Charles Lavoie, newly ordained as a priest at Our Lady of Peace Church in Peace River in 1991.
I was born at the McLennan hospital on April 3, 1962, the sixth child of Edouard Lavoie and Emerentienne (Mimi) Dubrule. Not long after my arrival, our family moved onto the home quarter four miles south of McLennan where my parents still reside. I have five older sisters and three who are younger than I. All are married. The family is continually growing with twenty-five nephews and nieces and at the start of 2017, there are forty-three great nephews and nieces and one on the way.
I attended École Providence in McLennan from grades one to nine and completed my high school at Georges P. Vanier School in Donnelly, graduating in 1980. I did not have a real sense of what I wanted to do as a career. In the late summer following graduation, I was hired as the parts person at the Rainbow Alfalfa plant in Falher. I was employed there for four years. From there, I was off to the seminary in Ottawa.
What might have provoked my journey to the priesthood? Certainly, my family upbringing is at the heart and core of it all. Sunday Mass was not an option. If it meant something for my parents, I should understand why it needed to be important to me. As a child I recall one time noticing our parish priest in the pulpit and thinking to myself, “This is a special man.” Maybe I just saw him through the eyes of a child like the little children who come up to me and say “Hi God!” Do not fear; I have no allusions of being anyone other than my own imperfect self. I remember as a little boy creating a little Marian shrine in my bedroom and trying to learn to pray the Rosary. At play with my sisters and cousins, we would mimic what was part of our family life, so even in play, it was important to go to our ‘play mass’. I will confess that I would play the role of the priest. Few words were said, we skipped the sermon and went nearly straight for communion; bread, chips, or crackers served as the host and water for the wine.
Charles Lavoie graduated from Georges P. Vanier in Donnelly in 1980.
In Junior High, a group of peers and I got involved in a few liturgical ministries in our parish; lector, taking up the collection and gift bearers. I continued my involvement into the High School years.
Once out of school and employed, I became aware that I had to discern what I wanted out of life. During the summer months at the plant, I would often work through weekends. After a time, I realized that something was missing in my life. At some point that recognized that I was missing going to Mass with my family, that I missed receiving the Eucharist. I started to question what was important in my life. Some of the language spoken at the plant was very vulgar and crass. Looking back, I wonder if through that harsh language, the Lord might not have been talking to me because often times, it could be upsetting! It was a time of soul-searching. What were my gifts and talents? What career did I want for myself? For the Easter weekend of 1983, Fr. Lessard encouraged me to attend a retreat held at the college in Falher. The weekend was a wonderful celebration of the Easter Triduum. There were no prophetic voices, no visions or flashes of light or any spectacular occurrence during that weekend to orient me to choose a priestly life. I did not hear Jesus say to me, “Come, follow me!” After the retreat, I went back to work. But maybe something was at work in me.
The following year, Archbishop Légaré is the one who turned my world upside down. At a social following a parish event, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I would like to talk to you. Come see me.” What on earth could this be about? I was scared. I told my mom that the archbishop wanted to speak with me. I could not tell my dad. I believed he had other dreams for me, and besides, as one of my sisters pointed out when she heard I was entering the seminary, “Who will carry the family name?”
I met with Archbishop Légaré and his question was whether I had ever considered the priesthood. I could not lie to the archbishop and say no because there had been fleeting moments when I did muse about it. He encouraged me to pray over it. In the meantime, he was going to contact different seminaries and find out what their programs were and what the requirements were. A few weeks later he called me to his office. If I was willing, St. Paul’s seminary in Ottawa would accept me and it had a bilingual program. He invited me to give this a bit more thought and prayer but it was getting late and if I was going to go I would need to register soon. I had doubts and fear and so much uncertainty. By mid-August, I was registered at St. Paul, had given my resignation at the plant and was making plans to drive across Canada to Ottawa carrying amongst my baggage fear, doubt, hesitation, anxiety and a whole lot more fear.
An early photo of Charles Lavoie with his family.
I am a farm boy with a high school diploma that I obtained but barely! I was now headed to a university. I now found myself living in a house with only men. I was used to a house full of women. Not being much of a city driver, I got lost right away when I drove into the city and I didn’t stop to ask for direction. I just allowed myself to get more and more frustrated and afraid. I found a parking lot, drove in, got out of my pickup, spread the city map on the hood of my vehicle, looked up to heaven and said, “God you have a minute to show me where I am or I am finding the exit West and I am going home.” God has a sense of humor. Across the street from me was a sign that read, Oblate Avenue. One block from where I was is St. Paul’s seminary. A couple of guys helped me unload my truck and bring my things to my room. I closed the door, sat on my boxes and cried.
The adjustment and integration was hard. Getting to know the staff and students, the schedules, and the university classes took some time. My written French is not the greatest, yet I had been registered in the French program. The first semester, I had two courses in philosophy, an introduction to psychology and a theology course. What a challenge. But somewhere along the way, I made a commitment that I would not give up. It was a difficult year, but I stuck it out and at the end of the winter trimester, having failed a number of courses, I packed all my belongings in my truck and came home to Alberta, unsure that I was going back. But I would return to Ottawa for a second, third and a fourth year. As much as the first year had been difficult, my fourth year was also very difficult emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. The studies had always been difficult. And the discernment process had also had its ups and downs. In the four year, I had four different spiritual directors. Shortly after arriving for my fourth year, my spiritual director was transferred to Rome. This creates instability. I found myself lagging behind my confrères. I found myself frustrated, disheartened. When it came time to write my evaluation for the end of my fourth year, I felt defeated. A heart to heart with the rector clarified that I needed to take time to re-evaluate my future.
Back at home, I knew I needed someone to help me in my discernment. I was introduced to a priest psychologist who accepted to see me. This was the autumn of 1988. I would meet with him once a month for the following year and a half for spiritual counseling and guidance. By the end of the summer of 1990, I felt I needed to give the studies and formation one more chance. I found myself back in Ottawa for the beginning of the winter trimester.
As it seemed for my application to the seminary, my ordination also seemed to have been put on the fast track on my return from the 1991 studies. On June 22, 1991, I was ordained to the diaconate and later, on September 20th of the same year, I was ordained to the priesthood.
Left-right, are Father Raphael Lessard, Priest Charles Lavoie and Father Roger Prieur, during a service at the St. John the Baptist Church in McLennan on October 9, 1992.
Since my ordination, I have served as;
· Associate Pastor in Peace River, 1991 – 1993.
· Spiritual adviser for our diocesan youth on the trip to World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado, August 5-15, 1993.
· Celebrant for the parish of St. James the Major, Manning November 1991-96.
· Pastor of Holy Family Grimshaw, with Whitelaw and Berwyn. November 1993-96.
· I was named by Archbishop Légaré as the head of liturgy for the diocese, youth ministry, chaplain at Glenmary, Peace River, and for a time, at Héritage at Jean-Côté.
· In June of 1996, vice chancellor of the archdiocese.
1996 proved a difficult year. Just before Christmas 1995, my best friend and confrere left the priesthood. Another was killed in a plane crash. A third drowned with his father while fishing in early summer. Another died of cancer. Archbishop Légaré’s resignation was accepted, a new bishop was coming in and I didn’t know what he would expect of me. I felt burnt out and was diagnosed with depression. I was greatly involved in the preparations for the installation of the new bishop. My emotions were raw. I felt alone and so I approached Archbishop Goudreault to tell him that I was burnt out and needed a sabbatical. I only expected that he would grant me a one month holiday. But instead, he said, take an eight-month sabbatical and go travel or do something. I did do something. I entered an intensive program for clergy who suffer from depression and burn-out. After a three month program, I was in NO better shape. I contemplated leaving all together. The eight months stretched to a year and then, to a year and a half. I was starting to feel well again, excited again, ready to return to ministry again. The Archbishop reassigned me to Grimshaw. I was happy. It was the start of summer. On the morning of July 23rd, Archbishop Goudreault suffered a massive heart attack and died. Archbishop Goudreault’s short term with us has been for me my saving grace. I believe that He saved my life in giving me the time that I needed and he saved my priesthood.
Charles Lavoie, centre, participating in Chinchaga Day with a group of voyageurs, in Dunvegan in 1995.
After the death of Archbishop Goudreault, I continued my responsibility with the parishes and to serve in the office of Chancellor. I helped in the organization and emceed the celebration of the episcopal ordination of Archbishop Guimond. Shortly after his ordination, he appointed me Vicar General and I continued also as chancellor and as pastor.
With World Youth Day being held in Toronto in the summer of 2002, the WYD Cross travelled throughout each diocese in Canada. I had the task of scheduling and coordination events with the cross for the archdiocese. I acquired the help of my Dad, his truck and trailer for a remarkable pilgrimage. We received the cross at Enterprise, NWT. From there, we crisscrossed the diocese having put a total of 2,366 km in four full days and having visited at least twenty communities with the cross.
In December 2001, Archbishop Guimond transferred me to Valleyview with the missions of Sturgeon Lake and Crooked Creek, and all the while holding the offices at the diocese. I moved to Valleyview in January of 2002. At least once a week, I would travel to McLennan and many times, I would bring work back to Valleyview to complete.
In late July of 2005, the Archbishop became ill and needed to be hospitalized. He was transferred to Grande Prairie and while there suffered an aortic aneurysm in the lower abdomen. He was in critical condition. As Vicar General of the archdiocese, I advised the Apostolic Nuncio on the health and prognosis of the archbishop. He informed me that as VG, I held responsibility for the administration of the diocese until such time that the archbishop was well enough to resume his office or that Rome appointed a new bishop. As we know, the archbishop did recover somewhat, but remained confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. He never returned to the office. He passed away on the 6th of February, 2013 in Saint Albert.
In October 2006, I had the privilege of joining the Western Bishops Conference in Rome for the Adlimina visit and received a 10 minute private audience with Pope Benedict XVI. On our return to Canada, I attended the Canadian Bishop’s Conference in Cornwall, Ontario before coming home. The words the Holy Father spoke to me were that he would work hard at getting a bishop appointed for our diocese soon. To my relief, on November 30, the appointment of Archbishop Gerard Pettipas was announced. I had the privilege once again to emcee the consecration celebration held in Grande Prairie on January 25th, 2007.
A more recent photo of Charles Lavoie with his family.
Shortly after taking office, Archbishop Pettipas appointed me to the office of Vicar General. In July of 2007, I was appointed pastor of Slave Lake and was there for eleven months before being named pastor at Ste. Anne, Falher and the parishes of Donnelly and Guy.
On May 16, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI named me an Honorary Prelate of the Papal Household. This honor is conferred usually at the request of the local bishop to a priest who has demonstrated a valuable service to the diocesan church. The title is that of Monsignor. I am very honoured and humbled to have received such a distinguished honour.
In January of 2010, generous folks paid a trip to the Holy Land for myself and the archbishop. We met with a tour group in New York and arrived in Tel Aviv January 13th. We visited many sites where Jesus ministered, taught and performed miracles. From the city of Tiberius to the archeological finds at Dan in the north to the fortress city on Mount Masada to the south next to the Dead Sea. There was so much to take in.
Travels would continue one more time as I participated at the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland June 10-17 of 2012. A number of the clergy from the archdiocese as well as the Archbishop attended. We were also able to do a bit of sightseeing in an around Dublin. At times, we might tend to believe that the faith is dying, but it is at events such as these that we see that faith and religion is very much alive and flourishing and meaningful to a great number of people from all around the world.
In the autumn of 2013, I faced another personal crisis, a second burn-out or depression. In January 2014, I entered a 14-week wellness program at Southdown Institute north of Toronto, Ontario. This institution exists to help clergy and religious men and women, and ministers of other Faith communities who struggle with burnout, depression and addictions. I returned to full active parish ministry in mid-May 2014. In June 2014, after the retirement of Fr. Joseph Jacobson, I was named once again to serve the office of Chancellor. Also in June of that year, the chancery offices were moved to Grande Prairie.
I am not the best at what I do. I do not consider myself a proficient homilist or teacher. I am also not the best organized person and often times my desk is piled with papers and files. I have lost most of the hair on my head, allowing my wisdom to escape me and evaporate in thin air. I am not always self-confident and am critical of myself. I battle moments of loneliness and spiritual dryness. I am aware that depression and fatigue will challenge me the rest of my life. I have to confront my fears, control my anger, and exercise patience. And there are always those moments when I ask myself and question the Lord, “Do you really want me here, as a priest?” Honestly, I cannot see myself doing anything else!
This past October, the parishes of Sainte Anne, Falher, Sacré Coeur, Donnelly and Saint Guy came together to plan and organize a celebration for the 25th anniversary of my being ordained a priest for the Church and this diocese. I am most gracious to you all for your love and consideration. I continue to count on your prayers as I keep you in mine. I cannot be a priest if there are no people to serve and to shepherd, if there is no church. May the Lord keep us close to his loving heart and may we rejoice always for the blessings we receive from him.
I want to thank the Smoky River Express who encouraged me to share my story. I want to thank all the people whom I serve and have served and will continue to serve to the best of my abilities. I wish to thank my parents and family for their loving support and encouragement. Thank you to my mentors. They are all enjoying their eternal reward. I am now the longest serving member of the clergy in the archdiocese. That in and of itself is unbelievable. I ask that you continue to keep me in your prayers and to pray for all the clergy and the men in formation today who may also be struggling in their discernment
I thank you for giving me this time to share my story. I would like to end with this poem,
What is a priest? Author unknown
Priests are mystery men, they come in assorted sizes, ages and colors. They are found everywhere speeding along, perspiring over, walking by, kneeling on, praying over, laughing with, preaching to, teaching about, pardoning for, and playing hockey with. Little children run to them, teenagers marvel at them, aged folk turn to them, lay people treasure them, non-Catholics stare at them.
A priest penetrates secrets, shares sorrows, heals wounds. He has the trust of a child, the kindness of a best friend, the sternness of a top sergeant, the daring of a tightrope walker, the authority of an encyclopedia, the versatility of a commando, and the salesmanship of a fuller brush man.
A priest is a humble creature, a mystifying worker at all professions. His hours are longest, his salary the smallest. His Boss the Best!!! He likes the smiles of children, a home cooked meal and the name “Father”.
A priest is all things to all men in the sight of God. He may be mis-quoted, mistaken and misunderstood but he’ll always forgive, because he’s a mediator, a go-between heaven and earth. It’s no wonder God loves him. He’s a man standing at an altar clothed in holy clothes who, while being aware of his own nothingness speaks to God for us and to us for God. And although his greatest act is to offer sacrifice, his most consoling one is to say to me, “Go in peace. Your sins are forgiven.”
Pope Benedict XVI with Msgr. Charles Lavoie at the Western Conference of Bishops in Rome in October 2006.