Father Gaëtan Girard died at Sainte-Marie Hospital in Trois-Rivières on June 5, 2021, following a bout of pneumonia. He was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the first signs of which he had felt in 1998. Since then, he had gradually lost his physical mobility and his ability to speak so that he could be understood. He had been in the Society of Jesus for almost thirty years. He entered the novitiate at the age of 41 in September 1991 and was ordained a priest five years later in 1996.
Gaëtan was born in Trois-Rivières on August 8, 1950. He was the sixth of eight children. His father, who directed the choir of the church where he was baptized, had a great impact on him. He was an excellent Christian who always came to the aid of people in difficulty who turned to him. Gaëtan saw in him someone who had known how to respond to the call that Christ addresses to every human being, in chapter 25 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, “to help the least of these”, his brothers. It was with his father in mind that he decided to transform the small grocery-butcher store he owned into a food cooperative in the 1970s, so that his clientele, which was composed mostly of people with meager incomes, could pay less for the food they bought at his store.
Gaëtan did not have an easy life before he joined the Society, nor after. He interrupted his studies at the end of primary school. At a very young age, he learned the trade of butcher. From 1966 to 1980, he worked in various trades. He even owned a small farm for a time. He then undertook to obtain his high school diploma by attending night school. Then he enrolled at the CÉGEP de Trois-Rivières. He pursued his studies from 1981 to 1988, while being first the manager of a grocery store and then being employed by a food products company. He got married at 20 years old. But he soon realized that the couple was not well matched and that they were not meant to live together. After a few years of living together, they separated. Gaëtan obtained a declaration of nullity from the Church in 1984.
It was at the age of 27 that he really began his spiritual journey, marked by personal readings and meetings. Without being guided by anyone, he read the Bible, and became interested in the great Christian mystics, from Francis of Assisi to Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Teresa of the Child Jesus. He explored the history of the Church. He frequented Adventist Christians, one of whose members became a close friend who introduced him to personal prayer and the spiritual life. But the determining factor in his return to God was the reading of the “Confessions” of St. Augustine, which gave him hope because he felt loved and welcomed by God.
He had his first contacts with Jesuits at the University of Trois-Rivières (UQTR) which he attended from 1986 to 1991. He completed his undergraduate studies in theology. Encouraged by Father Jean-Marc Dufort, his spiritual director, he asked to join the Society after having done an internship in a L’Arche community to verify his ability to live in community. After completing his novitiate at the end of the summer of 1993, he began graduate studies in spirituality at Laval University while living at the Centre Manrèse in Quebec City. He wanted to be ordained a priest “to witness to the love of God and to be a sign of the presence of Christ Jesus in this world”. It was in his weakness that he was a witness to the Lord, because he struggled for more than twenty years against the debilitating effects of rigid Parkinson’s, so as not to be totally dependent on the help of others.