A truly great American, Barbara Bush, died two weeks ago.
She was 92, the age where her death became more a celebration of an inspirational life than a whirlpool of anguished mourning.
Not surprising, either, that her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, 93, was hospitalized the day after her funeral. He had a blood infection, which sounded serious. While he has recovered, it seems that when a couple has endured for 73 years they won’t stay apart very long.
That’s what family and friends are saying about Marcel “Mel” and Cecile “Sis” Lessard, two powerful figures in the Manchester-area evangelical community who were married for 68 years. They raised a family here in Manchester. They heralded the tidings of Christian salvation both citywide and worldwide. And then they died within 33 days of one another.
Marcel, who was 92, died Feb. 25. Cecile, 89, died on Good Friday, March 30.
“My mom was very tired. She wanted to die for a long time. She kept saying ‘I can’t go until he goes,’” said Celeste Fortin, one of four children and the primary caretaker before they both ended up in a nursing home.
It was a quiet, respectful end for a couple who helped cultivate the evangelical movement in Manchester in the 1970s. Raised Catholic, they migrated to the spirit-heavy world of non-denominational Christianity.
It emphasized upbeat music, arms-aloft worship and Billy Graham-like altar calls. Beliefs were Bible-based, and Scripture was quoted frequently, according to Ed Hiers of Shiloh Community Church.
The Lessards, the Hiers and two other couples founded the Faith Christian Center in the late 1970s. While Manchester Christian Church has two campuses and draws 3,500 to Sunday services nowadays, the 1,100 that Faith Christian drew for Sunday services in the 1970s and 1980s was huge for its day, Hiers said.
The Lessards didn’t park their faith when they drove home from church on Sunday morning. Fortin remembers climbing stairs of triple deckers in the Wilson Street area to deliver bread to poor families, the forerunner of today’s Food for Children effort that distributes food to hundreds on Saturdays.
He founded the Manchester Full Gospel Businessman’s Fellowship International, which sent him on missions to Latin America, Europe and the Philippines. Marcel quickly picked up the language wherever he traveled, a necessity for his one-on-one variety of evangelism.
“He would tell anyone about Jesus Christ if they would just stand still long enough and listen to him,” Hiers said.
Their efforts also brought evangelical celebrities such as Graham, Pat Robertson and David Wilkerson to the area.
When not evangelizing, Marcel sold insurance for Prudential Insurance Company.
“Mom would say ‘I never had to work a day in my life,’ but she worked seven days a week, maintaining the home and four kids,” said Guy Lessard, the youngest of the Lessard children.
Photographs of earlier years show a handsome, blue-eyed Marcel with wavy light hair and a disarming smile. Cecile, a blonde, has sharp French Canadian features and an inviting smile.
Lessard said his parents’ differences became as much a bond as their similarities. He was the outgoing, emotional, just-do-it type person. She was detail oriented and pragmatic. “She kept them grounded, while he took them places,” Lessard said.
The two had been living in their Hamblet Street home, enduring the ailments of old age (including Alzheimer’s) until last August, when congestive heart failure forced Marcel into the Villa Crest nursing home. Cecile lasted solo for five days, then had a major stroke and ended up at Villa Crest. Although in different rooms, they visited frequently.
When Marcel died, Cecile was in his room, asleep in the rocking chair. Fortin was visiting and left the room for a minute. Marcel breathed his last while Cecile slept nearby.
Cecile attended the funeral in a wheelchair. Fortin said she gestured to fellow mourners as if waving good-bye.
Lessard suspects she caught the flu from one of the 200-some guests. Pneumonia quickly developed.
“She was always so strong, moving around and busy,” Fortin said. But when the second round of antibiotics didn’t work, the inevitable became the obvious.
“She’d give me that look of ‘Don’t even try,’” Fortin said. “God and her had agreed on everything.”