Our Stories – Autobiography – Monsignor Charles Lavoie

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.

Charles Lavoie graduated from Georges P. Vanier in Donnelly in 1980.

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.

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.

Archbishop Henri Legare ordained Charles Lavoie as a deacon on June 22, 1991.

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.

Pictured above is Charles Lavoie, centre, participating in Chinchaga Day with a group of voyageurs, in Dunvegan in 1995.

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.

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.

Pictured above, 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.

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.

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.

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.

Pope Benedict XVI with Msgr. Charles Lavoie at the Western Conference of Bishops in Rome in October 2006.

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.

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