by Réjeanne George.
Fr. Paul Béchard died; we buried him yesterday. This morning, memories of him crowd my mind. I will miss him. But gratitude for him fills my heart, and I am happy for him that his passing was gentle and peaceful.
We go back a long way, Fr. Paul and I. In 1946, a year after his ordination, he was assigned to be the assistant in our parish. He arrived, his big Buick filled to overflowing with all sorts of suitcases and cartons.
And a pair of skis! No one in the tiny, prairie parish of Bellegarde, Saskatchewan, had ever gone skiing. They tut-tutted their disapproval.
And an assistant with a Buick! A car that was top of the line! Back in those days, many people in that area were still using horse and buggy. More tut-tutting, especially among the older people.
How would this French-Canadian priest make out in a parish full of immigrants from French-speaking Europe—a parish which had consistently refused French-Canadian pastors? I watched and listened with all the awed wisdom of my thirteen years.
Fr. Paul not only survived, he conquered. He took on the young people and in so doing, he had their parents and grandparents eating out of his hand.
And he managed to accomplish so much in his ten years there: an outdoor skating rink, marriage preparation courses, the introduction of Catholic Action (the Young Christian Students and the Young Christian Farmers), a much needed parish hall. The list could go on and on.
He was always on the move attending every local event, and he was welcome in every home.
He was my confessor and confidant. I told him about the yearnings of my heart, and he talked about the personal love of Jesus. I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.
Eventually he was made pastor, and after a time, he burned out.
At about that time, I was part of the contingent of two cars which went with Fr. Paul to Quebec for the meetings of the French-speaking Young Christian Students.
On that trip, we stopped at interesting places where the laity were involved in Church life—including Madonna House. When he and I later exchanged views about the place, we discovered that we saw it very differently. I had been touched and impressed by a surprising sense of family; he couldn’t wait to get away.
I sensed I was being led to a different call from that of marriage. But where and what? It was an agonizing time. I decided to go to Combermere for three weeks of summer school.
Fr. Paul knew that he was dangerously exhausted, but he couldn’t think where to go for a rest.
While saying Mass one day, he suddenly realized he should go to Combermere. My being there, however, complicated things. Would people think he had come chasing after me?
When he talked it over with his housekeeper, she simply said, "Just leave it in my hands. I’ll take care of everything." And she did.
So with the blessing of his bishop, Fr. Paul went to Madonna House for a week—and then for a year. Eventually, he became a member. And so did I.
Those were pioneer days. Nothing felt clear. Nothing felt secure. Catherine herself was groping on many levels. We kept growing and communally groaning under the impact of it all. Fr. Paul was no exception.
He and I were grateful for each other’s presence, but we went weeks on end exchanging no more than a few words, usually dealing with news from home. Someone else was my spiritual director.
Fr. Paul worked as a carpenter alongside the laymen, and he became a wonderful companion for them—a worker priest par excellence.
Also, our priests often said Sunday Mass in the surrounding parishes, and Fr. Paul quickly became acquainted with almost everyone in the valley. He was friend, confessor, carpenter, farmer, spiritual director, and Mr. Fix-It.
Assignments to various of our houses followed, and his gift for making friends was a blessing wherever he went. He was warm, generous, welcoming, and so non-threatening.
He knew what it was to be human, and he exuded God’s mercy without knowing it, sometimes in funny, delightful ways.
In the mid-1990s, Fr. Paul became a poustinik and moved into one of the cabins on the island. Not too long after that, with the arrival of health difficulties, my life changed radically, and I too realized what had always been inside of me: a vocation to the poustinia.
So we ended up being neighbors on the island. Fr. Paul looked out for me—very respectfully and very brotherly—and I looked out for him.
But now for a few years he had been living at our Lady of the Visitation, the wing at St. Mary’s for elderly members needing care. His move there had been excruciating, but he took it on valiantly. It was, after all, the Lord’s will.
A couple of weeks ago, just before I left for holidays with my family, I visited Fr. Paul and asked him what I should say when people asked for him. Even now, fifty-five years after he left Bellegarde, Saskatchewan, whenever I went home on holidays, people would ask for him.
"Tell them I think of them and pray for them daily," he said.
It was while I was on this vacation that I was told of the death of Fr. Paul.
Each of us when we die has a saying carved into the cross which marks our grave. For his cross, Fr. Paul had requested, "All yours."
On his memorial card were the words, A shepherd after My own heart (Jer 3:15).
As I was musing on his life, the words that came to me were: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Mt 5:5). What "the earth" specifically means in that context, I do not know. What I do know is that Fr. Paul’s life was rich in love. Few people I have ever known, loved and were loved as much as he was.
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