A Prince Among the Poor

The Montreal archbishop who at age 63 retired to become a missionary to lepers in Africa

In 2013, Pope Francis suspended Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, a diocese which includes Frankfurt, who renovated his residence and other church-owned buildings to the tune of over $41 million. The projects includedluxuries like a $20,000 bathtub, a $1.1 million landscaped garden and plans for an 800-square-foot fitness room” (N.Y.Times, Oct. 23, 2013). The bishop, according to the same write-up,said in his defense that the reported spending covered 10 projects, some of them involving buildings governed by landmark preservation laws that drove up costs, and that his private quarters were a relatively small part of the work.” He soon resigned as bishop and has been working since 2014 in the Vatican offices devoted to evangelization [see here].

In the United States, the archbishop of Atlanta was criticized for spending $2.2 million to construct a 6,000 square-foot home on 1.8 acres in the Buckhead neighborhood. In the archbishop’s letter in the archdiocesan newspaper (March 31, 2014; here) in which he apologized and announced his decision to sell the home and property, he points out that he was going to live in only 700 square feet of the home, with the rest used for meetings and entertainment; that the land had been donated; and that he had given up his residence, located near his cathedral, so that the cathedral’s rector and six priests could live there. That archbishop, Wilton Gregory, became archbishop of Washington, D.C., in 2019 and a cardinal in 2020.

So, the German bishop and the American archbishop may have had decent reasons for what they had done, but the problem was the optics. They were not demonstrably living a life of Christian simplicity, much less demonstrating solidarity with the bishops, priests, and laity persecuted in China, Nigeria, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. (For more on these persecuted peoples, see the Annual International Reports to Congress on Religious Freedom submitted by the Department of State, here; John L. Allen, Jr., The Global War on Christians: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Anti-Christian Persecution (2013); and Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (2000).)

Let’s lift our eyes to another model, a different lifestyle. I was reminded of the life of a deceased archbishop of Montreal when I had occasion to research one of the archdiocese’s chancellors from 1960 to 1972, Monsignor Pierre Lafortune (d. 1984), whom I met in 1972. Lafortune had served under Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger (1904-1991). I think the world, including the German bishop and Cardinal Gregory, has long forgotten Cardinal Léger and that he had retired from his position as archbishop at the age of 63 to become a missionary in Africa to persons with leprosy.

Léger’s father ran a general store in a small town in the Province of Quebec. (Léger’s brother, Jules, eventually became a Governor General of Canada, that is, the Queen’s representative to Canada.) Paul-Émile was too ill to continue his studies for nearly four years when he was 16 to 20 years of age. Nonetheless, he worked at jobs with mechanics, railwaymen, and butchers. After regaining his health, he sought to become a Jesuit (the same religious order as Pope Francis) but was rejected by them as being too emotional. Nonetheless he was ordained as a diocesan priest in 1929. After his ordination, he joined the Society of Saint-Sulpice (“the Sulpicians”) whose primary mission is running seminaries which train candidates for the Catholic priesthood. He learned canon law and taught it in Paris.

He then was happily assigned to become a missionary to Japan, where he was stationed from 1933 until World War II commenced. Then he relocated to Montreal, staying there until 1947, at which time he was appointed a rector of a seminary in Rome. He met Pope Venerable Pius XII through his work with the Gold Cross, a charity Léger had founded that collected money in Canada which was disbursed to the post-war population of Rome. Léger was consecrated archbishop of Montreal in 1950. He served as chair of the Canadian Catholic Conference (1951-53) and was made a cardinal in 1953, the first archbishop of Montreal to be so named.

Léger did a great deal, including constructing buildings, in Montreal for the poor, adolescents, and the chronically ill. During Vatican II (1962-65) he consulted with the laity of his archdiocese. Thirty of his speeches at the council were published (Trente textes du cardinal Léger qui ont marqué l’Église au concile et au Québec; 1968). In the course of the Council, he spent a few weeks after Christmas 1963 in Africa and, desiring to help the people with leprosy, he created Fame Pereo (“I Am Starving to Death”), a charity to help ten leprosaria. He even asked Pope St. Paul VI for permission to resign so he could go to their aid and it was refused. But a couple years later, on November 9, 1967, he did resign. He left Montreal on December 11, at age 63, excited to be a missionary.

The author of a two-volume biography of Léger splits the volumes between his time before and after Africa: Micheline Lachance, Paul-Émile Léger: La Prince de l’Église (1988) (“Prince of the Church”); Paul-Émile Léger: Le dernier voyage (2000) (“The Last Journey”).

A Canadian journalist found Cardinal Léger in Africa living in a trailer. The missionary answered the journalist’s question “why?” by saying:

It will be the great scandal of the history of our century that 600 million people are eating well and living luxuriously and three billion people starve, and every year millions of children are dying of hunger. I am too old to change all that. The only thing I can do which makes sense is to be present. I must simply be in the midst of them. So, just tell people in Canada that you met an old priest. I am a priest who is happy to be old and still a priest and among those who suffer. I am happy to be here and to take them into my heart. (Fr. Antony Kadavil, “Reflections for the XXII Sunday,” Vatican News, Aug. 29, 2019; here)

Léger served in Cameroon for eight years while working, as cardinals do, in two part-time positions in the Vatican (Evangelization of Peoples, and Migrants and Tourism). He returned to Montreal in 1976 and served in parishes, there aiding Asian immigrants, going again to Africa in 1979. Then he left to travel the world in search of people he could help. From 1980 to 1981 he visited suffering people in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. He helped establish a hospital for persons with leprosy in India in 1982, and he founded a hospital in Haiti in 1985.

His numerous charitable foundations included:

  • the Gold Cross (1948);
  • the Foyer of Charity (1951);
  • the Hôpital Saint-Charles-Borromée for the chronically ill (1956);
  • Fame Pereo (1964);
  • Cardinal Léger and His Endeavours (1969);
  • the Centre de Rééducation des Handicapés de Yaoundé [Cameroon] (1972);
  • the Jules and Paul-Émile Léger Foundation (1981) (to which he bequeathed all his property);
  • the Partners of the Cardinal (1983);
  • the Partners of the World (1986); and
  • Elderaid (1986)

Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger understood what St. Lawrence (c. 225-258) understood when Lawrence was commanded by Roman Emperor Valerian to bring the treasures of the Church to him. St. Lawrence, a deacon responsible for the distribution of alms to the poor, brought to Valerian the poor of Rome and declared: “Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.”

Cardinals are called “Princes of the Church.” One biographer called Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger “a prince among the poor.” He died in 1991 at age 87.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis named after St. Francis of Assisi, was in an Argentine seminary in 1967 when Cardinal Léger resigned as archbishop and became a missionary to persons with leprosy. He was age 31 and would have known of the event because it made international news in the secular and religious press. Bergoglio was made a bishop at age 55 in 1992, the year after the Cardinal’s obituaries appeared in the newspapers. I would not be surprised to learn that Pope Francis is inspired, in part, by Cardinal Léger.


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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