Paquette Consulting

Paquette Consulting - Thoughts on Bishop Bonhomme

It was October 1960, and my uncle, Bishop Bonhomme was visiting his nieces and nephews in Claremont New Hampshire on his way back to Ste-Agathe, Quebec. He had been visiting the family all evening after travelling from Nashua New Hampshire. It was around 10:00 pm when he decided that he needed to rest, so my mother asked me to drive him to the Saint Mary Parish Rectory, where he was to spend the night, and say Mass the next morning in the small chapel there.

I drove Bishop Bonhomme to the Rectory, and rang the doorbell. Father Carty came to the door, looked through the window in the door and opened it. As he opened the door he asked me “Paquette what are you doing here at this time of the night?” Before I could answer, Father Carty spied either my uncle’s violet cummerbund, or his violet ring – either way he gulped and cried out “A Bishop!” taking my uncle’s extended hand, falling to his knees, and kissing the Bishop’s ring.

That image has stuck in my mind for many years. In part, I think it was the first time that I came to a realization that this man in my life, Bishop Bonhomme, was something other than the brother to my grandmother, uncle to my mother, and my great uncle.

I had just grown up with an understanding that when my mother said that the Bishop was coming, that we would be either having him for a guest for a few hours, or we would be going to the home of whoever was hosting him during his visit – including driving the ninety miles to Nashua New Hampshire where three of his sisters lived if necessary. It was an event. And while conceptually, I understood that a Bishop in the Roman Catholic Church was a senior member of the hierarchy of the Church, it really didn’t seem to have much to do with the Church: it was just my great uncle.

When I got to the University of Ottawa, in Ottawa Ontario, three years later to take up studies in economics, I knew that the University was the alma mater of my uncle the Bishop, and that it was a Catholic university, but I had little knowledge of the university or of my uncle’s role there other than that. It wasn’t until I met the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, the Rev. Jocelyn-Marie Quirion that I started getting other perspectives of my uncle.

During a meeting with Father Quirion, I happened to mention the fact that Bishop Bonhomme was my great uncle. Father Quirion found that interesting and advised me that he had served as secretary to Bishop Bonhomme at one phase of his career – and the impression he gave me was that it was not the most enjoyable experience of his life. I didn’t pursue the issue, but I found that when I needed to have the Dean have a little flexibility with me with respect to the French course I was taking – as I found it too challenging, there was no flexibility to be had. Whether Father Quirion was using my situation as a belated opportunity to return a “favour” to my uncle or not, I got the distinct impression that might have been the case.

In 1969 when I moved to Ottawa to return to my studies I wrote to Bishop Bonhomme and asked him if and when he might be coming to Ottawa next, and he wrote back saying that after the burning of the Church in Hull, he could not return to Ottawa as it was too painful for him. We exchanged letters a few other times between 1969 and his death in 1973.

When Bishop Bonhomme died in 1973, I took time off work to attend his funeral in Montreal with my wife, and to represent my mother at the funeral. At his funeral, which was co-celebrated by a host of bishops and priests, I was struck by the ceremony, certainly impressed, but had no real inclination of who this man was. He was clearly someone “important” in the church, and the church was packed with people, but little did I know who was the man I knew as Bishop Bonhomme, my great uncle.

In the 1980's my mother, Stella Gosselin Paquette had asked me to translate a genealogy of the Bonhomme family that my great uncle had written some years before, and I had agreed to do so when time permitted. It wasn’t until 1993 that my wife, Suzan Schmekel actually undertook the task of not just translating Bishop Bonhomme’s genealogical study of the Bonhomme Family, but doing the research to provide a historical context to Bishop Bonhomme’s study, and to correct or complete the records of those nine generations (up to 1950) covered by his book, and bring the family history up to the fourteenth generation (1995). That translation and updated book was published in 1995 – much to the delight of my mother, and copies of that book were either sold to or given to a number of the members of Bishop Bonhomme’s extended family in New England, California, Ontario, and Quebec.

One of the key reasons why Bishop Bonhomme had written the genealogical study was to provide his family with a sense of pride in their family history, in their family name, in themselves. He had watched too many of his nieces and nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews and their progeny not live up to the highest traditions of the Bonhomme Family. He was aware that in part they did not live up to their history, because they did not know their history: they did not have an appreciation of the achievements of their ancestors, of the entrepreneurial skills of their ancestors, of the fortitude of their ancestors in nation-building, in building businesses, in self-reliance. All the time my spouse, Suzan Schmekel was working on the updating and translation of Bishop Bonhomme’s genealogy, she could feel his presence urging her on to get it done, and get it out. On receiving the book a number of our family commented on the pleasure it was having this history in their hands.

At the time the updated genealogy of the Bonhomme Family was published in 1995, I had committed to doing a biography of the Bishop, because I sensed that one of the great stories of the Bonhomme family was yet to be told, and that was the full story of the work of Bishop Bonhomme, but did not actually get into the project until 2002. In April 2002, my mother, Stella Gosselin Paquette passed away. In going through her papers it really came home to me, that the only reason we had translated and updated Bishop Bonhomme’s genealogical study was because she had kept his mission of educating the family about pride in themselves alive, and that if I did not take up that mission, it would surely die; more importantly, the untold story of Bishop Bonhomme himself would likely fade into oblivion.

In the Fall of 2002, I began my research into the background, the story of Joseph Cyprien Bonhomme, and discovered the story of a man, an entrepreneur, a scholar, a leader, a priest, a man committed to God, a man committed to doing the work of God on this planet, a man who loved his fellow men and women and tried to make this world a better place to live and learn and grow, a man of courage. I discovered a man who practiced what we can call practical spirituality.

What I have found is that Joseph Cyprien Bonhomme lived a life that is worthy of emulation in many ways, that his character influenced mine in ways of which I was not aware, but for which I am grateful. Exploring his life has been an education for me, and inspiration for me.

I am still intent on writing a serious book about Bishop Bonhomme, but in the meantime I would hope this and other thoughts about the great Canadian, his work and life, can inspire others.

Philémon Paquette
September 23, 2009