Jean Baptiste Gauthier: An Appreciation (1922)

THE death of the Rev. Jean Baptiste Gauthier, vicar of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Green Bay, Wisconsin, on June 21st, removes from the Church Militant an unique personality, a faithful priest, and a sincere and humble Christian man. In the region where he spent thirty years of the thirty-three years of his ministry, Green Bay and the “Door County peninsula”, there are few men who were so well loved and will be so much missed. His name is a household word, not only among the Belgian farm folk among whom he labored, but with the Church people of the English speaking parishes. His name is as typically French-Canadian as John Smith is typically English. And he was typically Canadian. His were all the sterling virtues of the French-Canadian peasant. Simplicity, humility, gaiety, humor, friendliness, filial piety, frugality, these united to a fervent faith in Christ, and, through Him, in the Church and Sacraments, made him a man lovable to an unusual degree. In hundreds of homes in that region where he was so well known, there is sorrow to-day because Père Gauthier has been taken from the world. The sympathy and charity that were an integral part of his nature, made him the confident and counsellor of many who will be sore bereft at his going, and his name will smell sweet there for many long years, as long as there are those who remember him.

Père Gauthier was born in Montreal, Dec. 17, 1853. With his parents he was a member of the great parish of Notre Dame. At the age of sixteen he entered the order of the Christian Brothers. He remained with these Religious for eleven years, renewing his vows from time to time, as is their custom. At the expiration of one of these periods, he left and entered the order of St. Viator, and subsequently the Franciscan Order. His heart however always remained with the Christian Brothers, and leaving both of the last named orders during his novitiate, he became a teacher in parochial schools until such time as he could see just how his life was lo be disposed. While in the Community of St. Viator, he became attached to René Vilatte, who later became a priest of the Old Catholic Church, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Fond du Lac. In 1889, Gauthier was teaching in the parochial school of the French Roman Catholic Church in DePere, Wisconsin, while Père Vilatte was hard at work founding the first Old Catholic parish of the Precious Blood, Gardner. In the summer vacation Gauthier made a visit to his old friend, and became interested in the work. Another parish had just been started, St. Mary’s, Duvall, and another priest was needed. Jean Baptiste felt called to the work, and arrangements were made for his ordination by Bishop Herzog in Switzerland. At least two years’ delay would have been necessary if he were to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, as no way could be found to comply with the canons otherwise. On St. Luke’s Day, in the Cathedral in Berne, he was ordained priest by Bishop Herzog, who still outlives him; his ordination to the diaconate had preceded by a few days. His first work as a priest aside from his first mass was to hear the confessions of the prisoners at a nearby prison. He did not spend many days in Switzerland after his ordination, but hurried back to his work. Père Vilatte turned over the parish at Gardner to him, and devoted himself to the new parish at Duvall. Here he remained for fifteen years, when a sort of homesickness drew him to Canada, where he became rector of a Church of England French-speaking parish at St. Ursule, but only for about a year. He returned to Gardner, and again in Gardner he remained until it seemed best for him to take charge of St. Mary’s, Duvall, removing to the parish in Green Bay at the Bishop’s request in 1908, where he remained until his death. Thus for thirty years his life has been interwoven with these three parishes, their family life and religious relations.

In all these years he has been faithful and loyal to the Episcopal Church. He received the ministrations of its clergy on his deathbed, and was buried by his bishop. He really loved the Church of his adoption, while alive to its defects. The writer of this appreciation became acquainted with him the summer preceding his ordination. A friendship sprang up at once, which has continued without interruption. No words of his can fully express what that friendship has been. He feels it an unspeakable privilege to have known such a simple, sincere, and faithful priest. In his picturesque English, he always signed his letters to the writer, “Your truly brother in Christ.” It was indeed a brotherhood, and the severing of the tie makes it easy to understand the grief of those to whom he was so long “the Father”. May God give him light and rest!

—A. Parker Curtiss in The Living Church (Milwaukee), August 12, 1922, p. 516.

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