Pierre was born on the 24th April 1940 at Saint-Pierre-Jolys, Manitoba Canada. He attended the local primary school before going on to the Holy Family Junior Seminary at Winnipeg for his secondary school education. He studied Philosophy for two years at St. Matthew’s College in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan. He entered the White Fathers’ novitiate on the 7th August 1963. He studied Theology at Eastview, near Ottawa from 1964 to 1968.
All during his years of training, Pierre had to work hard at studies. He recognised that he had little taste for speculation. However, he was determined and applied himself generously to get the required results. He was more at home at manual work where he showed himself to be resourceful, skilful and able to take initiatives. He was very generous and conscientious regarding work entrusted to him. He was attentive and thoughtful with confreres always ready to render them a service. He liked community life and he was much appreciated by the confreres. However, he was highly strung, emotional and easily influenced and he needed to learn more self-control in these areas. He was excitable and could easily lose his temper especially when he met opposition or when certain remarks were made to him. He sometimes defended his ideas too forcefully. However, as he became more and more aware of his temperament, he made great efforts to gain more self-control. He was deeply attached to Christ and his missionary vocation and he put a big effort into his spiritual and apostolic formation. He was not afraid to witness to his faith before others. Reports concerning his apostolic activities were always full of praise. This is why his professors recommended him for the Missionary Oath, which he took on the 16th June 1967 at Eastview followed by ordination to the priesthood on the 17th June 1968 at St-Pierre Jolys.
Fr. Croteau arrived in the Congo in that same year of 1968. When asked about his preferences for apostolic work and country of mission, he wrote to the Provincial. “I would like to work in a working class milieu either industrial or mining. The poor and the needy have always have been my favourites. More precisely, I would like to go to the Congo, after the dramatic upheavals of 1964; this country surely needs many missionaries to replace those who have disappeared. Also I can bring my own little contribution to the internationalisation of the Society in this African country.”
In September 1968, Pierre was in the Congo learning Mashi, the principal language of south Kivu in the Eastern Congo that included the island of Idjwi, which was his first mission. The island is a beautiful place but is situated in a treacherous stretch of water, which can go from beautiful calm to deadly storm in a matter of minutes. Two months after his arrival, Pierre saw three of his confreres engulfed by violent waves because of such a storm. A traumatic experience that left its mark on the heart of the newly arrived missionary. It was also a distressing moment for the island Christians deprived suddenly of three of their six priests. A review of pastoral work became necessary. Pierre and his two confreres got down to work, often visiting together the 22 meeting points scattered around the littoral of the island. These conditions of work, although difficult because of the rhythm of work imposed by the small number of priests, was a source of richness for these three confreres It brought them together through honest sharing and a strong community life.
Pierre was the youngest of the three priests and he was put in charge of the pastoral care of young people. His primary concern was to get young people interested in agriculture not only to keep them on the island but also to get them interested in development. This interest in development on the part of Pierre and his confreres led to the establishment of a Credit Union, which gave security to the people and enjoyed a real success.
Five years later in 1973, Fr. Croteau returned to Canada for his first home leave. While there, the Canadian Provincial asked him to stay for three years in Canada as vocation director. Pierre was astonished that he had not been consulted beforehand about this appointment. He wrote to the Provincial, “Regarding this appointment, I was never consulted. I think the time has come to give you my opinion. Firstly, I am not refusing this appointment to vocation work in Canada and I willingly accept to serve in the Province for three years. But, given the political and religious circumstances in the Congo, given the uncertainty of our missionary presence in the country for the foreseeable future, given my limited missionary service confined to an island for the past four years, given my limited knowledge of the Mashi language, given my wish to perfect my knowledge of Credit Unions, I would like to ask you to postpone my appointment to the Province for at least three years if it is possible to find a replacement. I would like to continue to work in the Congo as long as missionaries are welcome.” The arguments set out by Fr. Croteau won the Provincial authorities over to his point of view and they reversed their original decision and allowed Pierre to return to the Congo. However, before returning to Africa, he followed a session of eight weeks at the Coady International Institute, Antigonish in Nova Scotia for training in community and social development.
In October 1974, Pierre was back in the Congo and he was appointed as curate in Mbagira, a heavily populated suburb of Bukavu. It was a dormitory town and Kiswahili and Mashi were the everyday languages. With two other confreres, Pierre reviewed the priorities concerning pastoral work. The priestly team would henceforth concentrate on the creation of Small Christian Communities, which would allow them to take more responsibility for their Christian life. Many groups were set up and the Christians took a liking to Gospel sharing.
In 1976, Pierre took charge of youth work in the Diocese. In Bukavu, there were 100 schools, 60,000 young people of whom 40,000 were attending educational establishments. It was a colossal task which required the training of leaders who could assure a Christian accompaniment in the all the schools and colleges. In 1979, the Archbishop of Bukavu asked that Pierre become bursar of the Major Seminary at Murhesa. After home leave in Canada in 1983, Pierre joined the formation team as bursar of our First Cycle house in Ruzizi. He was also involved in the selection of candidate applying to join us. He loved the family spirit reigning in this community.
Pierre was appointed to Winnipeg in 1985 with responsibility for Missionary and Vocation Promotion for all of western Canada. It goes without saying that Pierre would have preferred to stay in the Congo where missionary vocations were more numerous. However, he accepted this new task with typical generosity. It put him in contact with many young people and involved other activities such as preaching on the missions, collaborating with diocesan vocation and pastoral offices. It was not an easy job even if the welcome of the people made the work quite pleasant. Missionary vocations were very rare.
Pierre returned to the Congo in October 1989. He was appointed to Kashofu in Bukavu Archdiocese. He was happy to return to the island of Idjwi where his missionary life in Africa had begun. Once again, he put his talents as pastor, navigator, and builder at the service of the people of the island. There were brief stays as curate in Lubuye, Kalemie Diocese, home leave in 1982, and then local bursar at Charles Lwanga House in Bukavu in 1994.
On the 22nd November 1994, Pierre suffered a major thrombosis, which immediately affected his speech. It also paralysed the right side of his body very quickly. He was transported to the FORMULAC hospital, which was the best equipped hospital in the east of the Congo. The doctors who examined him said that the situation was very serious. The confreres tried to repatriate him as quickly as possible. However, the doctors’ advice was to wait a few days. Fr. Croteau arrived in Winnipeg on the 9th December and was immediately brought to the General Hospital where he remained for many weeks. On the 8th May 1995, he was able to leave hospital. He went to a nursing home for some months where he was able to receive treatment appropriate to his state of health.
Pierre went through this major trial with a great deal of courage and faith. He continued to live his missionary life in the flesh by his prayers, the offering of his sufferings and physical limitations. On the 26th January 1996, he transferred to our house in Sherbrooke. He received suitable care and he was assured of a White Father community life relying on the fraternal gestures of the confreres and the support of community prayer. He requested a computer, not only to occupy his time but also to communicate with his confreres, relations and friends. Pierre could barely speak and conversation was limited to just ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ His messages by computer were not always understandable. He was further hampered by the fact that he could only move about in a wheelchair.
Being far from his family was very difficult for Fr. Croteau. He wanted to return definitively to Winnipeg to live for some time in our community and maybe go on to Bukavu! However, our house in Winnipeg was not equipped to provide all the care that he needed. After a number of interventions by the Provincial, he accepted to return to Sherbrooke after spending a number of weeks with his family. He came to this decision after a week of reflection and prayer. It was a moment of peace and serenity. In a letter to the Provincial, he gave a beautiful witness to fidelity, abandon, and trust in the providence and love of God despite the limits imposed by his physical condition. However, deep inside him the desire to return to Winnipeg still burned. After 13 years in Sherbrooke, he returned to Manitoba on the 1st April 2009. He went to a nursing home in Saint-Malo, a couple of kilometres south of Winnipeg. It was a modern facility well able to provide him with the care he needed and it had programmes for hobbies and exercises. However, Pierre soon became weaker and disabled. He had to leave the nursing home at Saint-Malo and move to a centre in Winnipeg for more specialised care. He died there on the 23rd January 2017. Our confrere, Bishop Albert Thevenot of Prince Albert presided at the Funeral Mass, which took place in the chapel of the Despines Residence on the 31st April 2017.
Over the last 23 years of his life, Pierre was paralysed and suffered from many health problems. He knew more than anybody else what it means to be nailed to the Cross with his Saviour. In the Congo and in Canada he lived his Missionary of Africa vocation by being with Jesus and by proclaiming, in his own way, the Good News of the Kingdom. In his many trials sometimes lived with difficulty but always with confidence, he actualised every day the witness of the faith of St. Paul, “for I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God manifested in Jesus Christ our Saviour (cf Rom 8,38-39)
Michel Carbonneau, M.Afr.