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A wish for us

The monument is a large boulder in the small village of La Brosse-Montceaux some 80 kilometres east from Paris. It holds a plaque which bears a testimonial to victims of a Nazi atrocity committed there on July 24, 1944.

The monument is a large boulder in the small village of La Brosse-Montceaux some 80 kilometres east from Paris.

It holds a plaque which bears a testimonial to victims of a Nazi atrocity committed there on July 24, 1944. The last phrase reads, “Ils voulaient que vienne la civilisation de l’Amour.” (Their wish was for the coming of a civilization of love).

Pierre Rigaud was there that day, along with Jean-Marie Mouchet, Pierre Veyrat, Denis Buliard and 90 other seminarians, like themselves, with priests and brothers at the local Oblate of Mary Immaculate scholasticate.

Somehow their active support of the French underground had been betrayed. The Nazis discovered an unknown number of the Oblate community there had assisted in co-ordinating allied air drops of weapons for the resistance.

It is true many in this religious community placed their skills in the service of their country. They believed they had to fight against tyranny and oppression. Of course, not all chose to do so. But among those who did was then-24-year-old Rigaud, who fixed weapons damaged in the drops. Twenty-one-year-old Pierre Veyrat used his artistic talent to create false identity cards.

When the Gestapo discovered parachutes and empty weapon containers hidden in a nearby cemetery, the Oblates were ordered from their cloister. They forced a suspected brother, two priests and two seminarians to come forward. Brutally tortured, these men did not talk. The Gestapo officer, a man called Korff, brought the five out. He told all as reported in a 1981 Oblate publication, “You have to tell me where the weapons are, otherwise I will kill you one after the other and I will start with these men.”

He shot a priest first then ordered a subordinate to count everyone else off in groups of 10.

Just as the fifth tortured man, the brother, was executed, a Wehrmacht regular army colonel, alerted to what was happening, arrived. The killing stopped. The remaining Oblates, though, all faced the prospect of Buchenwald, a notorious concentration camp.

Circumstances conspired to see this never happened. With the rapid advance of Allied forces across France by September, the surviving Oblates of La Brosse-Montceaux had been liberated.

By November, the scattered Oblates seminarians returned to their studies at La Brosse-Montceaux in preparation for their eventual ordination as Catholic priests.

A newly ordained Father Pierre Rigaud said his first mass on July 6, 1946. Born 26 years earlier, on May 29, 1920, in Mauves sur Loire on France’s Atlantic coast, he recalls wanting early on to be a priest.

Tales of a family friend serving as a frontier priest in northern Alberta had inspired him.

The deaths of his father and his older brother delayed his pursuit of a priestly vocation as he had to take charge at 17 of the family horse-trading business. He was not to be denied, however, and three years later in now German occupied France, he was accepted as an Oblate novice taking his first step towards priesthood.

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate had quickly grown from a small group of men reaching out to the poor and marginalized in post-revolutionary France so that by the late 1840s they could send missionaries as far as to the peoples of the Mackenzie River.

Mary McCarthy writes in her book From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth that the “Oblates came to the Mackenzie region with the goal of incorporating the Dene into Roman Catholicism.”

For these religious pioneers, though, the inculturation of their religion into the indigenous cultures they contacted did not mean assimilation. It was, McCarthy continued, “on the basis that it was a universal religion to which all cultures could adapt without violating their individual integrity.”

Oblates made brief forays into the Yukon in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century they established a permanent presence in this territory. When asked by his Oblate superior in 1946 where he wanted to go, the newly ordained Father Rigaud said without hesitation, “I want to go to Canada, anywhere in the North.”

But after a moment of reflection he added, “Oh, no, but not the Yukon - there are just prospectors there, no Indians.”

A week later, he was off to the Yukon leaving behind home, family and fellow Oblates for a new life in the territory that he would soon learn a lot more about.

By the summer of 1947, after several months of intensive work on his English in Battleford, Saskatchewan, Rigaud made it up the Alaska Highway to the Yukon.

Bishop Coudert then sent him off to assist Father Eusebe Morisset in Burwash Landing. The building of the highway had been accompanied by the rapid expansion of Catholic missions along it from Prophet River and Watson Lake to the shores of Kluane Lake where the Jacquot brothers had encouraged Morisset to build a church and school in their community.

Further honing his scrounging skills first developed in wartime Europe, Rigaud found the needed materials to wire the church and day school in Burwash Landing, which Henri Jacquot let him hook up to the lodge generator.

With proven skills, he was sent to Snag in 1948. The White River First Nation people still used the village in their traditional seasonal rounds.

The cold-catching, bowl-shaped valley of the White River had set the all-time-low temperature record for North America the previous year at the auxiliary military airfield about six kilometres south of the village.

Rigaud saw education as an obvious priority. Though not a teacher, he took on that needed role adapting the education to the cultural timetable of the White River people. In a hectic first summer there, Rigaud recalls the two-day work schedule needed to build the church and the school. He would teach during the day then work through the first night and then sleep the second night after another day of teaching while the summer light lasted.

With the help of Brother Soucy, a school then a chapel along with a small house for himself were built.

To this date, Rigaud laments the fact the government and the institutional church did not support the seasonal school model. In those days he says proudly “We were living like them, eating like them and going out on the land with them. We were with them.”

The school in Snag was there for them when they were there five to six months out of the year. No families were disrupted. The people’s culture was honoured. Education in that context would have allowed them to craft their own ways of adapting to the rapidly changing world the highway and the modern ways flowing down it brought.

He told everyone at the time who would listen the seasonal schools were the way to go. It didn’t happen. The southern residential school model was adopted. Father Rigaud can sincerely and honestly say now, “We did our best.” He recalls with great fondness the people and the first Yukon friendships he build along with the school and chapel there.

By 1952, Rigaud had been moved to Ross River. There he learned the dog-mushing skills that would see him place and win in the Sourdough Rendezvous races of the early 1960s.

In 1969, he became an integral part of the building of Faro. Rigaud’s scrounging skills reached their zenith in the construction of the Yukon’s first ecumenical church, the Church of the Apostles there. The arena in that community bears his name as a testimonial to the countless hours he spend assisting and supervising the recreational activities of the youth of Faro. His induction into the Yukon Sport’s Hall of Fame in 1992 provides further witness to this.

After four years in Teslin in the early 1990s, he spent the final 15 years of his pastoral life back on the highway working out of Our Lady of the Way parish in Haines Junction. Last year, at 89 years of age, he finally retired to the Oblate Centre in Whitehorse.

On his 90 birthday this Saturday, after a lifetime of dedicated service to Yukoners of every background, it surely can said that like of his martyred friends of so long ago, ‘Il voulait que vienne la civilisation de l’Amour.’ His wish (for all of us) was for the coming of a civilization of love.

Happy 90th birthday Father Pierre Rigaud!