(Photo/Video credit – YouTube)
In December, 1920, in a small town in Quebec, Canada, Napoléon Trotier and Rose-Anna Gauthier had their first child, a daughter. They named her Denise. She was the oldest of fourteen children who were born into the family, twelve of whom survived into adulthood.
Such a numerous progeny was large, if not too unusual, even in the very Roman-Catholic Québec of those years. Church teaching extolled having many children as a duty to God, and in Québec, the only thoroughly French-speaking and heavily Catholic province of Canada, the culture’s defenders and ideologues preached la revanche du berceau (the revenge of the cradle) as the antidote to the heavy British immigration into the Dominion.
Girls were expected to grow up to be faithful mothers and wives, in their turn making good the next generation’s commitment to keep the flame of faith and la culture canadienne burning brightly. There were not many other paths open to them. Anything else was secondary and to be let go once a husband was found.
As the eldest Trotier girl, Denise learned to do her part in the home, to help with the chores and caring for her increasingly numerous younger siblings. She went to school and did well and found solace in the teachings of the Faith there and at church. Saying her prayers at home was not a chore to her, and neither was going to mass, taking the sacraments, or observing the feast-days.
As she became a young woman, the expectation grew that she would find her way out of the house as soon as practical. That meant either finding a job, perhaps in a store or some other business, or becoming a teacher of young children, and finally getting married. Nursing was another possibility, but most hospitals were Church-operated in the Quebec of the 1930s. That meant that the nurses were usually nuns, members of one of the Nursing Orders. So too with teaching in the Catholic schools. Nuns were preferred, because they would not marry and leave their jobs, which almost invariably happened with young “non-religious” (as in not belonging to an order of nuns) women.
At sixteen years of age, Denise could legally leave home to be on her own, or get a job and bring the money to help support the family. With the Depression making life hard, she was expected to do so. She faced a difficult decision.
At sixteen, marriage and establishing her own family held no immediate appeal, even if some her friends went that route so early in life. She had spent her whole life thus far experiencing the hard lot of that condition. She had never had time for romance, nor any inclination to any particular boy. She had no illusions about where that led.
In those days, the religious life was preached as a higher calling, and those who “had a vocation” were placed in an exalted position, at least according to the social priorities of the Roman Catholic population of the day, and even moreso in Quebec. Since her youngest years, she had loved the Church and felt the mystery of the spiritual life it pointed to. She wanted to know Jesus and experience more of His love and God’s presence.
Every Roman-Catholic French-Canadian family hoped at least one child would enter the religious life. Such an event lent them significant social prestige and might incline God to bless them extra. Nevertheless, her parents (especially her father) were not overjoyed when she informed them of her desire to enter the order of Les Soeurs Missionnaires du Christ-Roi (the Missionary Sisters of Christ the King). They knew of her predilection in that direction, but Napoléon had hoped it would be delayed till later while she worked in a paid occupation for a few years.
Denise had visited the Order’s convent in Québec City in 1936. She was accepted to begin her novitiate that year. She devoted herself to Christ and learned to know His love in her life. She was instructed beyond her Secondary education and given training for putting that love into practice through charitable outreach work, as the Order’s name signified. She learned to play piano and organ, to read music and understand musical theory. She had a beautiful voice and was encouraged to play and sing in services, then to become a teacher of music. Her contributions were valued and she trained many others. Her humble heart and evident love for God began to touch many.
Canada entered World War 2 on Sept. 10, 1939. Les Soeurs du Christ-Roi were not a cloistered Order shut off from the world. Many of them were trained to become nursing sisters, so as to better meet the needs of those most immediately affected by the devastation of the war. Nursing outreach became one of their principal missions. Sister Denise added nursing to her musical and teaching skills.
The war formally ended on Sept. 2, 1945 with the signing of the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the USS Missouri. The American occupation regime under General Douglas MacArthur reopened Japan to Western influence. MacArthur gave Japan a liberal-democratic, Parliamentary democracy with guarantees of religious and civil liberty.
Soeur Denise was sent to Japan as a nurse to help meet some of the worst medical and physical conditions in southern Japan, where there was a significant Christian and Roman Catholic population. The needs of these people were desperate, as they had long been persecuted and oppressed by the Imperial regime as being suspected of disloyalty to the emperor, who had been considered a living god until MacArthur decreed an end to any such pretentions. Over the centuries since the 1500s when Catholic missionaries had made rapid inroads into Japan, hundreds, perhaps thousands, had been martyred. Christians had been relegated to only the most menial positions in Japanese society.
Arriving in 1947, Soeur Denise and the group she came with were first given a year-long immersion crash course in Japanese and navigating Japanese culture, then sent to a variety of assignments. The teachers were Japanese Christians as well as doctors and nurses. Soeur Denise learned quickly and emerged from her training fluent in Japanese, which she can still speak to this day. She also saw first-hand the terrible devastation American bombing had wrought and the dreadful poverty and social disruption the war had cost.
Her first assignment was to a remote leper colony deep in southern Honshu, the main island. Her polyvalent training and fluency in Japanese made her able to work well in that remote context. She served there for twenty years. She not only learned how to care for lepers, but was part of opening and teaching in schools there for the children of the lepers. Her teaching and musical skills later took her elsewhere in Japan.
Few things were harder than watching the wasting away of a human life as the bodies of the disease’s victims literally disintegrated. Medications and supplies were in short supply for a long time. Gradually, as the sufferers died and the disease was contained, the leper communities were scaled back and eventually closed.
Soeur Denise returned to Canada a number of times over her long service as a missionary nurse and teacher in Japan. On such visits, she renewed her contacts with family and did activities to encourage support for the mission. On one such visit, she deeply impressed the young woman of twelve who became my life-partner. Ever afterwards, my spouse has seen her aunt as a model of God’s love alive in the world. I soon learned to see her the same way. Soeur Denise returned to Canada for good after nearly forty years “in the field”.
She is now over 101 years old, still very alert and full of light and life and love. She is not one to make much of what she did for God. She gives all the credit to Jesus, saying it was all through the love of “le bon Jésus” as she calls her Saviour with deep personal affection.
It is rare to meet someone who, immediately and without any self-awareness that she has this affect, so clearly exudes the light of God’s presence and the gentleness and sweetness of the love of Jesus, to whom she is utterly devoted. When she speaks of Him, it is as one speaks of the most intimate relationship possible, yet there is absolutely nothing erotic at all involved. It has struck me as one of the purest examples of the living Spirit of Jesus in someone’s life I have ever encountered. It has been the same every time I have been blessed to spend time in her presence.
There is no doubt that Soeur Denise has touched many ordinary people for the better during more than a century of life. I am very blessed to have been one of them.
For more understanding: http://www.missionnairescr.org/
One thought on “Difference Makers, 1: a Beautiful, Humble Life”
Lovely to hear the story of Paule’s aunt. Thanks, Vince.