By Fr. Mike Mendl, SDB
Br. Gérard Joseph Richard passed into eternity from Sherbrooke, QC, on Thursday, August 31. Since March 2019, he had been living at a Sherbrooke nursing home. He was a professed Salesian coadjutor brother for 8 days less than 68 years.
At 100 years, 7 months, and 1 day, Br. Gérard fell 17 days short of matching Br. Frank Gambaro as the longest-lived confrere in the history of the SUE Province: 100 years, 7 months, and 18 days.
Gérard Richard was born at St. Louis de Kent, NB, on January 30, 1923, and was baptized in the parish church (St. Louis) two days later. His parents, Basile and Josephine Richard, had three other sons and two daughters; Gérard was the second-born.
As the oldest boy, Gérard left school at age 12 to care for the family’s livestock when his father was no longer able to work because of illness. Gérard had completed just five years of schooling, and he always felt some insecurity from his lack of education. It was a proud day for him when he earned a high school equivalency diploma in New Rochelle in 1974.
As a young man, he did some building work in St. Louis de Kent and worked in a logging camp in the woods, where he learned some of his mechanical and electrical skills. During World War II, he helped build landing craft for the Canadian Army—a craft that was used on D-Day. He also cut stone for the Trappists in Rogersville.
Gérard worked to pay for the studies of his youngest brother, Arsene, who became a priest and, eventually, bishop of Bathurst, NB. Bishop Arsene died of cancer in 1989 at age 53. Br. Gérard spent some six months with him until he passed away.
When the Salesians came to St. Louis de Kent to open a boarding school in 1950, Gérard was working for the Sisters of Notre Dame across the road. The director invited him to consider becoming a brother, and eventually, he agreed to try it. At age 30, he went to Don Bosco Tech in Paterson, NJ, in September 1953. He was hoping for a chance to continue his education, but instead, the superiors tasked him with many maintenance chores, which he was very good at: electricity, plumbing, carpentry, and locks. Fr. Celestine Moskal was the director, and he taught Gérard some of what he knew about maintenance. Br. Gérard admired Fr. Moskal because Fr. Moskal was always willing to get what was needed for maintenance. He helped Fr. Moskal build the cabins at Camp Savio in West Milford.
Br. Gérard entered the novitiate at Newton, NJ, on September 7, 1954; Fr. Aloysius Bianchi was the master. His pre-profession evaluation described him as “obedient, willing to work, self-sacrificing, and devout."
After religious profession on September 8, 1955, Br. Gérard was sent back to Paterson (1955-1959). Feeling unable to teach (given his lack of formal education), he continued his maintenance work, using “his hands and his intelligence.”
In 1959, he was recalled to Canada, serving two years at Seminaire Don Bosco, the minor seminary in Boucherville, QC, and then a year at the Don Bosco School, a middle school in Jacquet River, NB, where the Salesians also served St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish. He made his perpetual profession on August 26, 1961, at St. Louis de Kent.
In 1962, Br. Gérard was assigned to the juniorate for coadjutor aspirants at Haverstraw, NY, where he remained for seven years, doing maintenance work alongside Br. Richard Pasaik. At this point in his curriculum vitae, he generally calls his assignments “factotum,” whereas earlier he described himself as a maintenance man. At Haverstraw, his work included a great deal of grounds maintenance on the extensive property, e.g., caring for the statues and the rest of the Rosary Way and rebuilding the swimming pool. He worked with the province architect, Br. Fiore DaRoit, to build the original Shrine pavilion (which was later modified into a modest chapel; that, in turn, was demolished to make way for the grand chapel designed by Br. Andy LaCombe). In 1968, he was certified as a locksmith by the Locksmith Institute of Little Falls, NJ.
A Salesian who lived and served alongside Br. Gérard in the Haverstraw aspirantate remembers him very fondly: “In my first two years of teaching after graduating from Don Bosco College, I was assigned to the Salesian seminary at Haverstraw, … a technical high school with various shops, such as printing, woodworking, auto mechanics, machine shop, etc. One of the good brothers was Br. Gérard Richard. When he found out I was intending to start an amateur radio club … and give them (the club members) some practice in transmitting and receiving, he volunteered to build me an antenna. . . . He … also kindly went on the roof and installed it for me. He was also a very patient, soft-spoken, friendly Brother to the boys, and they admired him very much.”
Br. Gérard came to Seminaire Salesien in Sherbrooke for the first time in 1969; this was the relocated Seminaire Don Bosco, formerly in Boucherville, and in time it evolved into the large co-ed high school now known as Le Salésien. He remained in Sherbrooke until 1985 except for one year (1973-1974) in New Rochelle, where he earned his high school diploma and worked with Brs. DaRoit and LaCombe. At Sherbrooke, he didn’t interact much with the students, apparently not much more than showing them some of his work in his shop.
In addition to the usual maintenance work at the school—woodwork, electrical, plumbing, outdoor jobs—he did a lot of work at Camp Savio in Ste. Catherine de Hatley, helping the camp’s director, Fr. Christian Auger for 18 years. Among other projects, he made park benches and cut a lot of firewood.
With former Salesian Gilles Lefevre, with whom he maintained a strong friendship for many years, Br. Gérard took a correspondence course in electronics with Teccart of Montreal, and they even built a TV. He also got certified in electrical appliances through a correspondence program based in Washington, D.C. He taught himself to make various kinds of little wooden puzzles, using plans he found in Popular Mechanics, and he enjoyed making wooden crosses to give as gifts and prizes.
On the standard province personnel form used in the 1980s, he listed his preferred “disciplines” as woodworking and building maintenance.
In the Sherbrooke community, Fr. George Harkins witnessed Br. Gérard's skills and virtues: “For me, he was the living image of St. Joseph, humble, serene, a most competent worker at any trade. At times I would tell people that God created Br. Gérard, and he created everything else. Even if he did not have the tool to work with, he would make the tool he needed. He will be greatly missed. He was also a model of both the vow and the virtue of poverty. He now walks in the Salesian Garden.”
In 1985, Br. Gérard was assigned again to Jacquet River. The Don Bosco School had been closed in 1972 due to lack of enrollment; "the local population was just too impoverished to sustain it," Br. Gérard stated. But the Salesians still served St. Gabriel Parish, and Brother assisted there in various ways.
In 1989, Br. Gérard came back to Sherbrooke and remained there for the rest of his life. His declining physical condition after he fell and broke a hip in January 2019 necessitated his entering the nursing home in March. The confreres of his community visited him faithfully, bringing him the Eucharist every day. Gilles Lefevre also was a frequent visitor. Brother was able to visit the Salesian residence now and then, including for a big 100th birthday celebration, which the provincial, Fr. Tim Zak, also attended.
In 1972, Br. Gérard was privileged to attend the beatification of Blessed Michael Rua in Rome. He seems to have thought that was one of the highlights of his life.
The confreres always highly esteemed Br. Gérard as a model of obedience and poverty. One anonymous American confrere wrote: “How impressive and truly edifying to recall his humble simplicity, his zealous dedication. His life is truly exemplary in work and temperance, in zeal for souls, poverty, chastity, and available obedience.” He gave “total, generous dedication to his religious vocation.”
We find a fine example of his “available obedience” in a letter he wrote from Haverstraw in January 1969 to Fr. Ronald Quenneville, at that time superior of the Canadian delegation. He expressed his hope of returning to Canada, preferring an assignment at Jacquet River, but if the superior “thought he would be more useful at Sherbrooke,” he “left it to him to decide.”
Of Br. Gérard’s charity, nothing better can be said than what former Salesian Dr. Spencer Boudreau writes: “I lived with Brother Gérard in community and [afterward] saw him on many occasions. He was always sincerely happy to see a fellow Acadian. [My wife] Susan and I were privileged to attend his 100th birthday celebration and witness the testimony of his family members on the exemplary, supportive role he played in their lives. I still have a beautiful cutting board (in the shape of a pig) that he made for Susan and me for our wedding present. It was too nice to use as a cutting board, so it has hung on the wall in our kitchen since. I never, ever, in all the many years I have known him, heard him say a negative word about anyone. Ever. I also never heard him complain about anything. He was dedicated to his vocation and to his community.” [Dr. Boudreau’s emphasis]
Br. Gérard was waked in Sherbrooke on Thursday, September 7. A funeral Mass was celebrated on Friday, September 8, in Sherbrooke, and another will be held on Thursday, September 14, in St. Louis de Kent, with burial following in the parish cemetery.
The oldest confrere in the province now is Fr. Enzo Trigatti, 95.