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News (Media Awareness Project) - CN ON: Priest Who Took On The Drug Trade
Title:CN ON: Priest Who Took On The Drug Trade
Published On:2012-01-22
Source:Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Fetched On:2012-01-24 06:01:53
Jean-Claude Proulx 1939-2012


Career Took Him From Saving Addicts to Scouts Chaplain, but He Was
Always Happiest on the Streets

While he was training to be a priest in the 1960s, Jean-Claude Proulx
bristled at the monastic life. It was too quiet, too rule-bound, too
confining. He was a non-conformist who wanted to shake things up. And
so, a few years after leaving the Major Seminary on Kilborn Avenue,
he took on the drug trade of Vanier, standing in steely defiance
against the dealers who were defiling the community.

He was determined to be a saviour of the many young addicts, pulling
them off the streets to dry them out, help them find work or return to school.

This put the young priest's life in constant jeopardy.

Late one Christmas Eve, Proulx heard a knock at his door. He
recognized a couple of "shady guys" from a local gang.

"They kidnapped him," says longtime friend Andre Vinette.

Proulx feared a local drug syndicate was finally going to make good
on threats to end his life. He was shoved in a car, and taken to
their club house. They didn't want to do him harm. Instead, they
wanted him to perform mass and take confession. The gang even had the
sacramental bread so Proulx could give communion.

"You'd assume these guys weren't into Christianity. But he talked
with them all night," relates Vinette.

The next morning the gang members brought Proulx home.

The priest, who died on Jan. 10 at age 72, was happiest on the
streets, helping the disadvantaged and downtrodden. Father Andre
Brossard, who entered the priesthood with Proulx, said his longtime
friend was "a disturber."

"Some called him a modern prophet, because he'd ask questions about
difficult topics and force people to be more caring, more spiritual
and to look after the under privileged, and those who are cast away."

Family and friends gathered to recall his remarkable life earlier
this week after a funeral mass at Notre Dame Cathedral.

Proulx was the eldest of a sprawling francophone family that grew to
number eight boys and two girls. They called Loretta Street, west of
Centretown, home. The focus of their life was St. Gerard's Parish,
where he served mass as an altar boy in the local Catholic church.

His mother, Aurore, had been a "very bright student" who quit school
at 16 when her mother died to raise a family of nine. Then, after
having 11 children, her husband died and she raised them alone.
Proulx's brother Andre, a photographer, said his mother "possessed an
amazing emotional intelligence" that meant there were few fights at
the dinner table and most set backs were teachable moments. "Live and
learn," she said. "Our mom was courageous and outspoken."

She also stressed the importance of education to all of her children.

"When I was in grade school every time I opened a new book, she would
write a little thought for me, often from the Bible, but always
inspirational," says Guy, another of Proulx's brothers, who is a
neuropsychologist in Toronto. "She would get us excited about the
smell of a freshly sharpened pencil."

The children spoke impeccable French, excellent English. And then the
Italian immigrants came, they learned Italian to communicate with the
newcomers. This would serve Proulx well years later, when he went to
study at the Vatican in Rome.

The surest way to get an education if you were from a large
francophone family, particularly without a patriarch, was to enter
the seminary. Proulx studied at the St. Alphonse Seminary in
Sainte-Anne de Beaupre, near Quebec City.

Then, from 1960 to 1964, Proulx studied at the Major Seminary in
Ottawa on Kilborn Avenue. Afterward, he was assigned to be the vicar
at St. Charles Parish in Vanier for two years. Then, for six years,
he served as a vicar at Notre Dame Cathedral.

In 1967, the Ottawa Archdiocese appointed Proulx to be the chaplain
for the francophone Scouts of Ottawa. For the next 40 years, he
devoted his free time, not just to serving mass and leading
jamborees, but to establishing the organization. Proulx met with
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Finance Minister Marc Lalonde to
secure funding so francophone Scouts could have their own federation.
Proulx became the provincial president and then the national
president of L'Association Des Scouts Du Canada.

"They picked the right guy for the Scouts," says Suzanne Legault,
acting director general for Les Scouts de l'Est de l'Ontario, and a
longtime friend.

"He was an amazing storyteller. He had a way of capturing kids
attention. No one fidgeted when he said Mass."

In 1986, the Ottawa branch of Les Scouts wrote to the Archdiocese to
ask them to honour Proulx by making him a Monsignor. His supporters
said he had married Scouts, baptized their children, and helped them
discover God in nature.

He was also "the only priest in the world," says Legault, to earn the
top title of Leader and Trainer and be granted all four leather beads
that are part of the prestigious Wood Badge, which Proulx wore around
his neck. Instead of being named a Monsignor, Proulx received the Pro
Ecclesia et Pontifice, or Cross of Honour, the Pope's top award for
service to the church.

Proulx would also be honoured by the Pope for his work combating drug
addiction. Fellow priest Andre Brossard says that Proulx was drawn to
help the derelicts, drunks and drug addicts who populated the ByWard
Market, and increasingly Vanier, in the early 1970s. He became the
founder and director of the Vanier Youth Centre, in partnership with
the Club Richelieu Vanier.

"He told me this story about a man and a woman, both addicts. They
were sick as dogs, and he stayed with them so they wouldn't die,"
recalls Vinette, a former school principal who now teaches at the
University of Ottawa. Proulx rescued the couple, they got married. He
baptized their first child.

But the gangs that ran the drug trade took offence to his efforts.

"The criminal syndicate didn't like that because he was taking way
their customers," says Vinette. "He had a few threats against his
life. He was being followed, and he was under the protection of the RCMP."

To save his life, Proulx left for Haiti. During his two years there,
working among the poor, he learned Creole.

Upon his return, he once again took up his work among the francophone
parishes of Ottawa. He also served as Chaplain at the former Cartier
High School and moral counsellor to the Catholic sector of the
French-language School Board for 12 years.

Andre Cadieux, head guidance counsellor at Cartier High School and
also Scout leader, said of his friend, "He was a damn good
counsellor. He spoke the language of the kids."

Eventually Proulx went to Rome to study at the Vatican. Upon his
return, he taught sociology at Saint Paul University.

In the final few years of his life, he developed Alzheimer's disease.
His decline was quick.

His brother Guy, the neuropsychiatrist who specializes in memory
disorders, says that "dementia doesn't have to be a tragedy if the
person is surrounded by supportive friends and family." And Proulx was.

During his life, he learned to speak seven languages, including
Italian, Creole and even some Vietnamese. He, too, spoke the language
of drugs, addiction and rehabilitation before almost anyone else in
the city. He could also tie a bowline, clove hitch, square and slip knot.
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