November 21, 2019 – Even as “a twenty-year-old for the fourth time,” Father Lefebvre is kept busy either sitting on the Board of Directors or performing marriages and baptisms for the former students of the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, where he worked for over 45 years. Such an attachment attests to the impact this man has made not just on the school (the Michel-Jim-Lefebvre playing field stands as proof of this) but above all on the lives of the students who have passed through it.
By all accounts, “Jim” left a remarkable legacy at Brébeuf, even if he himself speaks about it humbly, as if nothing happened. But perhaps the most important thing he brought were the little gestures he offered to others—smiles, reassurance and encouragement. Jacques Boudrias would tell us that he made himself small so that others could grow taller. As Father Lefebvre explained after leaving Brébeuf, each day he had a plan in mind:
“Every day, in any way possible and in whatever circumstances, try to bring joy, encouragement and reassurance to those around you, and wish for others ‘to dare to care.’”
This desire to humbly serve others is what encouraged Father Lefebvre to become a Jesuit, and influenced a large part of his work at Brébeuf and Camp Lac Simon.
What follows are extracts from a long and moving interview.
Why did you decide to join the Society of Jesus, and what was your life as a Jesuit?
I was born in Villeray, not far from where the Maison Bellarmin (the Provincial headquarters) currently stands. In 1949, we learned that the Maison Bellarmin was going to be built on what had been our playground and that the Jesuits were looking for altar boys. Did this seal my fate? I’d say so.
So, I came here and I met the Jesuits. They were organizing a baseball league in the park nearby and I signed up. Then, when I was thirteen, the fateful question of where I was going to go to school arose. The closest secondary school was clearly André-Grasset, but the Jesuits told me that there was a small college called Saint-Ignace in Rosemont. Just based on my financial situation and social class, there was no chance of talking about Brébeuf. There was still Sainte-Marie, but the Jesuits from my neighbourhood said, “We have a little school in Rosemont called Saint-Ignace. What would you say if we payed for your schooling?” But it was an hour and a half commute away… When I spoke to my father our conversation was pretty short; “You are going to Saint-Ignace,” he said. So, I found myself at Saint-Ignace. It was a classical curriculum, with about twenty students per class. It was a day school, but it essentially had a boarding regime. I left home at 6:30AM and I got back at 8 or 9PM. Mass was obligatory every Sunday, along with all the church services. I called it a boarding school in disguise, with a little bit of the regime that young Jesuits have to follow in their first two years, which was very, very focused on everything religious, without the right to smoke or to go to the cinema. That was in 1954-1959. I laugh about it now.
In the end, the advantage that I got from this was seeing who the Jesuits really were. This had a significant impact on me for sure. I finished my studies at this college at 20 years old, in 1959. The Jesuits had really had an impact on me, and after seeing them live I wanted to do the same thing as them. I therefore began my Novitiate at Saint-Jérôme.
After that, it was compulsory for young Jesuits to spend two years of their regency in a college. We were not asked where we wanted to go. Being a teacher didn’t interest me much, but the extra-curricular activities certainly did. There was one post in Quebec City and another at Brébeuf. I just told them that, “if possible, Quebec City, but I don’t want to hear about Brébeuf.” Of course, they sent me to Brébeuf. Ten years after my arrival at Brébeuf, which I didn’t quit, I learned why I had found myself there. One of my former math teachers from Saint-Ignace had become the principal of Brébeuf. “We are sending you two young men,” they told him, “but Lefebvre asked not to be sent to Brébeuf.” “He’s coming to Brébeuf,” he replied. Whether it was the Holy Spirit or my karma, I don’t really know. I went there for two years, 1965-1967, with the official title of “Head of Sports and Recreation” for the older students and as a supervisor for the boarders. I liked it, but we worked a lot.
After my Theology (as part of the first Jesuit delegation to the Faculty of Theology at Université de Montréal) and my Ordination, I learned that I was being sent back to Brébeuf. I wasn’t too surprised, and let’s just say that in the space of two years all my preconceptions about Brébeuf had disappeared. I was there from 1971 to 2014, a total of 46 years. That was my life as a Jesuit: playing a role in student life, participating in the daily information bulletin “L’Hebdo”, the theatre group Le Vaisseau d’Or and the humanitarian voyages either with Mer et Monde (which I had managed to set up) or to Camp Lac Simon (for disadvantaged children) which is now in its 62nd year. I felt privileged to be in a place like that, where you learn a lot and where the young people force you to keep up to date. I didn’t really feel time pass. I didn’t have the luxury of feeling time move slowly.
What was the impact of Mer et Monde and Cap Lac Simon on the Brébeuf students, their parents and the young campers?
I never went on any humanitarian voyages with Mer et Monde, but it was still pretty demanding because we had to manage the preparatory meetings. For those voyages to Senegal, we had to educate the protective parents at the same time as the children who were going. I think we managed to open the parents’ minds too. And when they came back, it was the children that won over their parents. We tried to prepare them for culture shock, because for a lot of these people, it’s their first trip without their parents and outside of the tourist resorts. It was through the dimension of openness to others that these humanitarian voyages really impacted them. In certain cases, this had a huge influence on the profession they would choose, such as becoming lawyers without borders.
For the instructors at Lac Simon, they are put into contact with social justice. They aren’t paid, so they basically give up a summer but. But its an occasion for these children from yuppie neighbourhoods to be in contact with people from another social class other than their own, and to see that a human being isn’t necessarily someone who has the latest Lexus. It also lasts more than just two weeks, for there are lots of initiatives that the instructors continue, whether its sporting events or going into these areas to help out. The aim of the camp is to mould young men and women who want to help out whenever they can. I was the director for over two decades.
As for the campers… [Father Lefebvre showed me a photo of him with a young girl who was visibly emotional and holding a trophy.] The trophy has my name on it. This girl was the most brilliant camper at Lac Simon but also the one who had had the hardest life. When she learned that she had been nominated as the best camper and that it was a Jesuit from Brébeuf who would present the award to her, she was a bit overcome with emotion.
How did your involvement in the college come across to your students?
I remember one moment very well. I was the coach of a girls’ hockey team. It was the most ordinary thing: after the game, the girls had prepared a cake for one of their teammates’ birthdays. We brought out the cake and she ran off crying. It was the first birthday cake she had ever had. Little things like that, they’re anecdotal on their own, but for some of these students, they often take on a greater importance. I have seen this on many beautiful occasions. If it can help to say “continue” then yes its a missionary spirit, its a mission.
Have you received any recognition from the students?
When I was at Brébeuf, there was always one thing I used to say to the students:
When you leave the college, yes you must be good and helpful, but you must also show some recognition towards the institution. If you can offer it to one person in particular, come back and say thank you.
There aren’t any stats, but I am one of lucky ones in my network. For example, one said, “I went to Lac Simon because you told me that it could help my development, thank you for telling me that it existed and encouraging me to go.” I’m still spoiled to this day. This doesn’t come in the form of hockey tickets, but as a “thank you” said in their own words, years later.
Even though I left Brébeuf, I feel like I’m still there through my contacts. I’ve performed about a hundred baptisms and marriages for former students from the college. Six baptisms in one summer is a big feat, because the baptisms were all held on Sundays, which means your vacation goes out the window. But if you offered to perform a marriage for a former student, there’s an 85% chance that they’ll ask you to baptize their children.
When I was a Regent at Brébeuf, something happened that was so picturesque, but absolutely defined the rest of my life. Since the school was quite strict, we tried to lighten the mood by throwing a sort of “pyjama party” twice a year, which always coincided with major sporting events. On this occasion, it was the World Series and at the time there was a player called Jim Lefebvre. The next morning, I came down for breakfast and everyone started shouting, “Jim! Jim! Jim!” And that was the name that has followed me ever since.