Fr. Robert Assaly is ordained in 2019 as Montreal’s first and only married Latin-rite priest. Peter Stockland

‘Dear Fr. Robert’ Montreal’s only married priest

  • April 5, 2023

The April 1 funeral for Fr. Robert Assaly at  Montreal’s St. Thomas More Catholic Church featured a rare sight: front pews filled by his large family with his wife Nancy, their children and spouses.

As Montreal’s first and only married Latin-rite priest, Fr. Assaly had served at St. Thomas More for a mere four years following his 2019 ordination. A former Anglican minister, he had patiently waited 10 years to be ordained by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Montreal. He died at 2 a.m. on March 26 following six days in palliative care, and four months after being diagnosed in January with pancreatic cancer.

Though Fr. Assaly was still a relative newcomer to Catholic clerical life, priests and deacons from the archdiocese, as well as Bishop Emeritus of St. John, N.B., Bishop Robert Harris, filled the sanctuary to send him home to God.  

The church was crowded, too, with Anglican clergy, colleagues from academia and from Canadian Friends of Sabeel, an organization Fr. Assaly co-founded to support the work of peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. 

In the funeral sermon, Fr. Peter Sabbath, the priest who oversaw Fr. Assaly’s last year of training, spoke to the resolve that marked his time at the church in the Montreal suburb of Verdun.

“I don’t say Robert had any sense that an early death lay ahead when he came to Verdun, because I don’t know, but he did approach his ministry with a certain urgency — maybe that was just his style and the fact of serious issues that had to be dealt with.”

At age 24, Assaly was a stockbroker, a millionaire and an atheist. Sporting aviator sunglasses, an accessory to his pilot’s license, and with a fully paid-up house, he cut a dashing figure.  But a conversion experience upended those markers of secular status and success.  

His new-found faith arrived together with a calling to the ordained ministry. He sought Anglican holy orders and was ordained in 1991. 

In 2007, after four years living and serving in the West Bank and then in Anglican parishes in Ottawa, Fr. Assaly, together with his wife and family, moved to Montreal so he could pursue doctoral studies at McGill University. 

In 2017, Robert and Nancy were received in the Catholic Church. His sense of his calling to the priesthood did not disappear when he and his wife were discerning their reception.

In a 2019 interview, he recalled that in 2009, six years before becoming Catholic and 10 years before his ordination, “I walked into the archdiocese’s offices in Sherbrooke (street) and said I have a calling, I think, to be a Catholic priest, not even knowing there was such a thing as a married Catholic priest.” 

The church of his burial was the one to which Fr. Assaly had first been assigned in September 2019. Having been ordained only a few weeks earlier, the chrism oil barely had time to dry when he was appointed pastor at St. Thomas More. 

On paper, the fit was not a natural one between a former Anglican — now married Catholic — priest and an aging, dwindling congregation that had lost its long-time pastor the year before. But with confidence in supernatural grace, Fr. Assaly got to work.

He began by asking his parishioners for help. From the pulpit, he asked for catechists, musicians, greeters and people to help look after the altar linens. 

Angela Olaguera was one of those who stepped up. When Fr. Assaly arrived she had been, she says, “a casual parishioner.” But what began as volunteering to care for the altar linens would morph into singing at Sunday Mass and then to her current job on staff as parochial associate. 

Debbie Warren was another who, though always a practising Catholic, credits the arrival of “dear Fr. Robert” with a re-awakening of her faith.

“I have been a Catholic my whole life, but until Fr. Robert came, I was just a churchgoer not a participant.”

Warren says that Fr. Assaly was so “warm and passionate about Jesus and sharing his faith and his joy.”  

His parishioners speak of “our dear Fr. Robert” with a warmth and love that bely the short number of years he spent as a Catholic priest.

In November 2020, just a little over a year after being appointed at St. Thomas More, Fr. Assaly was given yet another responsibility. He was made parochial administrator of St. Willibrord, the neighbouring English-speaking church in Verdun.

According to Christina Parsons, a long-time parishioner, St. Willibrord had seen many ups and downs through the years, but when the pandemic hit, “it was in a bad place.” Many of the churches in Montreal had managed to re-open in the summer of 2020, but the doors of St. Willibrord were still closed in November when Fr. Assaly was appointed. Only 20 people showed up when he celebrated his first Mass. That would be a low number in a rural parish church, but at St. Willibrord, a church that once had the distinction of being the largest English-speaking parish in Canada, those numbers were nothing short of an ecclesiastical death rattle.

But, as with St. Thomas More, Fr. Assaly trusted that God had a plan. 

Together with the pastoral team he had assembled, a decision was made to commit to “mission, not maintenance.” In 2022, the two parishes had close to 10 adults receiving the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil Mass. This Easter will see another five adults being received. It is, says Olaguera, “a wonderful sign of hope.”

In what was a historic agreement between two neighbouring parishes (they are less that eight kilometers apart), St. Ignatius of Loyola, a burgeoning parish that is part of the Divine Renovation network, adopted St. Willibrord as a mission church. In October 2022, St. Ignatius sent 27 adults and eight children as “missionaries” to St. Willibrord. So far, the signs are positive. Over 100 people are now attending Sunday Mass, and, in the spring, a second session of the Alpha course will begin.

On March 20, the parishioners of St. Thomas More and St. Willibrord received an email telling them Fr. Assaly’s pancreatic cancer had not abated. He had been transferred to palliative care. 

In the body of the email, the parish team had inserted a short video of an interview with Fr. Assaly. Filmed sitting in a hospital room, Fr. Assaly is dressed in his ubiquitous clerical collar, loose around his neck. 

“People ask me how I’m doing. I have never felt so at peace. I have never felt more joyful. I’ve never felt more lively even though the physical life is draining out of me.”

His face reflected that joy and trust in the Lord.

In his sermon, Sabbath said, “I believe that is the final message Fr. Robert wanted to leave with all who knew him: trust, trust, trust. God will not abandon us: though our hearts be broken — Jesus too wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus — let us kneel in humble submission to what is beyond our comprehension.”

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