Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 9, 2004
Born with the soul of a priest
He brought dandelions, now brings souls, to God
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Stony Plain-Spruce Grove
Once upon a time in Montreal a little child went missing, causing great distress to his loving parents. They searched everywhere and couldn't find him. They looked in the church and there the child was, with a handful of dandelions in his hands. He had simply gone to church.
That's how Father Paul Terrio, pastor of Spruce Grove-Stony Plain's Holy Trinity Parish for the past two years, began his journey to the priesthood.
"I remember thinking about God as a pre-schooler and God was not someone or something that was threatening or to be worried about," he recalled in a recent interview. "On the contrary, God was interesting and I was interested in God."
Terrio, 60, was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Montreal in 1970 and has served as a pastor and seminary professor in Montreal, Brazil and Edmonton. "I'm a happy priest," he said matter-of-factly.
Terrio could have been a doctor or a professional musician, his two other career possibilities, but he chose the priesthood because he wanted to do things for other people and to bring the experience of the Eucharist to the people of God.
"If you are a doctor you can help people with health problems; if you are a musician you can help entertain; but if you are a priest you have something for everybody because everybody sooner or later has to relate to Christ."
Terrio was born in Montreal in 1943, the oldest in a family of four children and was raised in the Eastern Townships south of Montreal, near the Vermont border.
His father, a teacher as young man, was the reeve or mayor of the Eastern Townships for many years. "My dad came from a French-Acadian background and my (Anglican) mother, after marrying him, became a Catholic as an adult. So they were always very regular and relaxed in their religious practice," Terrio recalled.
"Certainly my parents encouraged me to live my faith and to follow in their footsteps. My dad was a very just man. My mom was a very spiritual and prayerful person. Both of them contributed in a strong way to my religious identity."
Terrio's mom was the daughter of an Anglican minister and granddaughter of an Anglican minister. "We were ecumenical before the time," he said proudly. "I can remember going to Evening Prayer with my grandfather."
Terrio grew up in an atmosphere where fear of non-Catholics was non-existent. "On the contrary, I could see what we have in common."
He never attended Catholic schools, but had a priestly attitude even as a young student. "I attended a mixed high school and I remember in Grade 11 we were debating something with a group of friends. After I gave my opinion, a girl in the group turned to me and said, 'My God, you talk like a priest.'"
But the idea of the priesthood started well before. "I had a fascination with God as a child and I would speak about it with my dad," Terrio said. "My dad and I would sit up and talk late at night about the meaning of things and I suppose God used all of that to little by little lead me to explore the possibility of the seminary."
After completing his high school in the public system, Terrio enrolled at Concordia University in Montreal, where he got his bachelor's degree. "I was very interested in possibly being a doctor so the first year I did chemistry, biology, physics, university English and a history course," he recalled.
But after visiting some people who were in the hospital, Terrio became disillusioned with the medical profession. "I had the perception that people who were in medicine were often behind the clipboard or quite removed from the people (they were trying to help)."
But other things got his attention. "While I was at Concordia I was impressed to see that you could be an educated person and also a pious Catholic," he said. "You could be both. There was no necessary contradiction between faith and science or philosophy."
He was also impressed by the series of Lenten homilies given at the Newman Club, the Catholic association at the university. "This reawakened in me the possibility that maybe it would be possible for me to be a priest," he recalled. And so he started associating with the Newman Club.
Terrio attended Mass regularly at the Montreal cathedral and was known to the priests there. In one of his visits, the cathedral rector approached him and asked him if he had ever thought of the priesthood. Terrio told him the story of the time he took a bunch of dandelions to the church as a child. The priest advised him to "pray about it."
He did and rather than going to Ottawa for further studies as he had planned, Terrio stayed in Montreal and applied to be a candidate for the priesthood for the Montreal Archdiocese. He was promptly accepted and began studies at the Grande Seminaire in 1967.
Soon after his ordination in 1970, Terrio was appointed associate pastor at the Montreal cathedral, where he stayed for five years. He then became a religious education professor at the College de Montreal, one of the oldest private French colleges in Canada. It is run by the Sulpician Fathers, an order that specializes in the training of seminarians worldwide.
Off to Brazil
Terrio joined the Sulpician community in 1980. In 1983 he went to Brazil where he spent the next 11 years. In the interval, the Sulpicians sent him to the Gregorian University in Rome for three years (1986-88) for further studies in philosophy.
In Brazil, he became fluent in Portuguese and served around the capital city of Brasilia. "During the week I was a seminary priest and on the weekends I was in the favellas or shantytowns saying Mass and baptizing and doing weddings with a team of five to eight seminarians," Terrio recalled fondly.
"I saw the base communities at work and I lived all that experience of liberation theology in its various forms, from the sincere, balanced liberation theology to the extreme, which is political. And I saw the extreme conservative reaction against it. So it was a wonderful experience of the Latin American ecclesial realities."
Then in 1994 the Sulpicians asked Terrio to consider moving to Edmonton to help run St. Joseph's Seminary. Since his mother Phyllis and his married sister Jennifer, had moved to British Columbia, it was easy for Terrio to say yes. "When I came back to Canada I realized that my family had already become Western Canadian and that I had less and less in common with Montreal."
The shortage of priests impacted Terrio and the Sulpicians running St. Joseph. They decided to help in parish work. So after a year as seminary professor, Terrio found himself pastor at Villeneuve. He did that for eight years, while still teaching philosophy on and off at the seminary.
Then in 2001 he decided to leave the Sulpicians to become a diocesan priest with the Edmonton Archdiocese. He was appointed pastor of the 1,700-family Holy Trinity Parish in February 2002. "I enjoy helping young couples connect with God and I think the best promotion for (priestly) vocations is strengthening family life."
Any regrets? "It may sound corny but I wish I had been more faithful to the Lord and wasted less time," Terrio intimates. "I could have done more in the sense of done better what I did."