Fr. Jacques Johnson
ST. ALBERT – When asked to describe Oblate Father Jacques Johnson, the words beloved, likeable and sociable spring to mind.
Johnson died on Thursday, May 2 at the age of 75.
While on parish council in Fort Saskatchewan, Joe Staszko first met Johnson, who directed a mission team in the Edmonton Archdiocese for about 10 years. Through Johnson's influence, Staszko became a lay missionary with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
They went on about 20 missions together throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.
"We became very close friends. He was a man well-liked by an awful lot of people, a plain ordinary priest that people rallied around. Touring around the province to different places, people saw something great about this man. They would cling onto him," said Staszko.
When Johnson attended functions or various Church gatherings, Staszko said that people were always pleased to see him and to hear him preach.
"I always found him to be a very spiritual man, and a kind man and a caring person," said Staszko.
Staszko comes from a policing background. He explained that a lot of young people knew about the Oblates' neighbourhood in St. Albert. The young people would show up by the Oblates late at night for partying.
"They would lie on the grass around midnight. They would sing songs and drink wine. Father Jacques would go outside, and they would always hit him up for money.
"I told him that he shouldn't give them money because it will go straight to the wine. Father Jacques' response was that God doesn't judge people," said Staszko.
It was these sorts of non-judgmental actions and care for others that made him close with people both in and out of the Church.
Johnson and Father Gerry Lestrat were longtime friends after meeting at the Oblate novitiate in Winnipeg. The two of them were instrumental in setting up the Kisemanito Centre in Grouard, in northern Alberta.
It was a training program for young Catholic aboriginal people interested in ministry. The centre became a model for the Bible schools that later opened in Western Canada.
Another longtime friend and fellow Oblate, Father Robert Filion, recalls that Johnson enjoyed going to the mountains for skiing in the winter. He also remembers his friend as a skilled organizer.
"I would say he was a very good priest and very popular, and a good preacher. He was very devoted to his parishioners," said Filion.
Outside of his priesthood and mission work, one of Johnson's greatest loves was photography.
"We went to Elk Island Park one time, and he just had a fantastic feel for taking pictures. He was great with a camera. That was probably the second love of his life, his photography," said Staszko.
People always rallied around Johnson. When he was planning a mission trip to Guatemala, he didn't have enough money for a vehicle. Staszko gave him $500.
"I told him that if people only knew he was going to Guatemala and you don't have a vehicle, there are so many people in this archdiocese that love you, they would give you the money," said Staszko.
Johnson did not know how much local Catholics loved him. Staszko suggested that he write to the WCR explaining his situation. The article explained that he required a vehicle to visit the 87 parishes and missions he would be overseeing in Guatemala.
A new vehicle was $18,000. He collected $36,000 in contributions. The excess money he donated to the sisters for gas money. He paid them $150 to $200 a month.
"It gives you some idea of the kind of man he was. He gave gas money every month to the sisters so they could go out into the communities, and visit the poor people," said Staszko.
Johnson worked about five years with the people in Guatemala. After Hurricane Stan struck the area in October 2005, his time was preoccupied with human suffering as the country tried to rebuild from the hurricane's devastating effects. He was instrumental in building a number of churches there.
Johnson spoke English, French, Italian and Latin, and studied Spanish while living in Guatemala. He also tried learning Cree.
In the 1970s and again in the 2000s, Johnson wrote a column, A Missionary's Musings, for the Western Catholic Reporter.
Johnson is survived by the members of his religious community, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He is also survived by five brothers and seven sisters, and many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his parents and a sister.
Oblate Father Garry Laboucane will celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial at St. Albert Church on Wednesday, May 8 at 2 p.m. Interment will follow at the Oblate Cemetery in St. Albert.