By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – He’s 100 years old, and right with the times. And the Lord. And his people.
You get that sense talking with Father Oliver Blanchette, an Augustinian of the Assumption, and those who know him.
An estimated 200 people celebrated his actual birthday with him March 12 at a Mass and brunch at Assumption College.
He lives near the college with other retired and elder Assumptionists, though he’s not the retiring type. His reach has extended beyond his congregation to the diocese, civic life, and across the world.
“I can hardly say, as did Jeremiah, that I am too young to speak,” Father Blanchette quipped, in prepared remarks for his birthday Mass. “Yet, I may hasten, before it’s too late, to thank God for creating and loving me as my Father all these years, and giving me his Son Jesus as my Savior and friend.” Father Blanchette also expressed thanks for his life as an Assumptionist, and for family and friends.
Gratitude is a trademark of his, according to Lena Langlois, of St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge, which Assumptionists staff.
Father Blanchette called his 18 years there as associate pastor his most meaningful assignment. Mrs. Langlois and her husband, Robert, were among friends he talks about socializing with.
“I’ve got a box full of his letters,” which always expressed his thanks rather than focusing on himself, Mrs. Langlois said.
“I recall one of his fellow Assumptionists … saying, ‘There’s nothing wrong with that man – physically, mentally or spiritually,’” said Pauline Sey, another St. Anne’s parishioner.
But at his birthday Mass, Father Blanchette applied Pope Francis’ statement, “I am a sinner,” to himself, asking for and extending forgiveness for any offenses.
“How fortunate we are to be alive in this year proclaimed by Pope Francis an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,” he said. “Trusting ever more in God’s mercy, may we all become more merciful.” Again echoing the pope, he called for striving to be a universal family.
Apparently he’s done that.
“He stays current with things that are going on in the Church and the world,” said Denise Richards. (She and her husband, David, helped lead Cursillo weekends with him when he was assistant spiritual director of the movement in the diocese.)
“Our kids just love talking to him,” she said. “Our oldest is 30 and that’s the one he baptized.” Her husband calls him “Father Grandfather.”
Father Blanchette said that in Africa people called him “Babu” (grandfather). “I went to Africa when I was 83,” he said. “I came back when I was 90. John Franck asked me – he was the provincial here – ‘Would I be willing to go?’ I almost said ‘yes’ right away.” (Father Blanchette said he’d always had a little desire to go to the missions.)
He was sent to be present to the younger people there, he said; “so, I tried to be present to them.” (He was there partly to inspire aspiring and new Assumptionists in Kenya and Tanzania. People here formed Friends of Father Oliver to help fund his projects there.)
Mrs. Langlois raved about how he caught the attention – at age 99 – of young lay Assumptionists at a retreat in Worcester.
He’s been present to “older” folks too.
“Probably my most cherished memory is of Father Oliver visiting my father when he was dying,” Mrs. Sey said. “They were both 81 … Father Oliver gave my father a big hug and said words of comfort to him in French … ‘I’ll see you again, my old friend.’”
Younger fellows may have helped spark his open-mindedness.
“When I went to novitiate … he was superior and novice master,” said Father Roger Corriveau, an Assumption College theology professor. “We were 12 novices. We had a revolt. … He wanted us to write papers on different topics. … We wanted something different in the novitiate. He gave in.”
This was after Vatican Council II, and some novices were more progressive than Father Blanchette was at the time, Father Corriveau said. They pushed him on matters of liturgy and religious life and “he allowed us to loosen him up.”
Father Blanchette said a superior tried to open him up by sending him to a Cursillo weekend.
“He thought I was shy, which was true,” the centenarian said. “He thought that would open me up, and in a sense it did.” But that’s not what it’s meant for.
“It was meant to evangelize the environments in which we work,” Father Blanchette said. “People are more tempted to evangelize their parish,” which is more comfortable, but Pope Francis says to go out to the peripheries. The former Cursillo leader raised his voice confidently and passionately to proclaim again the movement’s aim.
He said he also served on a diocesan team which sought to improve the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in parishes and joined diocesan priests in the Emmaus spiritual support group.
He reached out ecumenically too.
“First of all, we talked together, and friendships were created among ourselves,” he said. He recalled preaching in a Methodist Church while their minister went to St. Anne’s.
“Like everything else, it didn’t change the world,” he said, smiling. Then he added, “I still pray every day for Paul Jenkins,” a Protestant friend, now deceased, who socialized with him and Catholic friends.
What drew Father Blanchette to the religious life from which he’s reached out to others?
“As a young boy I seemed to have a call,” he said. “I tried to stifle it as a teenager.” A relative convinced him and his family that the Springfield college he wanted to attend was “pink,” having Communist leanings, he said.
“OK, I’ll go to Assumption, but they better not try to make a priest of me,” he declared.
“But by the second year I chose to become an Assumptionist on my own,” he recalled. “I was afraid to lose my soul to the world … if I didn’t become a priest.”
Now, he said, his reason for being a priest is to serve the Lord and his kingdom.
“He’s a living saint,” Mrs. Richards said. “He’s able to answer God’s call because he’s not encumbered by earthly things. He’s served the Church and his people very well and very humbly.”
Two months before his 100th birthday, Father Blanchette said, he was struck by the following statement of Mev Puleo, who advocated for the poor in Latin America and died at 32: “I’d rather die young, having lived a life crammed with meaning, than die old, even in security, but without meaning.”
Father Blanchette said that in 100 years he hasn’t done nearly that much, but he wants to make his life as meaningful and full of love as possible, with God’s help.