Ovide Charlebois was a tireless and intrepid apostle, overcoming his loneliness to travel thousands of miles by dogsled and canoe to reach his flock.
Ovide Charlebois was born on February 17, 1862, in a place called Oka, which is located in Quebec, Canada. Ovide was the seventh of 14 children born to Hyacinthe Charlebois and his wife, Emerente. Ovide, like his siblings, was baptized immediately after his birth.
Soon after Ovide’s birth, his parents moved and settled in a place called Sainte Marguerite-du-Luc-Masson, outside present-day Montreal. Here he first attended school and received his basic education.
Ovide was a good student, and when he was around 14 years old, he entered the College de L’Assomption (Quebec) and Ottawa College. In 1882 he entered the Marian Oblate novitiate. He made his initial vows in 1883 and studied theology and philosophy at the College of Ottawa and at Saint-Joseph Scolasticate. He made his perpetual vows in 1884 and was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin in the Diocese of Alberta on July 17, 1887.
Father Ovide’s first assignment took him to the missions of Western Canada to begin his Apostolate. Most of the population of the area consisted of indigenous people who had been there for centuries.
His life as a missionary began when he arrived in La Pas in September of 1887. He was quartered at the Mission of St. Joseph at Fort Cumberland. Father Ovide had previously expressed his fears about being separated from his confreres in a remote location, and this was an isolated outpost in the Canadian wilderness. During the next four years, he would spend only one and a half months with a fellow oblate.
Father Ovide’s loneliness was absorbed by his missionary work. He established a school at Fort Cumberland, and besides doing his daily missionary work, spent at least four hours a day teaching the children their catechism and other subjects. The indigenous people were located in distant locales, and Father estimated that in the winter of 1900 to 1901, he journeyed more than 3,000 miles by snowshoe and dogsled and camped 35 times in the Canadian snow. At times the population of the villages he would visit was less than a hundred, yet he would travel miles and miles over snow and ice to bring them the sacraments.
Father Ovide lived alone at the mission for 16 years. In 1901 he was made administrator for the surrounding missions in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 1903 he was sent to the Industrial School at Duck Lake to organize their finances, which he did.
On November 30, 1910, Father Ovide Charlebois was named the Apostolic Vicar of Keewatin, Manitoba. On March 7, 1911, he was consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Louis Langevin. Even though Bishop Charlebois would call La Pas his home for the rest of his life, much of the time he was not there; he was traveling in the wilderness.
Being a bishop did not make life easier for him. He was required to travel by dog-sled or canoe many miles to complete his pastoral visits. His journal gives us an idea as to what he contended with during his tours.
I covered 2,000 miles (3200 km) by canoe and 50 miles (80 km) on foot through the forest. I slept on the ground 60 times, under the protection of the small tent in which I celebrated Mass so often. I visited 14 missions, totaling 4,500 Catholics. Six of these missions had never been visited by a bishop. I confirmed 1,100 Amerindians whose fine dispositions greatly edified me.
In fact, Bishop Charlebois made these types of journeys many times.
This tireless missionary of the Americas played a part in bringing about the recognition of St. Therese of Lisieux as the patron of missions.
It happened like this: The Oblate Mission at Hudson Bay was about to be closed. On July 2, 1917, Father Arsene Turquetil had baptized the first native Inuits in the region. The priest had a novena to St. Therese prayed and the mission remained opened. He credited his success to the intercession of St. Therese.
Bishop Charlebois was so moved by this that he sent a request to Rome signed by 226 missionary bishops from all around the world to designate St. Therese of Lisieux as the patroness of all missionaries. On December 14, 1927, Pope Pius XI proclaimed the “Little Flower” the Patron Saint of Missions.
At the age of 71, while traveling by dog sled, Bishop Charlebois took ill. He died on November 20, 1933. Pope Francis declared Bishop Ovide Charlebois a man of “heroic virtue” and proclaimed him Venerable on November 28, 2019.
Venerable Ovide Charlebois, please pray for us.