North Smithfield — At 90, despite having recently begun to use a walker to move about, Bishop Emeritus Louis E. Gelineau can be surprisingly quick on his feet.
His face lighting up upon the arrival of some visitors from the diocese he shepherded for a quarter century, he shows off with a little flourish, closing the distance between more quickly than someone half his age might, even without the use of a mobility aid.
Widely admired by the people he served during the 25 years he led the Diocese of Providence, from his episcopal consecration in 1972 to his retirement in 1997, Bishop Gelineau has always maintained close ties with his flock, possessing an uncanny ability to remember faces and names after meeting someone.
Still quite popular, he is perhaps the most sought after resident at The Villa at St. Antoine, the assisted living facility where he has resided for the last four years.
Strolling down the soft, carpeted hallway between celebrations on Thursday, May 3, his 90th birthday, the bishop is stopped frequently by well-wishers, many of whom gather each afternoon with him in the chapel there to pray the rosary, or attend Masses at which he may preside.
“He’s so personable,” gushes Lorraine Marot Fournier, who is one of the many regulars at Bishop Gelineau’s rosary prayer groups.
“He’s a people person. He’s a bishop of the people,” adds Elizabeth Cumming’s [apostrophe intended]. “He just smiles his beautiful smile.”
“He’s so wonderful,” notes Terry Wisniewski.
For Villa at St. Antoine Administrator Tammy Summiel, R.N., Bishop Gelineau is all that and so much more.
“Bishop is our biggest cheerleader. He’s my best marketing tool,” Summiel jokes good-naturedly as her most famous resident settles in to a well-appointed kitchen lounge for his birthday cake.
After making his way to the counter without the assistance of the walker, he marvels at the chocolate cake decorated for the occasion and blows out the candles to applause.
“It’s been a wonderful 46 years that I’ve been here,” he notes, reflecting on his time in Rhode Island.
Although his pace of life has slowed a bit — in part due to the four knee replacements he has had through the years, and a recent knee injury on Feb. 1 after returning home from a funeral — the bishop says he enjoys the exercise classes he takes at the Villa three times a week.
“I notice a difference every time I go,” he says.
While his life may be a little more relaxing now, it wasn’t always so.
A year after his ordination as bishop he established in 1973 a permanent diaconate program, ordaining three years later the first permanent deacons to serve as assistants to the bishop, as well as chaplains to state institutions and nursing homes.
Early in his administration he created the vicariate structure — which is still employed today — which organized the day-to-day operations of the burgeoning diocesan ministries under the aegis of several vicars who report on business in their areas to the bishop.
Msgr. George Frappier, a fellow Villa resident of Bishop Gelineau, two years his senior, worked closely with the shepherd, who put him in charge of what would later become the diocesan Office of Catholic Charities and Social Ministry.
He stopped by the party to congratulate his friend and former boss.
“It was so easy to work for him,” said Msgr. Frappier, who, dressed in khaki shorts and a patriotic T-shirt, stood out on the 90-degree day in stark contrast to Bishop Gelineau, who insists on wearing daily his black clerical clothes and Roman collar, albeit with a short-sleeved shirt.
“I always had great support from him. He was always instantly available if I ever needed to see him.”
Msgr. Frappier, who serves as chaplain at the Villa, but who appreciates having the assistance of the bishop in offering Masses and with other responsibilities to the residents, said he always appreciated the bishop’s management style, which was characterized by a collaborative spirit.
Father Robert Lacombe, who came to visit the bishop on his birthday after celebrating the noon Mass at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, brought him a gift he purchased at the Vatican.
“I greatly admire Bishop Gelineau. He’s been very kind to me in my 28 years as a priest,” he said, noting that he didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see him on his milestone birthday.
Bishop Gelineau joked that when he was first chosen to lead the Diocese of Providence he was told he had some big shoes to fill — literally.
“I had heard a lot about Bishop [Russell] McVinney. People at first told me, ‘You don’t look like a bishop,’” he said, joking about his smaller stature, measuring in at about 5 feet eight inches tall.
He would go on to oversee a great deal in the 25 years of his episcopacy, a time which was marked by both ecclesial and cultural upheavals, including challenges to the credibility of the church.
In light of it all, he feels he did his best to navigate what he called “unchartered waters” at the time.
Bishop Gelineau reflected on the state of the church today, lamenting that although Mass attendance and sacramental practice are down, he is hopeful that the traditions that are still important to so many people will inspire a new generation.
“If you persevere in them they will continue. It’s not a choice, it grows on you,” he said of the faith that has enriched his life beyond anything that he could have ever imagined growing up in Burlington, Vermont.
For those who are committed to spreading their faith, they have no better leader than Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, who is “very clear in explaining the matters of the faith and in warning about defects in society like abortion,” he said.
After entering retirement, Bishop Gelineau spent 10 years at the adjacent St. Antoine Residence, where he served as chaplain. Then, he moved to the rectory of Precious Blood Parish in Woonsocket, where he lived and assisted in offering Masses for three years, before returning to St. Antoine, this time at The Villa.
It was at The Villa that he began to develop a deep personal friendship with then-Deacon-in-training Robert Lafond and his wife Diane.
Diane had worked at St. Antoine and told Bishop Gelineau about her husband’s declining health after being diagnosed with stage 3 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“The bishop said two Masses at my house the night before I was operated on and after I fully recovered he said another Mass with all the guys from the diaconate class,” Deacon Lafond said.
When he received his diaconate assignment it was at St. Antoine, where he began to learn from Bishop Gelineau and interact with him a great deal.
“I just became, along with Diane my wife, family with the bishop. It’s an honor and a privilege the way he’s come to me,” he said.
“He’s taught me how to be a deacon. He’s taught me how to reach out to people and for him, there’s always enough time for everybody. He has shown me that you meet people where they’re at and you remain there for them, and it has helped me to be such a good deacon.”