Montreal's Cardinal Turcotte, cleric with common touch, dies at age 78

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte in 2010 (CNS/Paul Haring)

Montreal — Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, cardinal of the people, died Wednesday in Montreal's Marie-Clarac Hospital.

The 78-year-old cardinal, who served as Montreal's archbishop for 22 years, was diabetic, and his health had been in decline for several months. He was moved to palliative care March 24.

Turcotte was remembered as a populist, a down-to-earth cleric with a common touch who once supported an ad campaign that urged Montreal residents to pray for his beloved Canadiens to make the National Hockey League playoffs.

"He was like the John XXIII of Montreal, a kind of big man who never was far from his roots," said Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Turcotte was often seen at food drives, soup kitchens and at his annual blood-donor clinic, typically held on Good Friday. He asked people to give blood for others as Jesus gave his blood for all.

He often expressed concern for the poor and marginalized.

"Nothing causes me more pain," he once said, "than to see a human being treated with contempt and with disrespect."

As archbishop of Montreal, he worked to expand the role of the laity in Canada's second-largest diocese, took a sympathetic interest in those on the margins of society and supported an expanded role for women in the church.

"Women can exercise a lot of responsibility that doesn't require them to be priests," he once said.

At the same time, Turcotte was a traditionalist who renounced his Order of Canada in 2008 rather than share the honor with Henry Morgentaler, abortion doctor.

He was media savvy, wrote a column for Le Journal de Montreal and often appeared on French-language television.

"In his way of his expressing himself, you could say he was the Francis before his time of Montreal," Durocher said. "He would find fresh expressions, sometimes surprising ways of addressing issues that could be very thorny and bring them down to ground."

Turcotte and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- now Pope Francis -- were longtime friends. They would both stay at the Casa del Clero when in Rome for meetings.

Pope Francis sent a telegram of condolences and blessings to Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal on Wednesday and called Turcotte "a pastor who was zealous and attentive to the challenges of the contemporary church."

"As we celebrate the resurrection of the Lord, I beseech him to welcome into the light of eternal life this faithful pastor, who served the church with dedication, not only in his diocese but also at the national level as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, all the while being a listened-to member of various Roman dicasteries."

Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax-Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, said Turcotte's strengths were "his people strengths. He was a mentor and he was a good friend."

"He was street-smart, there was nothing highbrow about him," the archbishop said. "That reflects his upbringing and his blue-collar background. He was very practical, a very good administrator and good with finances."

Mancini added that Turcotte walked a fine line between English and French Montreal.

"There was always an underlying tension there, and it didn't take much to set it off," the archbishop said. "He was once asked whether he was for Ottawa or Quebec, and he defused the question by saying, 'I am for Montreal.' "

In 1997, the cardinal told Le Devoir newspaper that the people of Quebec, not the Supreme Court of Canada, had the right to decide whether or not the province would remain in Canada.

Montreal Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Dowd said Turcotte "had to make some difficult choices in the diocese, such as the closing of some parishes and churches."

"The loss of the Catholic schools also required a solid leadership response. In the face of these changes, he supported the particular character and institutions of the English-speaking Catholic sector while also building bridges with the rest of the diocese.

"He was both a mentor and a pastor. His role required him to mix often with the elites of society, but he never lost his ordinary touch, and without ignoring anyone he was always most comfortable speaking with the humblest of people," Dowd said.

One of seven children, Jean-Claude Turcotte was born June 26, 1936, in Montreal and studied at College Andre-Grasset. He was ordained in 1959. He served in St. Mathias Parish until 1967, when he became a diocesan administrator.

He studied social ministry in France for a year and, upon his return, held various posts in the Montreal archdiocese. He was consecrated a bishop in 1982 and helped organize St. John Paul II's visit to Quebec in 1984.

In 1990, he was named archbishop of Montreal, and he was elevated to cardinal in 1994. He retired as archbishop in March 2012.

Turcotte served three years as CCCB president and participated in the conclaves that elected retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

With Turcotte's death, the College of Cardinals has 225 members, 122 of whom are under age 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave.

[The staff of the Catholic Register in Toronto and Laura Ieraci in Rome contributed to this story.]

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