NORTH SMITHFIELD – Despite the passage of 15 years since his retirement as the sixth shepherd to lead the Diocese of Providence, Bishop Louis E. Gelineau maintains a schedule that can leave people half his 83 years rushing to keep up with him.
The bishop celebrates Mass each day for those living in the Saint Antoine Community, where he serves as chaplain and which he now calls home, and still comes to the chancery some days to work at the diocesan Marriage Tribunal. Last year, he even presided over 13 confirmations in parishes across the diocese.
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On Feb. 5, the diocese will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving to mark the 40th anniversary of Bishop Gelineau’s ordination and installation as a bishop.
After presiding over the first of two Masses he planned to offer for the community last Friday, the bishop is not shy about taking an active role in helping to return the chapel to the meticulous state it was in before the service. He purposefully lifts wood framed chairs that some residents used to participate in the Mass from the hallway and carries them back into the chapel and straightens the rows of seats.
“I’m very happy. I’ve learned to let the Lord lead me, and he has led me well,” Bishop Gelineau says with a smile.
In the hallways residents and staff alike frequently stop and talk to him, sharing a quick story about their day or a laugh.
The bishop knows them all by name.
“He does a lot for us,” said Jennifer Staton, Saint Antoine Community’s director of activities. “The residents just love him. They really respond to him.”
Norma DiPietro, 72, who resides in another building on the Saint Antoine campus , assists the bishop after Mass when she is in attendance.
“He’s the spirit of here,” she says. “There isn’t a soul in the house that doesn’t love him.”
Like a favorite morning television news anchor, the bishop brings comfort to many just by his calm and understanding presence.
“If I miss seeing him in the morning, my day is not complete,” resident Elaine Sauro says.
Sitting in a favorite chair in his modest apartment at Saint Antoine, Bishop Gelineau reflected on the 25 ½ years he led the diocese until retiring in 1997, when he was treated for prostate cancer. Five years earlier, he underwent the first of four knee replacement operations.
He was succeeded by Bishop Robert E. Mulvee.
“They deserved somebody else,” he said of his decision to retire. “I was 69 years old.”
In December 1971, when he was called to leave his native Vermont and head south to be ordained a bishop and to lead the Diocese of Providence, he was at first unsure if this was the best assignment for him.
“I had doubts,” he recalls. “Is this really the will of God?” he wondered.
But Bishop Gelineau says he is confident he made the right decision.
“It was the right thing to do and I’ve had happiness in it,” he said.
At 43, he was considered young to have been ordained a bishop, but even though he felt uncomfortable leading a diocese that was five times the breadth of his previous diocese in Vermont, the best advice he had been given was “to just be yourself.”
The Most Rev. Robert F. Joyce, his former bishop in Burlington, Vt., ordained Bishop Gelineau to the episcopacy on January 26, 1972.
Bishop Gelineau adopted a leadership model in which he followed in the footsteps of Jesus: Jesus as priest, prophet and king, putting a premium on teaching and ministering to the needs of the flock, as well as being an organized leader.
To assist in ministering to the needs of the diocese, he created the vicariate system, which allowed people to more fully utilize their talents.
“People were very responsive,” he recalled.
Sharing the workload allowed him to spend more time among the faithful of the diocese.
“The invitations would come in and I would fill the calendar,” he smiled.
One of his most successful ministries was his desire to have weekend visitations in parishes. He would arrive at a parish on a Friday night and stay the weekend, observing how different programming was carried out, such as CCD instruction.
“That was very productive, I got to know the priests better,” he said.
He also enjoyed his work with the sick, spending parts of each Christmas, Easter and Holy Week visiting people in the hospital.
“I found that very gratifying. It was the presence of Christ, people are thirsty for that, they want it,” he said.
In the late 1970s, the bishop traveled to Haiti, where he witnessed the extreme poverty.
Out of that experience, the Providence-Haiti Outreach developed, beginning at St. Joseph Parish in East Providence.
Father Francis Giudice, the then vicar for Social Services, ran the outreach. He retired last year and has been succeeded by Father Robert Perron.
Looking back, Bishop Gelineau estimates he confirmed perhaps 100,000 candidates in more than a quarter century, something he still very much enjoys doing.
“It never gets to be routine,” he says.
But the times were not always joyous. In the mid-1980s, when the church sex abuse crisis began to take shape in the media, there was a constant spotlight on the diocese.
“I tried to be as pastoral to the priests as I could. We were in unchartered waters; we didn’t know the breadth of the problem,” he said. “People were second-guessing us for our motivation.”
As the crisis evolved, bishops developed a charter to address clergy sex abuse.
“We were in a leadership role in teaching other organizations, so you have a healthy environment for everybody. We tried to heal the damage that was done.”
Ordained to the priesthood in 1954 in his native Vermont, Bishop Gelineau was inspired at a young age to follow a vocation to the priesthood. One of his uncles was a priest as were two first cousins. The family also has to its credit 10 religious sisters.
“My family was so attached to the church. I wanted to go to seminary myself,” he said.
His father Leon, the youngest of 13 children, was an insurance salesman and military interpreter during World War I. He had left school in the sixth grade to work in a Vermont textile mill to help support the family.
His mother, Juliette (Baribault) gave birth to three boys. Louis was the middle child.
Bishop Gelineau received his early education at St. Joseph’s Elementary School and Cathedral High School in Burlington. He studied for the priesthood and was ordained on June 5, 1954. The future bishop would later earn a degree in canon law from The Catholic University of America.
Early in his priesthood, he would learn a very valuable lesson that the bishop carries with him to this day.
The newly ordained priest was dismayed to learn that his first assignment would not be in one of the bigger city parishes that he had hoped to be placed in, but rather a small, rural area of the state where almost everyone worked in the farming industry.
Then-Father Gelineau would remain at All Saints Parish in Richford for two years as an assistant pastor “to a great priest.” When the time came for him to be given another assignment he no longer had any desire to work in a big city.
“I cried when I left,” Bishop Gelineau recalls. “I learned not to prejudge God. He knows what’s best.”
“I went in with kind of a heavy heart, but I left with a heart filled with love and admiration.”
Bishop Gelineau will preside over the Mass, which will take place at 1 p.m. in the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul. All are invited to celebrate with bishops – including Bishops Tobin and Evans – priests, deacons, religious and laity.