A Humble, Transformative Life Remembered

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This past week I buried my father-in-law. It was a hard week but also beautiful, and it reaffirmed my conviction about what I had written a few days before.

In a Christmas Day post, I recollected how throughout history God has used seemingly insignificant people and events to bring about the most wondrous transformations–liberation from powerful oppressors, smashing social barriers, redeeming a lost humanity. I suggested that this should give us hope and encourage us to work for the transformation of our society, even in a time when a vitriolic political climate and boiling racial tensions make things seem hopeless.

The life and legacy my father-in-law has left behind stands as proof that such hope is not pie-in-sky, that meaningful change is really possible in the modern world. Denis Bouffard was not a major political player. He did not have a fortune to throw at global problems like malaria or water scarcity as might a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. He did not even have an especially big personality. His demeanor, like his stature, was humble. And yet, to quote the words spoken by his son in his eulogy, “Who knew a size 8½ could leave such a big footprint?”

From almost the moment his wake began, the line was out the door. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 people waited an hour in line–including a time outside in the freezing cold–to pay their last respects. Former students, fellow volunteers, and droves of friends and family all filed through. People drove for hours and flew in from around the country. Messages and prayers poured in from places as distant as Ireland, Ukraine, and Australia. Why all this for a former high school religion teacher and part-time wedding photographer?

The reasons for the large showing became apparent as people approached the family to offer their condolences. Many former students spoke of the love and respect Mr. Bouffard showed them, even when they were not at their best. A family who had struggled to find housing spoke of his (and his wife’s) compassion and hospitality in opening their home to them. His children spoke of his persistence in hope in the face of tragedy, sickness, and death, with which his family was unfortunately well-acquainted. None of these virtues is the stuff of headlines or viral sensations. Yet it was abundantly clear to anyone in (or outside) the funeral home that night that this man had, little by little, transformed a community.

The next day when everyone gathered for the funeral service in St. Gregory the Great Church where Denis had worn the kneelers down over years of faithful prayer, the presider, a friend of more than 40 years, shed light on the secret of this humble man’s surprisingly transformative life. Denis Bouffard, through a lifetime of modest gestures, was able to make an inestimable impact upon countless lives because he always sought first and foremost to serve God. If he was remarkable in any sense, it is that he seemed so utterly unconcerned with promoting himself or tending his own ego. In that respect, he was much like Saint André Bessette, a modern saint to whom Denis had a special devotion. Saint André was a brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross who, because of his lack of education and professional skills, worked as a porter for 40 years. Yet in spite of his humble origins and position, he became known as the “miracle man of Montreal” for the many healings he worked through the invocation of St. Joseph for those who came to him. Shortly after Denis’s death, another Holy Cross priest-friend remarked that Saint André would surely be there to open the door when his devotee approached the pearly gates.

Denis’s death, like most of his life, was not glamorous. (He fell down the stairs while removing the baby gate he had put up to safeguard his grandchildren during their holiday visits.) But there is something fitting about his time on earth ending in this way, for he devoted so much of his life to caring for and opening the door to others. This is true in both a literal and spiritual sense. Through innumerable acts and kindnesses that most would consider hardly worth mentioning, he opened to the door to God for countless people.

Few people would look at the details of Denis’s life and think this is the stuff that heroes are made of. But he is a hero to me, and I would argue that he is exactly the kind of hero this world needs. I work in a profession where I am constantly tempted and even encouraged to promote myself and amass awards and recognition. It seems to me that this is largely true of our culture as a whole, which tends to reward efficient and ostentatious performance over efforts for deep, meaningful change. However, when we look back at the history of God’s dealings with humanity, we see that salvation does not come at the hands of the proud and the strong. God prefers to work not through people who would make themselves great but rather through those who humbly serve God and neighbor. We Christians call these people saints, and Denis Bouffard is surely one of them.