Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 30, 2003
The blessings of Blanch continue
Pastoral and brave, this man of peace still serves his God
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
"Father Mike, we know you and experience you as the good shepherd who lays down your life for your sheep, as the faithful disciple who took up your cross to follow Jesus Christ and in doing so you have given life and hope, healing and peace to so many, and you have given glory to the heavenly father. Today, we say thank you, to God, for you."
Audrey Erickson, administrator of St. Stephen Parish, made these statements June 8 during a celebration of Father Michael Blanch's 50th anniversary of priesthood.
Blanch, 76, is a well-loved and respected figure at St. Stephen, where he's served for 17 years, the last six as dominical vicar. A humble servant, Blanch would have preferred his anniversary be ignored but parishioners just couldn't bypass this opportunity to express to him their love and appreciation. Some 375 people, including family, friends, priests and sisters showed up for the tribute.
"He is a very quiet, gentle pastoral person who really cares about his people," Erickson said. "He spends endless time talking and listening to them. People here really appreciate him and we relished celebrating his 50th anniversary."
Blanch was pastor at St. Stephen from 1986 to 1997, when he officially retired as parish priest. Following the appointment of Erickson as administrator the same year, he agreed to continue serving as dominical vicar. He now says four Masses a week at St. Stephen, including two each weekend.
He says the priesthood has allowed him not only to live a life of service but also to make lasting friendships and influence daily life. "I believe I have influenced a lot of people through my sermons about what should happen in the world to make God's kingdom become a reality."
Blanch has no regrets but there are things he would love to change if he had half the chance. These include allowing married priests to return to active ministry, ordaining women who, as he sees it do most of the work in the parishes and have gifts "we men don't have," and making celibacy optional.
"I think the priesthood is quite a lonely life," he said, noting that many priests feel out of place in social events because they have no family ties. Celibacy, he noted, was brought in the 12th century to bring discipline into the ranks of the priesthood but it's not necessary to minister to the people of God.
" I have seen many good men leave the priesthood because they don't have that gift," he said. "I think celibacy should be optional."
A man of peace, Blanche worked to prevent the invasion of Iraq, including taking part in a couple of antiwar protests in Red Deer. The war still took place, which led him to become "profoundly disappointed with those who did everything to justify an unjust war."
Blanch, the youngest of 13 children, was born June 20, 1927 in Stratton, Ont. His father, William, was a lumberjack and farmer and his mother, Bernadette, a full time wife and mother. In the fall of 1928, the family moved near Humboldt, Sask. where young Mike attended a one-room country school until completing Grade 9. Then he moved to St. Peter's College in Muenster, Sask., for high school and one year of university.
In 1947, Blanch applied and was accepted by Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald as a candidate for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminary in Edmonton. He was ordained June 7, 1953 at St. Peter's Cathedral in Muenster and celebrated his first Mass at his home parish of St. Scholastica, a country church near Humboldt.
Blanch's first appointment as a parish priest was as second assistant at Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton's inner city, where his first job was to record all the parish donations for the first seven months of the year. He also visited the hospitals during the outbreak of the polio epidemic, becoming quickly immersed into the pain and sorrow that the disease brought.
In November 1953, Blanch was given his first parish, St. Rose of Lima in Onoway, along with four mission parishes. He now needed his first car to travel among his parishes on unpaved, dusty, pot-holed roads. While Blanch was in Onoway, his parents, upon retirement, came to live with him. His father raised a garden and took responsibility for heating the buildings and his mother kept house. His father died in 1960 and his mother in 1982 at age 96.
In 1967 Blanch was transferred to Our Lady of Victory Parish in Thorsby and its three missions. The influences of the Second Vatican Council, which the priest welcomed, were beginning to be felt at the parish level with Blanch educating and encouraging the people to form their first parish pastoral councils.
"Vatican II really gave me a new lease on life," Blanch said, recalling how disconnected he felt from the congregation as he celebrated the Latin Mass with his back to the people. Vatican II allowed him to face the congregation during Mass and make the people part of the service and of the life of the Church.
He also welcomed the opening of the Church's doors to non-Catholic Christians and the renewed emphasis on social justice that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. The council, he noted, made it possible for lay people and pastors like him to get involved in the daily struggle for justice and equality for the world's poor and marginalized.
In 1970, Blanch was transferred to Christ the King Parish in Stettler and its mission at Big Valley. Here, again, he established parish pastoral councils and subbed as a school bus driver.
In 1978, as he marked 25 years as a priest, Blanch took a sabbatical and went to study pastoral liturgy at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
Upon his return, he was appointed to St. Pius X Parish in Edmonton, where he stayed for two years. During this time he made arrangements to fulfill a life long dream - to serve in foreign missions. In 1981 he joined the Scarboro Mission Society and was appointed to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
For the next five years he served as pastor at St. Mary's Cathedral in Kingstown, developed a catechism program for children and served in various projects for the poor. The experience solidified Blanch's sensitivity for the poor and the marginalized. Today he continues to work on behalf of the needy and has facilitated education for several young people in St. Vincent.
In 1986 Blanch became pastor of St. Stephen and soon after that he started celebrating Mass at the Bowden Federal Institution and at the Red Deer Remand Centre, eventually becoming chaplain at both institutions. In 1991-92 Blanch took additional responsibilities as administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Ponoka. He retired as pastor in mid-1997 at age 70.
Blanch is remarkably fit for his age and he explains why. "I've tried to live a simple lifestyle," he said. "I eat wholesome food and I walk a lot along the many trails in Lacombe."
"He is a gentle soul who finds the good in everyone he meets and is quick to offer words of kindness and encouragement to all," Erickson said.
Blanch plans to stay as a dominical vicar in Lacombe until age 80, when he may return to St. Vincent to work among the poor.