ROME — The son of a carpenter forever changed the world; the son of a lumberjack might just do the same for the Catholic Church in Quebec.
Today, Pope Francis will elevate Quebec Archbishop Gerald Lacroix and 18 other bishops to cardinal at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Snow, driving winds, and flight delays could not keep the family and friends of the former Manchester resident, Trinity High School graduate and St. Anselm College alumnus from journeying to Rome to share in the celebrations.
Lacroix's rise in the church has been swift and marked a passion for the missionary work of the church and for the new evangelization. As the only newly appointed cardinal from North America, Lacroix has captured worldwide attention, particularly in light of Pope Francis' increased focus on the church's growing presence in the southern hemisphere.
Having spent 10 years as a missionary priest in Colombia, Cardinal Lacroix is no stranger to the needs of the church in the developing world and Pope Francis' renewed emphasis on serving the needs of the poor. As archbishop, Lacroix gained wide respect in Quebec and across Canada as a humble and caring shepherd in the model of Francis.
On Friday morning at a special Mass for nearly 200 family members and friends in St. Peter's Basilica, Lacroix spoke of his gratitude for the many people who have shared in his life's journey from his native Saint-Hilaire-de-Dorset, Quebec, to Manchester, to Quebec City, and now to Rome. Lacroix expressed great humility and joy in a Mass celebrated in three languages — French, English, and Spanish — each of which told part of his own story.
Derek Gagnon, 28, of Manchester has a long history with Lacroix: He's the cardinal's nephew. They have always been close; so close in fact that Lacroix travelled to Peru to officiate at Gagnon's wedding. When asked why he has come to Rome to celebrate his uncle's historic moment, Derek said, "I would not miss it for the world."
The trip wasn't without its complications, however. Derek's wife, Vanessa Arce, a Peruvian national, was denied boarding for the flight to Rome when it was discovered that she lacked the necessary visa.
Derek explained how he called his Uncle Gerry at midnight Rome time and awoke him to tell him that he and Vanessa were in jam and unsure what to do next. Lacroix, half asleep, simply replied, "I don't know what to tell you to do, but I will pray for you."
Pray is exactly what he did, as did Derek and Vanessa. Remarkably, they were able to get an unscheduled meeting at the consulate's office the next morning and received a visa for travel to Europe within the hour, an unheard of bureaucratic feat. "God must have wanted us there," Vanessa said.
Derek calls his journey to Rome "a miracle." With a smile in her eyes, Vanessa spoke of another miracle. "We couldn't miss the opportunity for Uncle Gerry to bless our unborn son," she said.
Cardinal Lacroix blessed the group that travelled to Rome to share in the celebration, including friends who had travelled from Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, France, Quebec, and, the most sizable contingent of all, from the Granite State.
Rev. Charles Pawlowski, parochial vicar from St. Elizabeth Seton Parish in Bedford, expressed surprise at just how many New Hampshire natives he keeps "bumping into" in Rome, including parishioners from St. Joseph's Cathedral, St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Manchester, St. Elizabeth Seton, and St. Aloysius of Gonzaga Parish in Nashua.
Cardinal Lacroix celebrated Friday morning's Mass in the basilica at the altar dedicated to St. Joseph, patron of Canada and the Diocese of Manchester. In his approachable and jovial manner, Lacroix reflected on the traditional color of cardinals' clerical garb. "They don't make us wear red clothes to make us look any better, they clothe us in red to remind us that we are called to give of ourselves totally, like the martyrs and the saints."
Lacroix's emphasis on giving all and his love of his family and friends is emblematic of his style, which has earned him the reputation in Quebec as the "people's bishop."
There were few prouder of the "people's bishop" than Vivian Laurendeau, the cardinal's aunt, who described him as "always lovable, humble, gentle, and kind."
Kind is also exactly how Margie Cusson of Manchester described Lacroix. Cusson's husband shared a lifelong friendship with Lacroix. Even after his friend's death, Cardinal Lacroix remained close to Cusson's family, inviting Margie to share in his celebrations in Rome.
David Gagnon, a parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua (the Lacroix family's home parish), a graduate of Trinity High School and now a seminarian for the Diocese of Manchester, said he was honored to be invited to Rome. Gagnon described how "Cardinal Lacroix has a big heart, and he shares it with all he meets."
Gagnon recalled first meeting Lacroix when the cardinal-to-be returned to Trinity to celebrate Mass. Since then, Gagnon has forged a connection with Lacroix, sharing common parish and high school bonds as well as a journey to the priesthood. Gagnon declared "it is truly incredible to have one your own make it so big and yet never forget his roots."
Surrounded by his mom and dad, his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and his many close friends, it was obvious that Cardinal Lacroix is today as much of a hometown boy as he was when he walked the halls of Trinity High and the hilltop of St. Anselm College.
Cardinal Lacroix's journey may have taken him to Quebec and to Rome but his roots are deep in New Hampshire, and many who share those roots will be on hand today as the Holy Father presents him with the red hat symbolic of his new office.