Irénée Beaubien was a Jesuit who started the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism and pioneered the ecumenical movement in Canada long before the Roman Catholic Church promoted the idea of interfaith dialogue.
He remained a pioneer until the day he died in Richelieu, Quebec on May 15 at age 101, having completed a religious life of 80 years.
In the 1950s, Beaubien started the Catholic Inquiry Forum, which brought Catholic priests and Protestant ministers together for informal seminars. In 1963, he founded the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, said to be the first of its kind in the world.
Father Beaubien served as the Chairman of the Board of the Christian Pavilion at Expo 67, working with the United and Anglican Churches. He is credited with being the driving force behind what is now the annual week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Those who knew him agree that few people so well grounded in their own faith stood so firm in his beliefs while being so accepting and open to the faiths of others.
“He made a marvelous contribution to extending the boundaries of the church’s mission,” said Rev. Thomas Ryan, a former director of the Centre, now head of the Paulist North American Office for Interfaith Relations. “The core of the gospel is that we are reconciled to God and to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Irénée grasped that the Church of Christ cannot effectively witness to that good news if its members are divided amongst themselves.
“After he devoted 21 years of his life to work for Christian unity, when he was 68, at an age when most people are already retired, he undertook the founding of Sentiers de Foi, and directed its work of reaching out to alienated or no longer practicing church members. That speaks volumes about his missionary zeal and his commitment to serving the people of God. He was a man of prayer, a good listener, very sociable and an effective organizer.”
Irénée Beaubien was born in Shawinigan on Oct 20, 1916, the third in a family of 11 children in a barber’s family. An athletic and physically fit teenager, he dropped out of school to work as a lumberjack to support the family during the Depression. After a spiritual retreat in 1936, he decided to become a Jesuit. During his formation he was sent to College St. Boniface in Manitoba where he coached the hockey team before being ordained a priest in 1949. When he returned to Montreal, Archbishop Paul Emile Leger dispatched him to Milwaukee on a pilot project to explore the idea of opening a dialogue with other denominations.
“He was in on the ground floor of ecumenism when these conversations were taking place in private, even before Vatican II when it was not the official church line.” recalled Halifax-Yarmouth Archbishop Anthony Mancini, who worked with Father Beaubien in the 1970s. “It was a big deal in those days. He was very affable, very persuasive. In the secular world he would have been an effective politician. He could put a positive spin on things. A lot of his success was due to his personality.”
Following Beaubien’s work for the Christian Pavilion at Expo 67, Pope Paul VI appointed him as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Christian unity. He continued to run the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism until 1984.
“He was an incredible human being and a humanist,” said Father John Walsh, a prominent leader of the ecumenical movement in Montreal. “He had a deep faith, a broad understanding of people, and an all encompassing approach to all those he met.
Father Beaubien received the Order of Canada in 2012, and was presented with the Cross pro ecclesia et pontifice, a papal honour bestowed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
In recent years, Father Beaubien lent his support to the idea of holding intimate ”communion” meals in which bread and wine and the word were shared as a way of promoting Christian unity. His funeral will be celebrated on Saturday, May 27 at Gesù Church in Montreal.
Alan Hustak is a Montreal-based journalist and author.