MANCHESTER - "Bienvenue, my son."
With those words, the Rev. Richard Dion welcomed Gerald Cyprien Lacroix, the newly elevated cardinal of Quebec, back to his home parish of St. Anthony of Padua Saturday afternoon.
It felt like a true homecoming, the church filled with old friends, former classmates and members of Lacroix's large extended family, including his beaming parents, Raymond and Brigitte Lacroix.
The night before, the cardinal's mother had prepared his favorite salmon dish for about 35 members of the family.
The church brought in extra seats to accommodate about 900 people, but it was still standing room only by the time the 4 p.m. Mass began.
The cardinal celebrated Mass alongside Bishop Peter Libasci, retired Bishop John McCormack and some priests from the diocese. Libasci told Lacroix his visit is "an occasion of great joy and a blessing to us all."
Later, Lacroix returned to his alma mater, Trinity High School, for dinner and a reception.
And the celebration continues this morning, with Cardinal Lacroix celebrating Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral at 10:30 a.m.
In an interview before Saturday Mass, Cardinal Lacroix said he's proud to return here as a French-Canadian "immigrant." For while he was born in Canada and has found his religious vocation there, he said he considers Manchester home.
Lacroix's elevation to cardinal came just five years after he was chosen by Pope Benedict to be auxiliary bishop. Asked why he thinks Pope Francis chose him, he demurred: "You'd have to ask Pope Francis for that."
But he said, "I am so touched by the confidence, the trust, that the Holy Father has manifested in calling me to become bishop, archbishop and now cardinal. And I'm happy to serve where the church needs me.
"I've noticed throughout my life that saying yes to the Lord brings a lot of joy."
Early in his religious vocation, Lacroix spent time in Colombia as a missionary. He said he still considers himself a missionary because much of his time is spent visiting families and parishes in small towns around Quebec.
He noted that his home parish in Canada has only 101 residents: "It's the only town in Quebec that can boast and say 1 percent of our population is a cardinal."
Lacroix called Pope Francis "a breath of fresh air."
"His life is a witness to what he preaches. He's so simple - like Jesus, I imagine, was. He's so close to the people, and he has that special touch with the poor, those who are suffering, those who feel outcast. He goes to them right away."
Indeed, Lacroix himself seems part of a new spirit reinvigorating the Catholic church. Asked about that, he said, "I'm a firm believer that the Holy Spirit brings us the pastors and the Popes we need each time in the history of the church.
"We needed a John Paul II to go out to all the world and do what he did. We needed a Pope Benedict XVI with his solid teaching rooted in the Gospel and the teachings of the church...."
And the church needs a Francis at this time, he said.
"He looks at us and says you have to be, where you live, a saint. You're called to be a disciple and a missionary ... wherever you are.
"And he's putting the whole church in movement in a new way. ... Everybody has a responsibility in this big family, and he's helping us to discover more what it is."
Lacroix was 8 years old when his parents moved here from Canada; his father's first job was as a night janitor at Bee Bee Shoe.
The young Lacroix attended St. Anthony grammar school and junior high and went on to Trinity High School and then Saint Anselm College. Ask about Trinity and he at once declares, "I am a Pioneer."
Trinity students Michael Toomey, Joseph Lamontagne and Liam Quinn served as flag bearers outside the church yesterday, holding the U.S., Canadian and papal flags.
Toomey said Lacroix's elevation is a source of pride for Trinity students. "To say a cardinal came from your school isn't something a lot of people can say," he said.
Ovide Lamontagne was a classmate of Lacroix at Trinity. During a reception Saturday afternoon at St. Anthony's rectory, Lamontagne handed over his 1975 Pioneer yearbook, their two senior photos side by side. "You never signed my yearbook," he told him.
The cardinal promptly did so.
Lacroix has been a frequent visitor to St. Anthony Church when he comes home to see his parents, and he sometimes celebrates Mass in French, parishioners said.
But this visit was "historic," said usher Bill Cote. "This is a big event here."
"When he made bishop, we were ecstatic," said Mike Arnts, a member of the choir at St. Anthony. "Then he made archbishop, and he'd keep coming back from time to time to see his folks."
Now that Lacroix is a cardinal, Arnts wonders whether Lacroix could someday become Pope. "He's very real, down to earth," he said. "Very genuine.
"The gentleman is just outstanding, what can I say?"
Arnts sees a resurgence in the church and senses that both Pope Francis and Cardinal Lacroix are part of that new spirit. "The good Lord has his ways, and he's got his reasons he allows things to happen," he said.
The Archdiocese of Quebec will have a chance to return the hospitality in July, when Lacroix will welcome Catholic pilgrims from New Hampshire during the 350th anniversary celebration of the founding of the first parish in Canada.
Lacroix encouraged Granite Staters of French-Canadian heritage to attend those festivities. "It's always good to come back to your roots," he said.