Jesuit Father Michael Lapierre will turn 100 May 2, and is taking it all in stride. Photo by Michael Swan

Jesuit centenarian knew what he wanted in life

  • April 19, 2015

When you are about to turn 100 there’s a tendency for people to fuss over you and ask silly questions.

When people began asking 99.9-year-old Fr. Michael Lapierre what it felt like to turn 100, he told them “I don’t have a choice.” On May 2, Canada’s oldest Jesuit will take his 100th birthday in stride.

That Lapierre would be clear-eyed and logical about entering triple digits is perhaps not so surprising for a former professor of philosophy and theology steeped in the logic of St. Thomas Aquinas and the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Lapierre was 19 with a year at the University of Ottawa under his belt when he turned up in Guelph, Ont., to enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1934. Up until the day he walked in the front doors, he had never met a Jesuit. He knew what he wanted.

Which is not to say he never doubted or never considered what other lives he might have lived, said Lapierre.

“But once you’ve made up your mind, you know,” he said while attending the Jesuit Provincial’s Dinner in Thornhill, Ont., April 8.

The religious life wasn’t just what Lapierre had been living his whole adult life, it was also an academic interest for the Regis College professor.

In 1968 he published a paper he had presented at the third annual convention of the Canadian Canon Law Society called “Why Religious Life.” He was trying to work out the relationship between vowed religious (sisters, brothers and priests) and the Church.

In 1965 he turned a course he was teaching into a typescript under the title “The Sense of God in the Religious Life.”

As a spiritual counsellor, Lapierre had more to draw on than an academic interest in the consecrated life. In the late 1940s he had been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. Cancer was no trivial thing in 1947 and recovery was not instantaneous. But Lapierre did recover and carried with him the wisdom that comes with a frank encounter with death.

Academically, religious life was a secondary interest for Lapierre. He had been trained in systematic theology and the logic of St. Thomas Aquinas. His University of Toronto PhD thesis, defended in 1957, was on the thought of 16th-century Spanish Jesuit theologian Gabriel Vasques.

Writing at a time when Europe was still tearing itself apart over the Protestant reforms, Vasques was noted for his clear and precise thinking about theological concepts and categories.

Teaching theology to young Jesuits in Toronto from the 1950s to the 1990s put Lapierre in the middle of some very distinguished company.

Occupying the other offices down the hall at Regis College were Fr. Bernard Lonergan, Fr. Rod MacKenzie, Fr. Elliott MacGuigan and Fr. David Stanley. MacGuigan was a pioneer of the ecumenical movement who was instrumental in bringing together the Toronto School of Theology. MacKenzie was an Old Testament expert who became president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America and rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Stanley was a New Testament scholar who was on the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Lonergan, many argue, was the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century.

Lapierre was in the middle of all this intellectual and spiritual ferment as Catholics began reimagining themselves and their tradition in the middle of the 20th century.

In addition to his advanced degrees in philosophy and theology from the Jesuit-run St. Louis University, Lapierre broke out of the exclusive Catholic world to enrol at the secular University of Toronto where he earned an M.A. in classics and a PhD in philosophy.

The life of the mind was no fleeting thing for Lapierre. In 1999, at the age of 85, he published a short book — The Noetical Theory of Gabriel Vasquez Jesuit Philosopher and Theologian (1549-1604).

Like all Jesuits who make it to retirement, Lapierre was assigned to pray for the Society of Jesus in 2013, at the age of 97.

He was an emeritus professor at Regis College for 15 years —  1986 to 2001 — tacked on to a 36-year career as professor from 1950 to 1986.

But a Jesuit is never just one thing. After half a century as an academic, Lapierre began ministering to his fellow Jesuits at the order’s La Storta residence in Pickering, Ont. From 1968 to 2001 he had been the director of the Loyola Summer Institute for Spiritual Renewal in Guelph or Pickering. And throughout those many years, he had been in demand as a spiritual director.

Born in Chapeau, Allumette Island, Que., in the middle of the First World War, a young man through the Great Depression, a scholar through the Second World War, an old man to the young Jesuits of the 1960s and ’70s, the 100-year-old priest may seem like a visitor from a strange land. To Lapierre, he’s just here, living his life.

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