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Gérard Vallée
Gérard Vallée

Lives Lived: Gérard Vallée, 83 Add to ...

Teacher, polyglot, humanitarian, friend. Born on Aug. 12, 1933, in Tring-Jonction, Que.; died on Oct. 15, 2016, in Hamilton, Ont., of cardiac arrest, aged 83.

Gérard grew up in rural Quebec, the youngest in a family of five rambunctious boys and one girl, who had the misfortune of being the eldest. When he was 12, the family moved to Quebec City, where he began serious studies of Greek and Latin. From there, it was a natural progression to Jesuit training in literature, philosophy, and theology in Montreal.

This auspicious beginning led to his ordination as a Jesuit priest in 1965. In making that commitment, Gérard was very much a child of his times. The Catholic church under Pope John XXIII had entered a period of spiritual renewal. The dignity of all people was being championed, as was the duty of all countries to build an environment of peace. In those heady times, the church seemed the right place for an idealistic, principled young man like Gérard.

After his ordination, he spent six years in Germany, where he earned his doctorate in ecumenical theology in 1971. That same year, he went to South Vietnam to teach in a seminary, and learned to sleep through the distant sounds of night bombing. In 1972, he went to Rome and spent two months deciding whether to leave the priesthood, which, after much soul-searching, he did.

Although he was formally “reduced to lay status,” Gérard continued to live by the values that had shaped him. Teaching was a vocation. He taught at Hamilton’s McMaster University for 21 years in a variety of fields such as medieval philosophy and theology, history of religions, and challenges to religious faith in modern times. In 1993, he took early retirement but continued his teaching as a volunteer in Nigeria and India.

Gérard’s intellectual discipline was remarkable. He taught himself the fundamentals of typing in just four hours. Along with French, he knew both modern and ancient tongues – English, German, Greek, Latin, and, for good measure, Coptic. In later years, when complimented on his English, he would sheepishly admit that he began his study of the language by watching Sesame Street.

But for all his learning, perhaps his ecumenical spirit was his crowning glory. Everywhere he went, he acquired friends of a wide variety of religious belief and unbelief. He was faithful to these friends, whether they were colleagues, former students or the Vietnamese refugees he helped to settle in Canada.

Gérard was unfailingly kind and thoughtful. I remember the first thing he said to me, a transplant from the United States, 40 years ago: “Make winter your friend,” he counselled. By that he meant that I should learn to ice skate, ski or play hockey. I did none of those things, but I knew from that time on that he had my best interests at heart. This winter, when the snow begins to fall, I will think back with a mixture of sadness and gratitude, that I had Gérard as a cherished friend.

Alan Mendelson is Gérard’s friend.

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