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Canadian Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte speaks during an interview in his office in Montreal, on March 15, 2005. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Francois RoyThe Associated Press

Plain-spoken, with a penchant for hockey, hot dogs and his home city of Montreal, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte lived his life according to the gospel and the unwavering belief that Jesus had a message, not of retribution, but of hope.

The cardinal, who had been in palliative care at Montreal's Marie-Clarac Hospital, died Wednesday. He was 78.

For the cardinal, whose death came after a long diabetes-related illness, there was never a narrow, academic interpretation of Catholic doctrine. Rather, he knew the best hope for the church to renew itself was through reaching out, listening and speaking in a language that people understood, particularly in Quebec, where the institution once held stern, unforgiving sway.

"He was a home boy, not a Rome boy," said Archbishop Anthony Mancini, who was a seminary student in 1966 when he first met the priest who would become a cardinal. He would work side by side with his esteemed colleague as the Montreal archdiocese's vicar-general and, on trips abroad, as his translator of Italian.

It was just after the close of the Second Vatican Council, popularly known as Vatican II, recalled the archbishop, who now heads the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth. The Catholic world was rocked by proposals of a doctrine more in tune with changing times. This especially held true in Quebec, where there was great social upheaval and the faithful were fast leaving the church for a more secular world where rigid moral codes did not apply and societal roles were becoming less defined.

"It was a very difficult time and he was one of the priests charged with our education," Archbishop Mancini said. "For young men coming along, a big question was, 'What was the point and experience of the church?' The cardinal instilled in us a vision of a church that was inclusive, the very vision being brought to fruition today by Pope Francis. He made us feel his excitement and fierceness of heart at the prospect."

Cardinal Turcotte's often-irreverent sense of humour and way with a quip helped burnish his reputation as the "people's priest." In February, 2012, for example, as his beloved Montreal Canadiens were in the midst of a hellish season, he took out newspaper ads urging the faithful to pray for the team. In 2010, during his homily at the funeral of Pat Burns, he noted that the no-nonsense former Habs coach ironically reached the peak of his career in New Jersey with the Devils, a team he led to the Stanley Cup.

Then, there was the traffic-stopping fundraising campaign that was built on the Québécois tradition of swear words based on religious objects – words such as ostie (host), tabarnak (tabernacle) and câlice (chalice) – which were pasted big, bold and black on billboards, bus shelters and the doors of stately churches, with their dictionary definitions in smaller type underneath.

"There were no walls around his church," said John Zucchi, a Catholic studies professor at McGill University who sat with the cardinal on the local diocesan pastoral council. "He was a realist – I remember one evening, he stated that we're living in a post-Christian world. It was difficult for him, but he didn't feel besieged. He didn't want to bring back a triumphal church. But he believed we are here to spread Christ's message, as simple as that."

Jean-Claude Turcotte was born on June 26, 1936, the second of seven children in a middle-class family in Villeray, a neighbourhood in Montreal's north end. Paul-Émile Turcotte, his father, was a wholesale buyer of iron products; Paul-Émile met his future wife, Rita Gravel, through her father, who knew the younger man on a professional basis and considered him kind, handsome and intelligent enough for his daughter. The parents instilled in their children a love of learning, religion and, above all else, family.

Mrs. Turcotte was so determined that her children succeed in their studies that she made sure she knew their subjects inside out, including Latin and mathematics, in order to ensure they were keeping up and completing their homework. She also declared supper to be sacrosanct; it was often held late because every member of the family had to be home before it was served. Often, their dining room overflowed with the children's friends, parents of friends, cousins, aunts and uncles, all coming to eat, laugh and review the day in its minutiae.

"No television was allowed," the cardinal told two academics who were conducting a management case study of the Montreal archdiocese under his watch. "We had great fun talking. I think that's what makes a family."

While Mrs. Turcotte ran the house with an iron fist, cleaned, prepared meals and checked on the children's homework, it was Turcotte père who always made himself available to talk to – about nothing in particular, about their lives, their friends and their dreams. It was he who drove them to school and picked them up at the end of the day, and who ferried them to and from all their various sports activities.

When he was still in primary school, the family suffered its first loss: One of Jean-Claude's younger brothers, Michel, who was born with a severe neurological disability, died at the age of 18 months. While he was mourning, the death marked the future cardinal in another way, too.

"[Michel] was being treated by Dr. [Wilder] Penfield. The famous Dr. Penfield," the cardinal recalled. "He said to my father, 'It's a shame that we don't have the science to save this infant. I'm not going to charge you a penny.' Now, my father did not have health insurance. He was a francophone and he was not rich but [Penfield and his team] did everything they could to save that little boy.

"That really stuck with me."

In 1955, after completing classical studies at Collège André-Grasset in Montreal's north end, the future cardinal studied to become a priest at the Grand Séminaire de Montréal and received a degree from the department of theology at the University of Montreal. Ordained in 1959, he was appointed curate of the parish of Saint-Mathias-Apôtre; two years later, he was named assistant diocesan chaplain of the Young Christian Workers.

In 1963, he left for Lille, France, to do a year of studies in pastoral work. Upon his return, he began to rise through the ranks of the church; his curriculum vitae included a three-year stint as the diocesan chaplain of the Christian Worker Movement for three years, various administrative jobs within Montreal's Office for Clergy and, in 1981, an appointment as vicar-general of the Montreal archdiocese and general co-ordinator for pastoral activities.

In effect, he was the aide-de-camp to the reform-minded Paul Grégoire, who was then the archbishop of Montreal. Among his more prominent tasks was organizing the Montreal portion of Pope John-Paul II's visit to Canada in 1984. The logistics – security, crowds and the terrible, lingering image of the Pope falling after being wounded by a bullet as he entered St. Peter's Square in May, 1981 – were frightening. Archbishop Mancini, who at the time was ministering to priests in the city, was in charge of fitting about 3,000 of them into a gathering with the Pope at St. Joseph's Oratory.

"One night, we were sitting around after a meeting and he said, 'Look, is it just me or are all of you no longer sleeping, too?' " the archbishop recalled. "He repeated that line over and over again. There were many, many sleepless nights."

In 1990, the Pope appointed him to replace Cardinal Grégoire, who was stepping down after 22 years; in 1994, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals.

Like his predecessor, Cardinal Turcotte spent 22 years at the helm of the archdiocese, a time marked by both controversy and triumph. In 1996, for example, he was appointed to the Prefecture of Economic Affairs of the Holy See; the following year, he was elected president of the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, a position he held for two years.

There were honorary degrees from institutions such as Concordia University and when a tourist bus full of Quebeckers recognized him in St. Peter's Square, they treated him like a religious rock star, getting him to pose for pictures and sign autographs.

In 2000, a revised edition of the bestseller The Next Pope named Cardinal Turcotte as a likely successor to Pope John Paul II; however, after the Pope's death in 2005, the Irish betting agency Paddy Power said Cardinal Turcotte was a long shot at 100 to 1.

There were some who criticized the response of the church to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests, decrying the offer of compassion rather than compensation and the diocese's decision to grant a study bursary to Philippe de Maupeou, a priest who was banished from his parish for molesting an 8-year-old girl.

The Duplessis Orphans called for a boycott of collection plates when Cardinal Turcotte said he could not offer financial compensation as recompense for childhoods spent as psychiatric patients and wards of the church – all because they were born out of wedlock in the 1940s and 1950s, when Maurice Duplessis ran the province with an iron fist backed by religious fervour.

In 2008, he renounced the Order of Canada membership he had been granted in 1996 because Henry Morgentaler, the pro-choice doctor and women's-rights advocate, was granted the same honour.

But no matter what was happening in the outside world and no matter who had him in their sights, he held steadfast to his first order of business, be it donning a butcher's apron to ladle out soup for the homeless or playing host to a blood-drive clinic each year around Easter.

"We are trying to be a church focused on the message of the gospel, the message truly lived," Archbishop Mancini said. "When Pope Francis was elected, Cardinal Turcotte was one of the electors and I see the resonance of the fact they are on the same page and reflect similar points of view. This took time.

"The cardinal did not have multiple degrees," the archbishop continued. "He did not spend his time cloistered in a classroom. He was a man of the street – a man constantly interacting with the ordinary Joe and Josephine on the road."

For years, he wrote a column on faith for the tabloid Journal de Montréal. He loved walking to the Bell Centre to watch his beloved Habs play and always preferred "steamies" – the city's take on a classic hot dog, which comes with mustard, relish, coleslaw and some chopped onion in a bland white bun – to any other food in the world.

Monsignor Michel Parent, the vicar-general of the Montreal diocese who first met the cardinal in 1971 and worked with him on various committees, said his most important contribution was to shrink the gap between faith and culture, science and the political world because he showed you could have both.

"He was a facilitator, a lover of plain dialogue who managed to make people feel positive about an institution that has been rocked in the past – one person at a time."

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