes of its faithful.  Inside the church, tall pillars were painted to look like marble, and shining wooden pews were lovingly waxed by mothers and grandmothers who were always dropping in "for a Visit."  When the people of our neighbourhood looked around at their churches, built with their own offerings and often their own labours, they understood that the Faith they had was real and close and that no matter how long ago they had left "home," they weren't that far after all.  They had their God and they had their family, they had a future to look forward to and they had an Eternity awaiting them.

And so it was there at the French Church that I first met the saints and they became my friends.  Its high walls were frescoed with clusters of saints, gathered into groups of "Virgins and Holy Women, Monks, Martyrs, Founders, Missionaries," like children lining up in a schoolyard, all processing towards the sanctuary and, presumably heaven.  Their names, too were painted beneath their figures as they hurried on their way.  The panels converged on the mosaic in the half dome above the sanctuary, which showed the Sorrowful Mother, "Notre Dame de Pitié," — the parish's true name — holding the dead body of her Son.  On one side of the church, a life-size statue of Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary's mother and the Grandmother of Jesus held pride of place.  On the other, a huge painting of Saint Joseph dying in bed, with Mary beside him and Jesus holding him against His chest arrested everyone's attention.  Joseph had rough hands and swollen knuckles like the working men who knelt in the pews.  And Jesus, looking no less a Working Man, wore a thick brown robe — clearly indicating that He was "at home" with His Family.  Racks of votive lamps stood before all the side altars and shrines and everyone lit candles to honour their favourite saints and remind them of their intentions.  The saints seemed very near too, for there were many parishioners who had personal stories: miracles at St. Anne de Beaupré or family tales of grandparents who had met "Frere André" and been healed by Saint Joseph's Blessed Oil.  Small bottles of the oil, brought back from the Oratory at Mount-Royal, were carefully stored in the bathroom medicine chest, next to the Lourdes Water.

My favourite part of the French church was its daily Mass chapel, a smaller attached edifice whose main altar was a recreation of the Lourdes Grotto.  And on the right side of the nave, most wonderfully of all, was a shrine to the missionary, Saint Peter Aloysius Chanel, whose Marist brethren staffed the parish.  The shrine was in the form of a glass-fronted sarcophagus that formed the altar; within was a life-sized reclining statue of the young saint, moments after his martyrdom.  Clothed in cassock, surplice and stole, a palm branch and an axe rested by his side; the only other sign of his violent death being a slight trickle of blood coming from his left temple.  He had a slight smile on his face, and a rosary and crucifix held close to his heart.


I was fascinated.  According to my mother, on my first visit as a four-year-old, I turned to her and asked, "Why is the priest sleeping under the altar? Doesn't he have his own room?" I am not sure how she answered at the time; but I was sure that I had a new friend.  We rang the rectory doorbell and asked the curé if he had an English life of the saint.  He happily obliged with a small booklet filled with coloured pictures, no doubt amused by the precocious reader.  As my mother helped me read through the booklet, I somehow understood that when Father Pierre-Louis went all the way around the world to be a missionary priest, it wasn't so much because he was naturally brave; it was because he wanted to do whatever His friend Jesus asked of him.  It was my first understanding of what saints are all about.

Throughout my school years — and I was a "public," not a parochial kid — I began reading any lives of the saints I could find, first in the family's volume of Butler's Lives of the Saints, edited and updated by Herbert Thurston, SJ and then in individual volumes that were available in abundance at that time.  It was the heyday of Catholic publishing; Vision Books and Image Books and other presses produced an incredible number of volumes of hagiography, biography, novels and essays.  Religious communities in Canada and the U.S. all seemed to have their own printing presses, each with an unending series of booklets, biographies and novenas dedicated to their holy men and women.  There was no end of variety in these saints' lives, each of them the same but uniquely different, all linked by one ideal, one Faith, and one Friend.

I heard Father Joseph Manton, C.Ss.R., a famous Redemptorist preacher whose radio novenas to Our Mother of Perpetual Help were still a staple of Wednesday night family life in many Boston homes, recommended calling the saints, "Friends of God and Friends of mine."  I agreed whole-heartedly.  The more I read, the more I was fascinated.  I had no problem figuring out what the role of the saints was: they were heroes and heroines, who did great things because they loved Christ with all their hearts; they were children of Mary who called everyone their "brothers and sisters."  They made a deep impression on people but it was never for their own sake.  The saints could all take John the Baptist's words as their own, "he must increase and I must decrease (Jn 3:30).  This is what I was taught and took to heart.

As I grew up, I began to realize how so many of these saints had changed the course of human history, sometimes in unmistakable ways that fill the pages of history books — like Joan of Arc in the 14th century and John Paul II in the 20th –while others in ways more subtle, nonetheless exercised a definitive influence on human culture long after their time and even far beyond the church — like Camillus de Lellis's nursing priests, the Ministers of the Sick who reformed health care and invented the symbolic Red Cross in the 15th century; or the many Foundresses of teaching orders of Sisters, including our own Marguerite Bourgeoys and Esther Blondin who revolutionized education for girls and women.

University and theological studies brought about new appreciation for and deeper insights regarding these extraordinary men and women.  I began to realize the deeper meaning of their place in the plan and providence of God who forms and fashions in each soul a living image of His Son; the saints are the outstanding masterpieces of the hand of God.  They are near to us, close and intimate, and yet they challenge us with their differences.  They are made of the same stuff we are; so we may rejoice in knowing that a saint shares our ethnicity, profession or even favourite foods (Francis of Assisi loved pastries covered in nuts), but we also know that they lived with a burning fire within.  Contrary to what some older biographers may have believed, we understand that they were usually not born saints.  Some of them only converted after years of riotous or even mediocre living.  Moved by grace, they made choices.  They preferred Christ to all else and turned towards Him and all whom He loves with great passion.  Their personalities were transformed by His, but they lost nothing of their individuality.  And since grace builds on our human nature, they were left marked by the personality traits, eccentricities and affinities of their own culture, experience and character.  There is much for us to learn from them.  Blessed Cardinal Newman once remarked on the deficiencies of the Saints' Lives of his time, "I would rather know of their vices and how they overcame them rather than just their virtues."  And therefore, we too may be glad to know of their foibles and weaknesses — Jean de Brébeuf was known in community as le vrai boeuf, an allusion, perhaps to his sometimes rough manner as well as his muscular frame [indeed, Gabriel Lalemant was evidently assigned as his companion in order to "balance" out his disposition]; and Brother André was known to be a little testy sometimes after a long day — but they never gave up in the battle within themselves; they surrendered only to Christ Jesus.

The more we read of their accomplishments, the more we realize that these are but indications of interior achievements, inner discoveries and victories that make them more and more transparent, more and more capable of union with God and the capacity to reveal God's presence and peace to others.  As Father Thomas Dubay, S.M.  put it:

Saints are not only more noble and generous than the lesser of us.  Each of them has had, said Saint Paul to the Ephesians, "a spiritual revolution" (4:23).  They are splendid because they are profoundly in love and with no reservations, both with God and then with their families and neighbors in him.  With no least desire to impress others, their heroic choices and actions flow from an inner fire, whose only source can be the Holy Spirit.  And they place no impediments to its ignition.  Their persevering and heroic fidelity in turn enables them to grow to their remarkable contemplative intimacies with Triune Beauty.

The 14 Canadian Saints canonized to date and featured in this book have all shared in this experience of an interior "spiritual revolution."  They are radicals in the truest sense of the word for all fell madly in love with the Word Made Flesh and as a result, committed themselves heart and hand, body and spirit, to the greatest good of their fellow men and women, building up the Church of Christ in this new and sometimes daunting world.  All but one date to the very origins of our nation and the foundations of our Church.  Four of them are considered "Founders of the Church" in Canada: Saint Marguerite Youville, Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, Saint Francois de Laval and Saint Marie de l'Incarnation; while eight offered their lives for the evangelization of the New Land, and are known as both the Canadian Martyrs and (in the United States) the North American Martyrs.  Saint Kateri represents in herself the fruits of their labours and the contemplative soul of the Native Peoples of the New World.

In reading the essays that make up this volume, we not only rediscover the great deeds and heroic sacrifices of these holy men and women; we also recognize gratefully their human traits and characteristics that make holiness possible for us to see and imagine for ourselves.  Such anecdotes are not used to prove heroic sanctity — the Church has clear categories for that purpose — but they do prove the humanity of these servants of God, which is of vital importance for us.  We cannot see the presence of Christ in His friends if He does not radiate and shine through their human nature.  Christ makes holiness attractive by making holy people attractive to us.  Visitors to the Curé d'Ars, Saint John Vianney, returned home saying, "I saw God in a man."  And the same thing holds true for each and every one of His saints.

As we ponder the trials and sufferings of our Canadian Martyrs and reflect on the cultural difficulties and inevitable misunderstandings that contributed to their tragic and painful deaths, it delights us to know that many of the Native people were charmed by the laughter of Charles Garnier and that his beardless face endeared him to them because he looked more like themselves than his grizzled companions.  When we read these early accounts, Isaac Jogues is revealed not just as supernatural in his sufferings and heroic in charity, but also superbly human in his grief at the death of Rene Goupil.  Jogues' tears as he wept over his friend's broken remains and his courage in burying them in the ravine of Auriesville remain deeply impressed in our hearts 350 years later.  The saints may well be represented by stone statues; they refuse to be imprisoned within them.  They are flesh and bone like us, and like Christ Himself.

It surely does not lessen the holiness of the mystic Marie de l'Incarnation to see her dancing with her schoolchildren in the courtyard of the Ursuline convent in Quebec; it is reassuring.  Marguerite Youville's integrity and sense of justice in standing up to a bishop who accused her of mismanagement belies any false image of the silent and always obedient nun; she is empowering.  The great bishop, Francois de Laval, was both an intrepid apostle and a gifted organizer; he must be remembered and celebrated for his great deeds and wisdom.  Yet it is no disrespect to believe that he was probably remembered most kindly and gratefully by those who benefitted from his habit of rising early to lay the fires before his household set foot on icy floors in the Quebec winters.

Every saint is a gift from Christ to His Church.  Each one manifests the genius of the Holy Spirit, who constantly surprises us with His wonders and creativity; yet we may also identify certain common characteristics among the saints of a certain time or nation.  The good seed is sown abundantly; the Spirit is not limited in sharing His charisms, so often several saints and holy people may be moved to respond to the needs of their age and circumstances.  As I said earlier, 13 of our Canadian Saints date back to the very beginning of our nation; they are founding mothers and fathers who established, organized and nurtured the Church with their sacrifices and even their deaths.  The contribution that they made in the times of colonists, settlers and pioneers required of them a combination of courage, generosity and creativity that was unique to the New World.  They saw needs that others did not see and they responded to them — immediately and wholeheartedly.  When Saint Marguerite Youville was canonized in 1959 by Pope John XXIII, he called her, "Mother of Universal Charity," a new title which was meant to indicate that she did whatever was needed for whomever was in need.  This was a fundamental aspect of her saintliness and a charism she entrusted to those who came after her.  We may note something similar in the 20th century's Brother André: a working man who understood his fellow working men and women.  He made himself available to everyone, offering his listening ear, an empathetic heart and a profound trust in his beloved Saint Joseph, the Workers' Saint.  With handfuls of religious medals and bottles of oil from a votive lamp, he taught his visitors that the caring and healing Christ was close at hand.

This small book you hold is an important introduction to these holy men and women who have gone ahead of us but remain ever present to the Church they love.  As we enter an age of "new evangelization" and accept the world's challenge to present the Gospel in sincere words and significant acts of loving service, they are powerful friends and wise teachers.  If you spend time with them, they will open their hearts to you and you to them.  They will help you to see the one Friend more clearly in all His goodness, truth and beauty.  You will not be disappointed.

May we invoke our Saints often and imitate them joyfully! 



saintsgaysmallFather John Horgan. "Foreword." from Canadian Saints (Ottawa, ON: Justin Press, 2015): 11-22.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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