A cold that burns
The year 1979 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mgr. Vital Grandin. The people of his native village, Saint-Pierre-sur-Orthe (Mayenne), used the occasion to highlight the great figure of the first Bishop of Saint Albert, who was declared Venerable in December 1966. On Mission Sunday, October 21, 1980, Mgr. Henri Légaré, O.M.I, Archbishop of Grouard, unveiled a plaque on the house where the brave Oblate Missionary was born.
The life of this extraordinary apostle was heroic in many ways. It was a life of trials and tribulations like those of Saint Paul when he writes: “I was once adrift in the open sea for a night and a day. Constantly traveling, I have been in danger from rivers and pagans, in danger in the open country and at sea. I have worked and labored, often without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty and often starving; I have been in the cold without clothes” (2 Cor 11:25-28).
One example is the terrible night of December 15, 1863 that he passed in the company of a Metis boy on the Great Slave Lake. The young bishop was going to celebrate Christmas at Fort Resolution, on the other side of the lake, about 200 kilometers from Fort Providence. With a good dog sled the distance could be covered usually in four or five days. “Just a hop skip and a jump,” said the Bishop to reassure his companion, who was only fourteen years old. So they set out. The dogs were strong and the cold intense. The days passed and all was well. The mission was already in sight; just another little hop!
Suddenly the sun darkened, clouds gathered and a storm broke. In no time the poor travelers were caught up in a blizzard, losing all sense of direction. “We walked for several hours before nightfall, Bishop Grandin later wrote, shouting and listening for an answer to our cries. We could hear only the storm. We were on the bare ice. The wind swept away the snow as it fell. It was impossible to use it to shelter ourselves. We sought to protect ourselves from the cold using our sledge, our dogs and our blankets. Sitting on the ice, the little boy leaning against me, we prepared for death, the poor child confessing himself while I made acts of contrition and of submission to the will of God. Soon we felt that the cold was taking hold of us. We got up and covering ourselves with a blanket began to walk again, as if to flee the death that was pursuing us. We walked thus a long time, stopping when we were not too cold. Suddenly, during a short break in the storm, I thought I could see land. We moved towards the place where we hoped to be able to make a fire. A little later we saw two sledges. We shouted as loud as we could. It was the father and the uncle of my companion who were looking for us. We camped on the island where the mission is and we were only about fifteen minutes away.” When arriving at the mission, Mgr. Grandin found Fathers Gascon and Petitot all in tears, being on the point of offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of his soul!
The following year, the bishop of the icy land went to Rome to inform Pope Pius IX of the successes and the sufferings of his missions. The Holy Father listened to him very attentively. He asked for all the details of the dangers and hardships of these apostolic trips, of the poverty and the loneliness of the missionaries in the Far North. “And where do you get the strength to endure all that?” he asked, moved. “We have with us the One who strengthens us,” answered the bishop. “Without Him, we would be lost and driven to despair. That is why I request Your Holiness to allow us to keep the Blessed Sacrament without lighting the sanctuary lamp.” “Without a lamp for the Blessed Sacrament?” “Yes, Holy Father, we are too poor and oil is too expensive in these polar missions. We cannot constantly keep a lamp lit before the tabernacle in each station.” “But I cannot grant such a permission except in the case of a persecution,” answered Pius IX, hesitating. “It is true, Holy Father, we are not persecuted, but we have so much to suffer. If you take away our dear Lord, what will become of us?” The Pope saw the tears in the eyes of the gentle bishop kneeling before him. Deeply moved, he leaned towards him and said paternally: “Keep the Savior! Yes, keep him. You have such a need of him in your life of sacrifices and deprivations. Go in peace and keep the Blessed Sacrament, even without a lamp.”
Louis Veuillot would say one day to some Oblates, after an interview with Bishop Grandin: “What a fine bishop you have in the ice country; he certainly makes us understand that the cold burns!”
André DORVAL, OMI