The Path to Sainthood
The story of New Hampshire native Venerable William Gagnon, O.H.
By Bridget Martin, Artwork by Matthew Alderman
Forty-five years ago this month, in the war ravaged jungles of Vietnam, the earthly life of Venerable William Gagnon, O.H., came to an end. Today, remarkably, the spiritual journey of this Catholic missionary and New Hampshire native continues as he ascends the long road to sainthood.
Brother William lived in three countries, traversed three continents, and spoke fluent French and English. At the age of 30, he professed his solemn vows as a brother of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, where he held several leadership positions before becoming a missionary. Called by God to ease the suffering of others, he was sent to modern-day Vietnam in 1952, where he spent the next 20 years protecting and praying alongside Vietnamese refugees. But his faith story begins much closer to home, in Dover, where he was baptized in St. Charles Borromeo Church on May 16, 1905, the same day as his birth.
The second eldest of 10 children, Brother William’s early life, like that of many French Canadian immigrants, centered around where his parents, natives of Québec, could find steady work. The family frequently relocated between Dover, N.H., Barton, Vt., and St. Marc-du-Lac-Long, Québec, during his childhood. “In Dover, the family worked in textile mills, and in Barton they worked on the family dairy farm,” recalls Melissa Lussier, Brother William’s great niece. “They pretty much went wherever they could make money. They were like gypsies in that sense.”
Though the Gagnon family’s locations changed often, the love and support of their home was steadfast, and Brother William exhibited familial devotion from a young age, often caring for his younger siblings. As an adolescent, he saved his sisters from a fire that threatened to overtake the family farm in Québec, leading them in prayer while they sought refuge from the flames in a nearby field. Thanks to his actions, no one was hurt.
By the time he was a teenager, William felt called to religious life, but it took several years to convince his mother of his vocation. Between 1924 and 1925, William completed three stays as a postulant with the Marist Brothers congregation in Québec. However, he returned to the dairy farm and, later, to Dover’s cotton mills when his family faced financial troubles. Denis Morin, the archivist of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God and the Vice Postulator for Brother William’s cause for sainthood, believes that his time in Dover’s mills honed the work ethic and understanding that would later characterize his experience in Vietnam. “He empathized with the social conditions of the working-class for the rest of his life,” Morin explains. “He was very connected to peoples’ reality.”
Religious and Missionary Life
Finally, in October 1930, at the age of 25 and with his mother’s blessing, William entered the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God in Montreal as a postulant. Except for a brief leave of absence the following year to work for his family, William found his permanent spiritual home in the order, professing his solemn vows in 1935.
For 15 years, Brother William held various posts within the order, including head of the refectory and supply room, director of pre-postulants and bursar and vocation recruiter. He was also appointed as General Delegate of Canada, Provincial Superior and Prior. Brothers remember him as “a person who was always smiling; very welcoming, and very, very compassionate,” says Denis Morin. In 1951, Brother William volunteered to be a missionary and was dispatched to the destitute village of Bui-Chu in North Vietnam.
He scrawled updates from Vietnam across delicate pieces of rice paper, and posted his letters to Dover and Somersworth, where several of his siblings had settled. Writing to his sister Alice and her husband Harry, Melissa Lussier’s grandparents, in December 1964, his words were optimistic, but laced with wartime realities: “We are somehow apprehensive at times but not too disturbed. In approximately four miles from our mission there is a large military base with 30 damaged or destroyed planes. With each blast of the cannons and the displacement of air, we feel the vibrations in our houses.”
Thousands of miles away from where he first learned agricultural skills, farming remained a cornerstone to the wellbeing of his new community. In Vietnam, he raised pigs, chickens and rabbits to feed the refugees at the hospital the brothers oversaw. “It is not an easy task during a war to find all the necessary food to feed 300 persons when you don’t have any revenue,” he explained in a letter home dated February 1966. “However, I must say that the Divine Providence is always there…Our poor always have something to eat.”
He also turned to farming as a coping mechanism, which he described in a letter to Alice and Harry eight months later: “The situation of our poor country does not change very much, the grief and misery continue daily, when will they end? …As for myself I continue to distract myself with a little farming.” He even managed to introduce New England stock in Vietnam: “Presently I have 200 young chickens. They are beautiful and as they are [a breed from] NH, I am very fond of them but the other poor chickens seem to be saying it is too hot here in Vietnam.”
No matter the suffering or violence around him, Brother William signed his letters: “Your brother who thinks of you often, F. William.”
Devoted to the End
As the conflict in Vietnam continued to escalate, Brother William’s letters became more exasperated in tone. Communist forces invaded Bui-Chu and forced the community to flee to South Vietnam, where he and his confreres established a mission outside of Saigon. He was cognizant of the everyday violence and of God’s protection. In 1969 he wrote to his sister: “Last night during the recitation of vespers along comes a new communist rocket, a terrible explosion, we go outside and see that it had fallen on our community’s house, one section almost entirely destroyed, all the furniture in pieces, no more roof, etc. If that awful rocket had fallen 30 minutes later, we would all have been there. Again, thanks to the Lord for having protected us so well. Nothing is improving, but it’s those rockets fired here and there without a precise target and that is what is most nerve wracking. We are nevertheless hopeful that God will have his hour for those poor people who have suffered for years.”
Despite being surrounded by war, the brothers never discussed the politics behind it. “In some circumstances, Brother William would come into contact with Communist sympathizers or pro-American supporters, but he and the other brothers never discussed political convictions,” Denis Morin explains. “Their main apostolate was to cure people and take care of people and refugees.”
Brother William had faith that wartime would not last forever, and he therefore focused on empowering his own foundation. “He stressed that the brothers wouldn’t always be in Vietnam,” Morin explains. “He believed it was necessary to give the Vietnamese confreres the tools to rule their own houses.” During Mass, the liturgy was read in English, French and Vietnamese. He also joined Vietnamese traditions, including Tet, the lunar New Year. During one such celebration in 1968, a crowd of 5,000 gathered in the back lot of a hospital, enjoying food and company. Abruptly, Brother William stopped the festivities, insisting that everyone return home. Within an hour, the entire area was bombed – and thousands of lives were saved because of Brother William’s “providential intuition to protect,” insists Morin.
While he often assumed the role of protector, Brother William never considered himself superior to the villagers. Rather, he came to feel a deep kinship with the Vietnamese refugees. During his 20 years as a missionary, he only returned home twice. “He considered the Vietnamese his people,” Melissa Lussier explains. “He preferred to live in Vietnam and help the suffering.” Brother William developed heart disease after several years of living in Vietnam, but he postponed the order’s suggestion to return to North America for care. On Feb. 28, 1972, after two decades of alleviating suffering as a missionary in Vietnam, Brother William died from health complications. He was buried in the village of Bien-Hoa on March 1. Three days later and a hemisphere away, the Gagnon family held a funeral Mass for Brother William at St. Martin Parish in Somersworth.
Nearly half a century after Brother William’s death, many devoted villagers in Bien-Hoa continue to make a daily pilgrimage to pray at his graveside, though his formal road to sainthood began where his life did – in New Hampshire. In 1994, Paul-Pie Chassé, Brother William’s nephew by marriage and fellow New Hampshire native, approached the General Curia about considering Brother William’s cause for sainthood. He had visited Brother William in Vietnam and witnessed his selfless efforts firsthand. “Paul-Pie saw Brother William’s work with the sick and infirm and wanted to bring his compassion and devotion to the attention of the Vatican,” Denis Morin explains. “He believed Brother William would be a wonderful example for Catholics.”
Brother Spenard, then Vice Postulator of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, was asked to prepare documentation for Rome’s consideration. The process spanned nearly a decade and included the compilation of a 25-page book about Brother William’s life, an inquiry process with those who had known Brother William in Montreal, and a trip to Vietnam to interview witnesses there. When Brother Spenard died in 2000, Morin assumed responsibility as Vice Postulator. He finished preparing the materials, which culminated in twelve 300-page volumes of documentary proof including letters, articles and biographical information related to Brother William. “In the cause for canonization, the theological aspect and personal aspect are just as important; you need to know the life of the person,” Morin explains.
In 2009, Brother William’s 900-page dossier, Positio, was shipped to the Vatican. Six years later, on Dec. 14, 2015, Morin received notice that Brother William was declared Venerable, an official acknowledgement of his heroic embodiment of Christian virtues, and the first step to being canonized a saint. Though Paul-Pie died in 2008, Morin has kept in touch with Brother William’s descendants. Lussier remembers her grandmother’s loving stories of “Uncle Willie,” as the family referred to him. “It’s humbling to be related to someone who was so pure of heart,” she says.
Brother William’s cause for sainthood has especially resonated within the communities that shaped him. “He considered both New England and Montreal his homes,” Morin explains, and he has found that many of the people interested in Brother William’s cause are from New England and Manitoba. One such person is Ann Durkin Fisher, who has dedicated several years to documenting the lives of her ancestors in Dover. She points to the significance his cause holds for New Hampshire’s French Canadian community, especially as the former Saint Charles Borromeo Church in Dover has been torn down. “There will really be no physical remains of the French Canadian immigrants,” she says. “So this story of Brother William’s is inspiring during a difficult time.” Brother William’s roots are a source of solace for Fisher. “It seems to me in looking at [his] life that all roads lead back to Dover, even if the road for him ultimately led him far from Dover,” she explains.
An Invitation to Prayer
The road to sainthood will also be a long one for Brother William, but already people can begin to rejoice and draw inspiration from his holy life. Says Bishop Peter Libasci, “The naming of Brother William as Venerable by Pope Francis is a wonderful gift to the Church in Montreal, Quebec, the Church in New Hampshire, and Vietnam and, indeed, the whole world. He gave his life in service to refugees in Vietnam; surely his example is worthy of imitation in these days when so many are in need due to the ongoing conflict in Syria and elsewhere in our world."
Currently Denis Morin is awaiting reports of miracles associated with Brother William. Miracles tend to be related to a physical condition and must be deemed miraculous by a scientist or doctor. “In Rome, there is no rush and it is necessary to have a lot of patience,” Morin cautions. He likens the steps to sainthood to Olympic medals, comparing the status of venerable to bronze, beatification to silver, and sainthood to gold. While Morin faces what can feel like a marathon process, he prays to Brother William every day. “I feel very connected to him and I often ask him for guidance and to watch over me,” he says. “Normally, I receive answers to what I am seeking and I feel less stressed.”
Morin encourages others to join in seeking the intercession of Brother William, and he hopes that people will be inspired by Brother William’s sense of engagement with those in need and his dedication to his faith, no matter the circumstances. “For the Order in Montreal and even more so in Vietnam, this is an event of great pride and happiness,” says Morin. “Not for the institution of the Order, but to convey God’s glory through Brother William and solidify a new role model for Catholics.”
Prayer of Intercession
Lord, Jesus, Your mercy inspired the Venerable William Gagnon, O.H., to live hospitality with the ill, the refugees and the poor. Grant that we may always minister to all suffering people with Charity, as did this Son of St. John of God. Lord, hear the prayer that we address to you [personal intention] by the intercession of the Venerable William Gagnon, in order that we may be affirmed in our faith and that your glory and the joy of the Church be proclaimed. Amen.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be to the Father.
Print out and color Matthew Alderman’s illustration of Venerable William Gagnon, O.H., from this month’s cover story. It's the last page of the Education Guide. Include 50-100 words on how Brother William’s story inspired you.
Send your materials by March 31, 2017 to: Parable, Attn: Coloring Contest, 153 Ash Street, Manchester, NH 03104
Our favorites will be put on the diocesan website and one will be published in Parable. Open to all children through eighth grade.