Cardinal Paul-Émile  LÉGER

1904-1991

Cardinal Paul-Émile LÉGER 1904-1991

1985 Social Social

The spiritual leader who for seventeen years led the Archdiocese of Montréal, His Eminence Paul-Émile, Cardinal Léger is first remembered by Montrealers for his culture, his gift for preaching and his remarkable enthusiasm. Only later did they discover the extent and the greatness of his work among the poor, the handicapped and the lepers of the world.

Born in Valleyfield in 1904, Cardinal Léger spent his childhood and youth in Saint-Anicet and in Saint-Polycarpe, Quebec. He was ordained in 1929, following his studies at the Séminaire de Sainte-Thérèse and at the Grand Séminaire de Montréal. Upon finishing his studies in canon law in Paris, the young Sulpician spent the next two years teaching. During this time he developed a growing interest in missionary work. In 1933, he was chosen to establish a seminary in Fukuoka, Japan. He remained there until 1939. Despite the difficulties of learning a new language and a new culture and despite his lengthy isolation, he retains deep-seated and affectionate memories of his stay in Japan.

In the seven years that followed, he was Vicar-General and parish priest at Sainte-Cécile Cathedral in Valleyfield. While fulfilling numerous responsibilities, he developed a talent for preaching and soon his sermons and homilies earned him a great deal of admiration. In 1941, he was asked to preach the Lent sermons at Notre-Dame Church in Montréal. A press clipping of the time read: "Monsignor Léger is ranked among the most eloquent and best-read orators of distinction who have graced the pulpit of Notre-Dame."

In the fall of 1947, he was appointed Superior of the Canadian Pontifical College in Rome. With the war just ended, he was required to rebuild the college. Not only did he succeed in his task, he also managed to launch an important life-saving operation named The Gold Cross, whose purpose was to rescue Italy's war victims. In Canada and elsewhere, he became known as the protector of the underprivileged.

When he was appointed Archbishop of Montréal in 1950, his first concern was to ease social problems, promising that he would not rest until there were no more poor people in Montréal. In 1953 close to one hundred thousand Montrealers welcomed him back to the city. Just returned from Rome, he had been consecrated Cardinal in recognition of his work. During this time, known as the "Révolution tranquille", he carried out the functions of the Archdiocese while waging his continuous battle on behalf of the "little people". As the Canadian representative at the Second Vatican Council, he played a significant role in the reform of the Catholic Church.

In 1967, Cardinal Léger broke with the tradition of the Church, choosing to relinquish his post in order to devote himself to missionary work. The problems of the Cameroun in Africa seemed particularly urgent to him. Enlisting the support of Canadians, he founded an organization called the Fame Pereo Institute whose mission is to detect, treat and cure leprosy. He also opened a good number of schools, orphanages, hospitals and clinics. Other organizations were later formed. Today, they are grouped together under the title Jules and Paul-Émile Léger Foundation.

His Eminence Paul-Émile, Cardinal Léger has been honoured on a number of occasions for his outstanding work. Among the distinctions he has received are those of Chancellor and Principal Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968 and of Grand Officer of the Ordre National du Québec in 1985.