A Modern Catholic Hero: Paul Comtois

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Compiled from Various Sources

Early in the morning of Monday, February 21st, 1966, with the outside temperature about 20 degrees below zero, the historic old mansion that served as Government House in Sillery, Quebec, Canada, caught fire and, as the Fire Chief on the scene later described, “… went up like matchwood.” Initial reports told of a man seen shepherding his wife, daughter, staff and guests from the house. Then that same man deliberately walked back into the blazing inferno that had been known as Bois de Coulonges Manor, official residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Quebec. He never walked out.

Who was that man? What could have been his reason for putting his life in such great danger?

The answer is simply this: Someone he loved more than life itself was still in the house!

Three days after the fire, a French priest in Quebec, Father J.M. Laplante, O.M.I., wrote an explanatory article for the Wanderer, which appeared in its issue dated March 10, 1966. We quote from his article:

No Greater Love

Wanderer readers may have heard that Lieutenant-Governor Paul Comtois, personal representative of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of England, perished on Monday morning, February 21st, in the fire that de­stroyed the 105 year-old Bois de Coulonges Manor, at Sillery, Quebec.

For your American readers, permit me to explain the role of a governor or viceroy in the Canadian political system. As we all know, the Queen of the United Kingdom reigns, but does not govern. She is, rather, a figurehead, a moral authority. In Canada we still have the British system, and the Queen is officially represented in Ottawa by a Governor General, and, in each Province of the Confederation, by a Lieutenant-Governor. So, in the Province of Quebec, His Excellency Paul Comtois was holding that high office.

Mr. Comtois had been elected a Member of Parliament in Ottawa for Nicolet County in the fifties, and when the Conservative Party won the election in 1954, under the leadership of Honorable John Diefenbaker, he was chosen as a Cabinet Minister. Finally, he was selected to succeed Mr. Onesime Gagnon, as Lieutenant-Governor, when the latter died.

Paul Comtois was known to be a most personable man, a popular socialite, with an exquisite French courtesy, and most of all, a true Catholic, a faithful servant of the Church.

On the early morning of February 21st last, when the fire began in the Bois de Coulonge Manor, Mrs. Comtois was in bed. There were visitors in the castle, ten occupants in all. Mr. Comtois, 70 years old, was the first to act. He took his wife in his arms and brought her outside. His daughter, Mireile, and all the other occupants were shepherded out by His Excellency himself. Then, as his daughter wanted to return to the house, he gave her explicit orders to STAY OUT. He himself went upstairs to his private chapel to rescue the Holy Species.

Unfortunately, whether he could not open the tabernacle because of the progress of the fire, or whether the smoke was too heavy, at any rate he was able to get hold of the paten and relic only. Then, as he came down, the stairs collapsed and he was burned alive in the holocaust. It was a sublime act of faith, a beautiful response to the recent encyclical, Mysterium Fidei, that a man laid down his life as a strong believer in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, a martyr of Jesus in the Host.

The news was first released that Monday morning by CTC, a National network. But afterwards, there was no mention of that incident. I wondered how the world conspirators, the modernist dictatorship, the Left-wing Catholics, who control vast segments of our news media, would handle the case. I did not have long to wait.

Last night, February 23rd, the CBF (French channel) timidly an­nounced the truth, but warned that there was no question of dramatizing the already tragic death of Mr. Comtois. Because, as you know, the Left-wing elements – Catholic or otherwise – get along so well together -are against triumphalism, and maximalism in the display of our faith. The Church must confess its sins, deplore its bad and outmoded traditions, but never lapse into exaltation of its truths, or the holiness of its members.

So it is! The Left-wing press: LeDevoir, La Presse, of Montreal, Le Soleil of Quebec City, played down the wonderful deed. There was and is no editorial dedicated to it. It would be too Catholic, and Paul Comtois was a conservative Catholic at that.

In other times, that news would have covered the world with headlines. But nowadays? I doubt if La Croix and Les Informations Catholiques Internationales of Paris, or the U.S.A. Liberal Catholic week­lies will give much coverage or comment to that sublime act of faith.

But what an act of reparation, nonetheless, for the Left-wing priests who do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, or who throw away the consecrated hosts after the celebration of the Mass is over! The fact that, in 1966, a politician, a statesman, the Anglican Queen’s immediate representative in Quebec, imitated the gesture of St. Tarcisius should be shouted from the rooftops. Seldom before did we realize that conservative Catholics such as these are the true Church, that their belief is ABSOLUTE, that the privilege of having Christ as guest in the house implies the duty of attempting to SAVE HIM in His sacrament, even at the loss of His host’s life. Yes. His Excellency Paul Comtois, host of Christ in Bois de Coulonges Manor, gave up his life for the sake of Christ the Host! May his merits earn for the Province of Quebec the grace to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and in the tabernacle till the end of time!

But the Wanderer although read and much trusted in ROME has a relatively small circulation and the affirmation of Paul Comtois was not – in Father Laplante’s words – “shouted from the rooftops”. His imitation “of the gesture of St. Tarcisius” had been virtually suppressed, much to the relief of the Left­wing Establishment in the Catholic and secular world. After all, hadn’t they warned us “there was no question of dramatizing the already tragic death of Mr. Comtois.”

And they were true to their word. Except for a single reference to the incident, five years later, in the Church bulletin of the Canadian Armed Forces base in Cold Lake, Alberta, dated February 14th, 1971, it became a dead story. But then, quite suddenly, it came to life again.

In 1973, a gentleman by the name of Larry Henderson became Editor of The Catholic Register, the largest of all English language Catholic newspapers in the bilingual country of Canada. In the issue dated February 23, 1974, Mr. Henderson wrote this piece:

The Death of Paul Comtois

It is a truly extraordinary thing that I am going to tell you – but the most extraordinary thing about it is that you have probably never heard of it before. It concerns the holy death of a Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, Paul Comtois.

The facts are quite straightforward. Just eight years ago, on Feb. 21st, 1966, fire destroyed the Lieutenant-Governor’s mansion at Silery, Que­bec. Mr. Comtois, 70 years old, was the first to notice smoke. There were ten occupants of the chateau including his wife and daughter. The Lieutenant-Governor brought them all outside to safety. Then he returned himself inside the blazing building to rescue the Blessed Sacrament in his private chapel.

Apparently, he was unable to open the tabernacle door. At any rate, he succeeded in getting hold of the paten and relic only. Then, as he came down, the stairs collapsed and he was burned alive in the holocaust. Such are the facts.

What is not so clear is why this extraordinary action went unreported at the time and has since remained virtually unknown. After checking the story out, I came to the conclusion that this act, which would have become a part of the history of mankind in any other time, has been deliberately overlooked today.

Of course, to the agnostic world, such an act is incomprehensible. Yet even so, the sheer sensationalism of it would seem to have warranted front page play in the secular press. It did not. Le Devoir and La Presse passed it over in silence. Furthermore, the Catholic press was not informed. What are we to conclude? Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Mr. Henderson promptly ordered a full report. It was prepared by a very experienced Quebec newspaperman Myles O’Farrell and appeared in the Catholic Register March 2nd, 1974. In Mr. O’Farrell’s fuller investigation, it will be noticed that Paul Comtois had actually reached the pyx, which was found safely under his body. Yet Lt. Col. J.P. Martin, chief aide-de-camp, had reported, “The fire started as though it were in a matchbox. It was incredible to see with what speed the flames spread through the building.” The heat of the crackling flames was in acid contrast to the 20-degree-below-zero temperature in Quebec City. Despite the wintry weather, the firemen could not approach closer than 100 feet, and hoses were continually freezing. But Paul Comtois could – and did. Mr. O’Farrell’s full report in the Catholic Register, March 2nd, 1974 read:

How Comtois Died with Host In His Hands

Quebec City – There is little doubt left today that eight years ago – on February 21st, 1966 – Paul Comtois, 70, Quebec’s 21st Lieutenant­-Governor, burned to death while trying to save the Holy Eucharist from the fire that destroyed the governor’s Bois de Coulonges residence at Sillery, Quebec.

Maurice Cardinal Roy, Primate of Canada and Archbishop of Quebec, said at the time: “Mr. Comtois, as a Christian, gave an example of wisdom and goodness, humility, and radiant faith.”

Still, Paul Comtois’s heroic sacrifice remains officially unrecognized and was very lightly passed over by the secular press.

However, it is now firmly established from eye-witness testimony, that, instead of escaping himself as he could have, Paul Comtois, like the captain of a sinking ship, refused to leave the burning building until all his guests, staff and family members had reached safety.

Then in a desperate attempt to fulfill his last obligation in saving the Holy Eucharist in the family chapel from the flames, he himself perished. The pyx, the sacred vessel in which the Host is kept after consecration, was found under his charred body as proof of his near-success.

His daughter, Mireille, told how: “As I was racing through the building to escape from the fire, I came upon my father in the chapel. As I was going to run to him, he firmly ordered me to jump from a nearby window and I did, wondering why he did not do likewise. The last I saw of him, he was standing under the sanctuary lamp in his pajamas and wearing around his neck the souvenir Rosary from his father which he said every night and wore to sleep.” “My father,” Mireille continued, “would visit the chapel each night before retiring to say his prayers.” His mother was a McCaffrey, right from Ireland, and even though he was a devout man, he held a certain disdain for death.

“My father once told me that he had difficulty in being granted the special permission from the Cardinal to permanently keep the Blessed Sacrament in the private chapel. When he finally was given this permission, it was on condition that he be personally responsible for its safe and proper keeping. And my father was a man who lived up to his obligations at all costs.”

“I was told,” she continued, ‘that when they found him, his body was badly burned and his arms were no longer intact; but my father was a big stocky man and under the upper part of his body they found the pyx used to carry the Holy Eucharist. His body had saved it from the flames . . . I can still picture him standing there in the light of the sanctuary lamp.”

Brian Turpin, a Quebec City fireman among the first to locate Mr. Comtois’s body, said: “We found him face down, his body badly burned amongst the sacred vestments scattered on the chapel floor. The small case for the Host was at his front. His arms had been burned off and were separated from his body on the floor.”

Mac Stearns, a Quebec industrialist and overnight guest of the Gov­ernor’s residence, commented: “I jumped to safety from a second story balcony, injuring my back in doing so and was hospitalized for some time after. My wife and I were good friends of the Comtois family. We were in the habit of visiting one another. I grew to be a close friend and admirer of Paul Comtois. He was a very sincere person, deeply concerned with the problems of humanity.”

“His tremendous religious faith impressed me greatly and was no doubt instrumental in my embracing the Catholic faith some time after his death. Knowing his great fervor for the Blessed Sacrament,” Mr. Stearns added, “I have no doubt whatsoever that Paul would do all in his power to rescue the Holy Eucharist from the fire.”

Paul Comtois was born in Pierreville, Quebec, on the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, August 22nd, 1895. He first entered politics in 1930 and was defeated by one vote. In June, 1957, he entered the House of Commons as member for Nicolet-Yamaska. On Oct. 1st, 1961, he was appointed Quebec Lieutenant-Governor by John Diefenbaker, then Prime Minister.

This beautiful story of the noble death of Paul Comtois was published in booklet form in 1988 by a dear friend, Mr. John Cotter of Barrie, Ontario, Canada. The booklet bore the title The Affirmation of Paul Comtois, and had an introduction written by another dear friend, Sister Maureen Peckham, R.S.C.J. With the permission of Mr. Cotter, we have presented the story in substantially the same manner as did he. With the permission of Sister Maureen, we will close this story of a true Catholic hero of our time with, but for one slight change, the exact words she wrote as an introduction:

Epilogue

Over twenty years have passed since, in an act of gallant generosity, a supernaturally splendid ‘beau geste’, Paul Comtois, Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Quebec, laid down his life for his Friend in the Blessed Sacrament. His story, far from making the headlines, was considered, by the secular press, not newsworthy, and, by the Catholic press, an embarrassment. The Church of the second half of the 20th century is, to its shame, not noted for its faith in the Blessed Sacrament, and, one can only deduce that it was fear of being considered foolish and old-womanish – or, worse still, old hat – by an unbelieving world that caused the leaders of the Church in Quebec to pass over, in blushing silence, Mr. Comtois’ noble deed.

Yet, Paul Comtois was a man of the world, a well-known socialite, one who had reached the heights of worldly glory; he was one whom the world could recognize as its own. Furthermore, his chivalrous and brave death should, even on the human and worldly level, have merited him the title of hero. That he, who had been honored by the world during his lifetime, should have been ignored by the world at the moment of his death, can only be explained by the fact that he died for One Whom the world does not recognize and has ever refused to acknowledge.

The glorious martyrdom of Paul Comtois, passed over as it was by an unbelieving world, and by an all too unbelieving Church, has, nonetheless, remained in the faithful memory of God’s true friends. That one of these should today be putting into print Mr. Comtois’ shining witness of charity, in its radical and essential loveliness, is indeed a welcome and joyous event. May this inspiring story enflame the hearts of all who read it with an undying love for the Lord of the Tabernacle.

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