Bishop Pearse Lacey

Bishop Lacey's spiritual life strong ’til the end

  • April 4, 2014

TORONTO - Bishop Pearse Lacey understood liturgy, he got social justice, he connected with the value of life but he never really understood indifference. When he was rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral, he would preside at summertime Masses on the Toronto Islands at St. Regis Chapel. On Sunday morning, no one came. So the monsignor, all outfitted for Mass, grabbed the sacristy bell and set off through the picnic grounds and along the beaches ringing the bell and announcing the next Mass.

“Enthusiasm, or as as we Christians call it, zeal marked the ministry of Bishop Lacey,” Bishop John Boissonneau recalled as he delivered the homily at Bishop Lacey’s funeral Mass at Blessed Trinity Church in Toronto April 7.

At 97, having been a priest on both sides of the Second Vatican Council, a founder of parishes and a friend to thousands of Catholics, Bishop Lacey died at the Cardinal Ambrozic Houses of Providence in Scarborough late on April 2. Cardinal Thomas Collins led nine other bishops and archbishops along with more than 100 priests and 300 lay faithful in Bishop Lacey’s last Mass.

“Bishop Lacey in liturgy, in social justice, in prayer and especially in devotion to Our Lady heard the Lord and spread the good news,” said Boissonneau.

The senior emeritus bishop of Toronto’s zest for life stayed with him through more than 25 years of retirement. In his last few decades he embarked on a career as an artist. In 2007 The Catholic Register featured a painting Bishop Lacey considered his best of Pope John Paul II framed by the Earth as seen from space — a tribute to the pope who reminded the Catholic world of the human obligation to the environment.

“Painting has helped in my personal growth, even spiritually, because it’s made me so much more conscious of creation,” Bishop Lacey said at the time. “Certainly, my knowledge and appreciation of God has developed.”

From his first posting as a curate at St. Patrick’s parish in Port Colborne, Ont., in the middle of the Second World War to his very active retirement as an emeritus bishop, Bishop Lacey embraced every possible means to serve the Church.

As a parish priest in the pre-Vatican II days, he was a great example of the hard-working, practical friend and ally of Catholic families. One of the young altar boys he trained to serve Mass at St. Patrick’s went on to become a priest and bishop of Hamilton. Retired Bishop Anthony Tonnos remembers Bishop Lacey as the model of priest that inspired him to think of priesthood and showed him how to be a priest after his own ordination.

As a boy, Tonnos looked up to Bishop Lacey, not only as the priest he served Mass for, but as his Catholic Youth Organization hockey coach.

“He even used to let me on the ice sometimes, even though I didn’t play very well,” recalled Tonnos.

Tonnos remembers how the humble young priest who couldn’t afford a car used to borrow one from Tonnos’ older brother.

“I’m quite certain that it was his example that first got me thinking about wanting to be a priest. I’ve told him that,” Tonnos said. “He was just a wonderful priest and bishop.”

After his 1943 ordination in St. Michael’s Cathedral at the hands of Archbishop James McGuigan, Bishop Lacey gained pastoral experience in St. Patrick’s, then the Toronto parishes of St. Cecilia’s, St. Monica’s and St. Pius X. But his career went another direction when he became chaplain at St. Michael’s Hospital in 1957.

An achievement Bishop Lacey was always proud of was founding Transfiguration of Our Lord parish in Etobicoke in 1959. Not only did he get the church built, he became a member of the archdiocesan building committee from the moment it was established in 1964. But it wasn’t so much the building as the community that engaged him.

“To this day the people who have been around since the beginning of the parish 55 years ago — there’s still some around — they still talk affectionately about him,” said current Transfiguration of Our Lord pastor Fr. Mark Van Patten.

A picture of Fr. Lacey breaking ground for the new church still hangs in the sacristy.

“He was the foundation of a really wonderful parish. So we all take his good work with us, that’s for sure,” Van Patten said.

In the years after Vatican II, Bishop Lacey became an indispensable right hand to Cardinal James McGuigan and later Archbishop Philip Pocock. McGuigan and his designated successor Pocock brought him back downtown to be rector of St. Michael’s Cathedral in 1966. That put him on the leading edge of liturgical reform in Toronto. He was already chair of the archdiocesan liturgical commission. At the cathedral it became his job to introduce Toronto Catholics to the new Mass.

He was also attuned to the re-awakened social conscience of the Church. As rector of the cathedral, Bishop Lacey invited figures such as Cesar Chavez and Mother Teresa to St. Michael’s.

“His time at the cathedral was, I think, a very important time in his life, implementing Vatican II,” said Boissonneau.

By this time he was a monsignor, having been made a Prelate of Honour in 1967.

He was interested in the emerging charismatic movements within the Church, and for many years was chaplain to the Christian Family Movement. He was a trustee of the old Metropolitan Separate School Board from 1972 to 1974 and for many years was a leader among his brother priests serving as vice president of the National Federation of the Senate of Priests.

As rector of St. Michael’s he also extended the reach of the cathedral, helping to establish St. Stephen’s Downtown Chapel on Bay Street in 1977.

His long run as the priest in charge at St. Michael’s Cathedral came to an end in 1979 when Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter ordained him a bishop. He became the first auxiliary bishop for the western region of the archdiocese in the new zone system, and found a home at St. Patrick’s parish in Mississauga.

While overseeing the booming suburbs to the west, Bishop Lacey was also director of priest personnel.

Through the 1980s and well into the 2000s Bishop Lacey found another home in the pro-life movement. He was a frequent protester in the 1980s in front of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s then illegal Toronto abortion clinic. In 1989 he led a contingent of clergy in a march wearing a symbolic gag over his mouth.

“He was on the streets at the Morgentaler (clinic), leading all the clergy with tape over their mouths. The cops had closed off the streets to accommodate them. They put up barricades so they couldn’t get by,” recalled Campaign Life Coalition executive director Jim Hughes.

“And there was Bishop Lacey in the lead.”

Bishop Lacey’s commitment to the pro-life cause was more out of hope than anger, said Boissonneau.

“Given his background of advocacy for social justice, I would say it was a sense of hope,” he said.

The bishop’s love of single-malt scotch followed him all the way to the Cardinal Ambrozic Houses of Providence. He frequently told Hughes that life is to be celebrated.

“He was a tremendous guy. God rest his soul,” said Hughes.

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