Léger, Montreal’s first cardinal, resigned as the city’s archbishop in 1968 to do missionary work in Africa. He was 87 when he died in 1991.
Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine and former St. Boniface Archbishop Émilius Goulet celebrated a memorial Mass at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral on Nov. 13, beside the crypt where Léger is buried. A number of priests who were ordained by Léger were present for the occasion.
Léger joined the Sulpician Society of priests in 1929 and was a missionary in Japan for six years before he returned to Quebec in 1939 to become vicar general for the Diocese of Valleyfield. After the war he established The Gold Cross Mission to help children who were victims of the war. He was made archbishop of Montreal in 1950 and given the red hat by Pius XII three years later.
Léger was a flamboyant prince of the Church who installed a throne room in the bishop’s palace. He was an autocrat, an imperial cleric who demanded and received deference from his priests.
After being an active participant in Vatican II, he became depressed and unwilling to accept the reforms brought about in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council. He resigned as archbishop in 1967 to work in Africa, primarily aiding lepers but also working with handicapped children. Although his critics say he abandoned the archdiocese when the Church in Quebec was in crisis, he told his biographer, Micheline Lachance that he had no other choice.
“If I was to remain as head of the Church in Montreal I could not, in conscience, conform to the spirit of Vatican II. And if I was to conform to the spirit, I could not be true to myself.”
So he resigned as a prince, and went to Africa to be a simple priest.
“The misery of the Third World transformed him, changed him,” wrote Lachance. “It humbled him. He became wise, in the most noble sense of the word.”
In 1968, he was made a Companion in the Order in the Canada and in 1979 was awarded the first Pearson Medal of Peace for his humanitarian work.
Two years later, a foundation was established that helped continue his work in the Third World, as well as providing aid for poor and marginalized people in Quebec.
The Léger Foundation was created by an act of Parliament, bearing the name of both Léger and his brother Jules, a former Governor General of Canada who died in 1980. Since its creation, the foundation says it has distributed more than $228 million.
Lepine described Léger as an “inspiration”.
“He respected the dignity of each person. As an archbishop he was able to reach out and bring families together.”
Goulet, a Sulpician provincial who lived with Léger for eight years, described the cardinal as a great man.
“He was a leader, a prayerful, faithful man who lived in communion with God.”
(Hustak is a writer in Montreal.)