Francis was born at Luceville in the Diocese of Rimouski, Canada on the 12th June 1947. At primary school in Saint-Albert-le-Grand he was considered a brilliant student. After finishing 7th class, his Parish Priest brought him to Rimouski so that he could sit the admission exam for the Junior Seminary. Francis was already thinking about becoming a priest. So at the age of 13 years, he became a boarder at the Junior Seminary in September 1960. Up to that time he was considered to be reserved even shy but life at the seminary allowed him to mix with the other students and to take part in the sporting activities.
In 1964, the White Fathers organised a missionary exhibition at the Junior Seminary. Francis was very much taken by the African sculptures and drums on show. Later on he wrote, “The two White Fathers present spoke to us with great enthusiasm about Africa and the pastoral activities in their countries of mission. The distributed the magazine “Mission” which I read with interest…I was attracted to the White Fathers because they worked in Africa. For me, the White Fathers were supermen because of their activities and dedication. They seemed to me to be zealous, optimists, working on behalf of the poorest and wanting to do something to change the face of the world. They were men of God and I felt called to be like them.”
Francis entered the novitiate of the White Fathers in Quebec in September 1968. It was a period of training in community life, prayer, and sharing of responsibilities. One year later, he began theological studies at Eastview near Ottawa, Ontario. Now, he discovered international community life which pleased him a lot. He took his Missionary Oath in Eastview on the 6th May 1972 and he was ordained priest in his home parish of Luceville on the 12th May 1973. The biblical text on his ordination card and which was with him all his life, was from Psalm 16 (15) “C’est toi, Seigneur, mon partage et ma coupe. Mon destin est dans ta main. Le lot que j’ai reçu est le plus beau” (cf Ps 16, 5-6.)
During his years of training, Francis’ professors saw him as the man with the welcoming smile. Everybody in the community respected him, he was attentive to others and always ready to be of service. He was a man of prayer with a solid faith and piety. He also possessed a great sense of sharing. He was always ready to invite the European confreres to stay with his family during the summer holidays.
In August 1973, Fr. Thibault left for Africa. His first appointment was to Zaire (now DRC) more precisely to the region of Ituri. He started in Logo in the Diocese of Mahagi. The parish had 40,000 Christians scattered though 35 villages. Even if the priests visited each village three or four times a year, there was no time for personal contacts with people. This necessitated training leaders locally to preside over the Sunday prayers.
Francis got down to learning the local language, Alur. As there was no language school in this part of the country, he had to manage things for himself with the help of the personal notes of the confreres and the aid of a catechist with whom he walked every morning in order to learn the rudiments of this language.
1975 was a turbulent year in Zaire with many changes taking place. Political decisions radically affected the life of the Church. Some changes gave rise to feelings of foreboding and insecurity among the Christian population. Christian youth movements were banned, non African Christian names were forbidden and the Catholic press was suppressed. Yet the life of the Church continued. Pastors organised catechism courses in each village and appealed for volunteer catechists.
In a letter to the Canadian Provincial, Francis wrote, “I have not accomplished anything superhuman or heroic during these last four years in Africa. But I was very pleased with all the Africans and my colleagues. I love this missionary life and I am ready to begin again.”
Francis returned to Canada in April 1977. After some months of rest, he returned once more to Logo. In 1981, he was appointed to the parish of Aba in the north of the Diocese of Mahagi. This meant learning a new language, Lingala. The long journeys on bad roads tired him out causing sleeplessness and stomach problems, he would have the need to take a green drink every morning. Soon the Regional advised him to return home and get some strength back. He returned to Canada in January 1982.
After a well deserved rest, Francis accepted an appointment to Canada for missionary promotion work in schools in the Québec region. This was a difficult apostolate for him because he did not feel at ease in the large secondary schools. In 1986, he was appointed superior of the Provincial house in Montreal while also taking on the task of local bursar. This was a delicate task which he carried out adroitly. He gave compassionate attention to each confrere while emphasizing the importance of community life and welcoming visitors.
In 1989, it was time to think about returning to Africa. The Regional reminded him that he was needed in the Congo because he was very much missed by the confreres who had known him there. Francis was appointed to Ugonjo again in the Diocese of Mahagi. With another confrere, he shared responsibility for a Training Centre for Pastoral workers. Sessions were organised for leaders of Christian communities and retreats given to priests and religious. Work also began on a translation of the New Testament into Alur, the local language.
Francis spoke about his wonder at the faith and hope of all the Congolese which he met every day, “These people are poor. They meet many difficulties. They can be put down and disheartened but they stick it out and help one another. As for me, my presence among them is only a drop in the ocean but I am happy to be here with them. I take each day as it comes seeking God’s presence in my life.”
Francis did the Session/Retreat in Jerusalem in September 1992 after which he returned to Ugonjo. Here he was to suffer two painful events. On the first occasion four robbers disguised as soldiers arrived at the mission and threatened the Fathers at gunpoint and took away anything they could lay their hands on: money, radios, tools even the car of the fathers. Some months later the same confreres underwent a similar robbery only this time a watchman of the mission was killed. Francis was very traumatised by these violent attacks and the Regional thought it best to transfer him to a more secure post. Fr. Thibault was appointed to the Regional house in Bunia in the neighbouring diocese. He became the bursar and was in charge of receiving visitors. However, he still felt ill at ease. The painful experiences at Ugonjo gave him nightmares and the genocide in Rwanda affected him a lot. He could no longer concentrate and showed signs of stress. In May 1994, he was asked to anticipate his home leave and return to Canada and take the necessary time for rest and receive treatment.
After resting some time in his family, Francis felt much better and accepted to go as superior to our house on rue Argyle in Ottawa. His kindness, his sense of service and organisation and his attentiveness to others contributed to keeping the Ottawa community a harmonious and joyful one.
Francis left Ottawa in 1999 to take up the job as local bursar in the Provincial house community on rue de l’Acadie in Montreal. He was familiar with the way the house functioned as he had been superior there previously. He carried out his duties sagaciously until June 2005 when he left for Mexico.
Francis went firstly to Querétaro. It was difficult enough for him as he had to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture. As he had a good reputation as bursar, he was put in charge of purchases for the kitchen and for the maintenance of the house. In 2009, he was appointed Sector Treasurer and went to live in Guadalajara. He also accompanied our Mexican students who wanted to have a community experience and prepare themselves to work in Africa. This was a new experience for Francis as he had never been involved in Formation work before. However, he was happy to share with these young people his experience and his missionary enthusiasm.
On the 23rd July 2012, Francis returned definitely to Montreal. He needed rest, to relax and regain his strength as the smallest activity seemed to tire him out. His doctor advised that he follow therapy to deal with his stress. One began to see the first beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease; he was beginning to mix up the present with the past, had serious problems with his memory, and was becoming more and more confused. He took up residence in our retirement home in Sherbrooke where the nursing staff could look after him and make sure that he took his prescribed medication.
Fr. Thibault lived in Sherbrooke until the 15th December 2015. There was a marked deterioration in the state of his health and he was brought to the Hotel-Dieu hospital for evaluation. The doctor told us that Francis ought to go to a centre specialised in long term care where the medical staff could look after him in a more appropriate way. Francis was admitted to the Centre d’Hébergement de Soins de Longue Durée in Asbestos, Québec. Little by little he got weaker just to the point where he became incapable of recognising the confreres, relatives and friends who came to visit him.
Francis returned to the Father on the 6th September 2017. His funeral took place in the presence of his mortal remains in the Chapel of the Missionaries of Africa in Sherbrooke. After cremation, his ashes were buried in the cemetery of Luceville, his native village. May the Lord grant him the peace and eternal joy promised to his faithful servants.
Michel Carbonneau, M.Afr.