There was a time when Latin was a requirement for candidates for the priesthood. As a young student, George LaGrange didn’t take Latin on purpose.
“I was an alter boy and the whole bit,” says Father George with his arms waving in his characteristic way. “People were always saying, ‘Maybe you’ll be a priest’ or ‘Maybe you have a vocation.’”
He heard it enough to keep away from the Latin class just to be safe.
As annoying as it was to him at the time, the words turned out to be prophetic because Fr. George just celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest.
St. Joseph’s Catholic parish went all out to thank Fr. George who has been pastor in Salmon Arm for more than 15 years. Nearly 200 guests were at a banquet, including most of Fr. George’s relatives, some coming all the way from Europe for the occasion, as well as Fr. Garry LaBoucane, an Oblate superior from Sacred Heart Church, Vancouver.
Lorraine Hurtubise, one of Fr. George’s sisters and one of the guest speakers, talked about the early days in Coquitlam.
“George was born into the loving home of Albert and Theresa on Aug. 28, 1942. He was a healthy weight but soon he seemed to have difficulty breathing and the doctor didn’t seem to know why. Our grandmother, Mom’s mom, in trying to comfort Mom, suggested that perhaps Mom would have to give this child to God sooner than expected. Mom, who was 20 years old… said, in no uncertain terms, ‘no way.’ Fortunately it turned out to be nothing serious and she took home her healthy son.”
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Everyone laughed at Lorraine’s story of Fr. George’s first day at school.
“When George turned five, Mom sent him to school. When asked his name was, he responded, ‘Georgie.’ The teacher asked, ‘Georgie who?’ His answer, ‘Georgie Porgie.’”
When he was older, he went off to boarding school but he became ill with rheumatic fever and the doctor advised that he stay in B.C. with its more temperate climate. When he completed high school at Vancouver College he planned to go to university, become a chartered accountant, get married and have lots of children. But everything changed at the 11th hour.
“In the last week of high school, they brought people in to talk about different careers, doctors and lawyers, and there were seminarians who talked about being priests so I decided, ‘What the heck?’ and I applied at Mission (Seminary of Christ the King) and was rejected for two reasons: I didn’t have Latin and I was too young.”
Fr. George went to St. John’s College in Edmonton to get his Latin and it was there he decided to join the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (a religious order founded in France in 1816 to work among the poor). It was a natural choice because the Oblates had been influential in his home parish at Our Lady of Fatima in Coquitlam.
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After his time at St. John’s, Fr. George went to Winnipeg where he studied at the Oblate novitiate, St. Norbert’s. On Oct. 19, 1968 Fr. George was ordained and began a ministry that would take him above the clouds in his plane to serve isolated northern Native communities and onto the world stage by hosting a papal visit on a shoestring budget.
“The pope was supposed to visit Fort Simpson in 1984 but he couldn’t land. In June 1987 we heard he was going to be there in September.”
When the pope comes to visit, the bishop is the host and, in this case, the bishop gave Fr. George the job of organizing the whole visit and he was told, in no uncertain terms, what the bishop expected.
“You’re on your own – make it good. I had less than $5,000.”
It took months of planning, countless meetings and phone calls. When the pope came, he came with the whole world. The small community was inundated with some 300 members of the press as well as many dignitaries. In the end it was an unqualified success.
“Everything went perfectly. The bishop said, ‘Whatever you want – name it.’ That’s how I got my airplane.”
As he worked in various parishes (Hobbema reserve in Alberta, Fort McMurray, Fort Simpson, Fort Providence, Jean Marie river community, Trout Lake, Fort Liard, Nahanni Butte, and Wrigley), Fr. George saw an overwhelming number of people were suffering mentally and emotionally and needed help with addictions and broken relationships. This prompted him to get a master’s degree in marital therapy and pastoral therapy.
“I like working with people and helping them work things through.”
Over the years he has counselled hundreds of people. Fr. George smiles as he says he has received thank-you letters even 35 years later.
After years of dealing with the northern climate, he was offered the position of pastor of St. Joseph’s. He wanted to be closer to his family and he was tired of long winters – and the position at St. Joseph’s in Salmon Arm was his ‘reward.’
“I’ve never felt so loved in any parish except here by just about everybody. It greatly affected me in how I do my ministry – giving me new life.”