NORTH SMITHFIELD — While the pace of life has slowed considerably for Bishop Emeritus Louis E. Gelineau, the sixth Bishop of Providence, at 93, he still remains active to the extent that he can as he marks the 50th anniversary of his episcopal consecration.
Although arthritis in his knees confines him to a special wheelchair for mobility at this point, it’s surprising to a pair of visitors from Rhode Island Catholic — who haven’t seen him in-person since before the start of the pandemic — how quickly he can still shuffle his feet to move himself about in that chair around the Villa at St. Antoine, where he resides.
Bishop Gelineau maintains a strong presence at the Villa, a familiar place where he served for a decade as chaplain to those residing at both the assisted living and the skilled nursing St. Antoine Residence portions of the diocesan facility.
He guides his guests from the welcoming lobby to his small, but comfortable apartment, where, with some help, he stands briefly as he moves into a chair by the window to reflect on his 25 years as bishop.
While he agrees that reaching the 50-year milestone of his consecration as a bishop is an exciting and worthy accomplishment to celebrate, Bishop Gelineau tempers the grandeur of the occasion with a dose of his classic self-effacing humor.
“But I’m also 93 years old and that says a lot,” he laughs.
He said that he very much enjoyed the 25 years that he served as shepherd of the Diocese of Providence.
“I loved being among the crowds of people and leading them at Mass,” Bishop Gelineau said.
“I used to really enjoy trying to do a sermon that would really hit them and be understanding for them. I loved being out. I had a good staff in the building, so I could get out among the people. And I had a good relationship, I think, with the priests of the diocese.”
Bishop Gelineau would often spend his weekends traveling around the diocese, visiting individual parishes for an entire weekend. He would stay at the rectory and meet the staff while celebrating Mass and connecting with the faithful afterwards.
“I enjoyed it. I loved the work,” he said.
He acknowledged that times have changed since he served as a shepherd and that bishops today have more challenges than he ever had, not the least of which has been trying to keep the faithful safe while continuing to nourish them spiritually.
“I think Bishop Tobin has exhibited great leadership, especially during this time,” Bishop Gelineau said.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin said that it is a rare privilege for a bishop to be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their episcopal consecration.
“Celebrating 50 years as a bishop is a milestone that very few bishops are privileged to attain,” Bishop Tobin said.
“Throughout the years, Bishop Gelineau has served the Lord and his Church with great devotion. Truly he has been a good shepherd of God’s people, and he continues to be an inspiration for all of us who know and love him.”
Louis E. Gelineau was born on May 3, 1928, in Burlington, Vermont, the son of Leon G. and Juliette Baribault Gelineau. He was educated at St. Joseph’s Elementary School and then Cathedral High School in Burlington. He studied for the priesthood at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Canada, and was ordained to the priesthood on June 5, 1954.
Following his ordination, he served as assistant pastor for two years at All Saints Parish in Richford, Vermont, and one year at St. Stephen Parish, in Winooski, Vermont. He then entered the Catholic University of America, obtaining a degree in Canon Law in 1959.
When he returned to the Diocese of Burlington, he was named Assistant Chancellor, Diocesan Director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and Assistant Chaplain at De Goesbriand Memorial Hospital in Burlington.
He became Chancellor of the Burlington Diocese in 1961 and was named a Papal Chamberlain with the title of Monsignor by Pope Paul VI. In 1968, he was named Vicar General of the Diocese of Burlington and a Prelate of His Holiness.
On December 6, 1971, he was appointed to serve as Bishop of Providence.
“When I was called to go by my bishop, I said ‘I’m not going to Rhode Island,’” he laughed, noting how much he loved Vermont and couldn’t see himself moving away and serving the Church elsewhere.
But after Bishop Robert Francis Joyce, of Burlington, told him it was an appointment from Pope Paul VI and that he needed to honor it, he prepared himself to come to Providence.
“That first day I was here I realized that I was supposed to come here. I really felt that was what God was doing for me and asking of me,” Bishop Gelineau said.
It was Bishop Joyce who consecrated him in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul on Jan. 26, 1972.
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.
His episcopal motto, “Rejoice in Hope,” became the name of the Catholic Youth Ministry center established in Cranston.
After he retired in 1997 he continued to live for a while at the Cathedral Residence before moving to serve as chaplain at St. Antoine, with a period of service also at Precious Blood Parish in Woonsocket.
While he freely admits, and even apologizes for the fact that it has become more difficult now for him to quickly recall specific dates and details of his 25 years of his service as shepherd of the Diocese of Providence, he harkens back to his early days in Vermont with vivid clarity as he points to photos on the wall above him of the Catholic schools he attended in his formative years in Burlington.
He also happily shares a book of photos taken of him over the years, pointing to one in particular of his late mother Juliette. Reminiscing about those early days often brings tears to his eyes.
When the time comes and he passes on, Bishop Gelineau said that he will be buried in a four-person family grave in Burlington, Vermont, along with his dear parents and his deceased younger brother. His older brother, who is also deceased, is buried with his family a short distance away in the same cemetery.
“My mother especially mentioned it many times — ‘We’ve got room for you in that cemetery,’” he smiled, so that’s where he wishes to be buried following a Mass of Christian Burial at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul.
In the meantime, at the Villa, Bishop Gelineau delights in the friendships he has made with fellow residents, and even prays each day with several people who call him on the phone.
Deacon Bob Lafond, who was encouraged to become a deacon by Bishop Gelineau, succeeded the bishop as St. Antoine chaplain two years ago and, along with his wife Diane, assists him with getting to doctor’s appointments and taking care of personal errands for him.
“It’s such a gift that I am able to spend this time with him,” Deacon Lafond said. “And the one thing I learned from him as a new deacon is that he used to always remind me how to evangelize. He was probably the best evangelizer; he knew how to lead people in.”
Bishop Gelineau now leads a dedicated group of his fellow residents in praying the rosary each day.
“He is very, very nice,” said Mary Casey Campeau. “Having him here is like having a special blessing on our home.”
“He confirmed all my children. I worked on Catholic Social Services with him for many years.”
Jeanne Wall said that having Bishop Gelineau pray the rosary with the group is very important and something they all very much look forward to each day before dinner.
“It’s very important for me. We’ve been doing this for three years,” she said.
Deacon Anthony Wendoloski, who was ordained by Bishop Gelineau on June 5, 1982, and his wife Jo-Ann are also residents of the Villa and pray the rosary with the bishop each day.
“I was very surprised that I would be here with the bishop who ordained me,” Deacon Wendoloski smiled.
“Bishop Gelineau does good by all of us.”
Patrick Femilo, known for keeping the mood light for all the residents with his jokes, pauses then smiles when asked what it is like to have a bishop of 50 years pray the rosary each day with you.
“This is special,” he answers.
“It’s like a day in heaven. It’s very good.”
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