Leopold was born on the 3rd September 1927 at St-Clet in the Diocese of Valleyfield, Quebec Province, Canada. He attended the local primary school before following his secondary school studies at the College Sainte-Marie in Montreal. He entered the novitiate of Saint-Martin at Laval near Montreal on the 1st August 1949. He went to ‘s-Heerenberg in the Netherlands for the first three years of his theological studies. He took his Missionary Oath there on the 9th June 1954. His final year of Theology took place in Monteviot, Scotland where he was ordained on the 4th January 1955.
During his years of training, Leopold was noted for his bantering and jovial nature. He liked to entertain the community which made him very popular with the confreres. We should also underline his aptitude for public speaking and his talent for theatre and acting because he had a creative imagination and a great sense of humour. Nevertheless, he could be serious when circumstances demanded it. He was generous and charitable towards his confreres. He liked manual work and was always ready to take on any task alloted to him. He showed a solid and personal piety and was very attached to his missionary vocation and to his own spiritual and apostolic formation.
Fr. Lalonde was of a nervous disposition. Studies drained him and he needed to relax by undertaking external activities. He was certainly not one for administrative duties. He liked to be out and meet people. He was always at ease in his relationships with his superiors and confreres.
Leopold arrived in Mambwe in the Diocese of Abercorn (now Mpika) in what is now Zambia on the 1st October 1956. He learnt the local language, Chimambwe and for the next six years worked as a curate in the parish while visiting all the schools of the region. As he had a good knowledge of the local language, he got on well with the people. He liked visiting them and knew how to listen and encourage them.
In January 1961, Leopold was appointed the temporary Director of Education. He only served for four months. Office work did not agree with him at all as it meant a lot of official correspondance with the Government authorities which made him very nervous and he asked to return to parish work, a wish that was granted by the Regional Superior.
After home leave in Canada in 1962, Fr. Lalonde returned to Zambia. He was tasked with founding the new parish of Isoka. Isoka is a large district in the North-East of Zambia near the border with Tanzania. It was a parish with four different languages. So, this new foundation presented Leopold and the two other confreres appointed there with a very big challenge. In his visits to the different sectors of the Parish, Leopold was often accompanied by some Catholics, teachers, policemen or soldiers, who translated his message into the many different languages of the district. Leopold wanted to open many outstations in the parish and needed the generosity of these Catholics in order to make himself understood by the different peoples of his territory.
Fr. Lalonde, even in the midst of his many tours of evangelisation, always had a care for integral development. He found time to build a kindergarten which could care for 400 small children. This gained him the trust of the people. At Isoka, he contructed a big hen house and through the sale of the chickens and the eggs, the parish team became self supporting. In 1976, his taste for communication with the outside world led him to become a ham radio operator. He bought a short wave radio set which allowed him to communicate with all countries of the world. However, Leopold admitted, “ Alas, after two years of radio communication with the world, this pasttime became so captivating that I decided to give it up completely in order to preserve my missionary vocation. ” After another home leave in Quebec, Leopold returned to Isoka with a complete bee-hive (without the bees obviously). He wanted to teach his parishionerws how to keep bees in order to produce honey for their own consumption.
Fr. Lalonde spent 32 years setting up and developping the Parish of Isoka. When he left in 1994, the parish comprised 30 Christian communities spread out along the borders of Malawi and Tanzania. The time had come for him to take a rest as all the work was taking a toll on his health.
It was difficult for him to leave Isoka and his parishioners wept when they saw him leave.
If Leopold was totally committed to his pastoral and development work, he did not neglect his spiritual life and its renewal. He had been in contact with the Focolari movement and he was attracted by its spirituality. On his way home to Canada in 1994, he stopped over in Italy and spent seven months in Loppiano immersing himself in the Focolari spiriruality. He described this prayer experience as, “ Of all the experiences in my life, I do not believe that I have ever had a stronger, more enriching experience than that of Loppiano. God made me understand, in a unequivocal manner, his infinite love, present at every moment of the day and every moment of life…I discovered in a very concrete way that the way to God passes through those close to me…The infinite love of God that I experienced during these months has changed my life. It let me understand the reality of light and freedom and allowed me pass from fear to love. ”
1995 was a turning point in the missionary life of Leopold. He was appointed chaplain to the General Hospital in Kasama. It was a ministry that he was to exercise for the next 15 years until his definitive return to Canada. He went to the hospital every morning but before leaving the mission, he asked the Lord to be with him as he tried to find the comforting word and the appropriate encouraging gesture.
At the hospital, Fr. Lalonde took time to greet each sick person and then standing in the middle of the common room, he invited them to pray together. Then he quoted a proverb or recited a traditional fable, or he intoned a song. Sometimes he tried, with no great success, to dance a traditional danse which made the patients laugh. The doctors present encouraged him by telling him, “Continue, Father. Your jokes and your dancing are excellent medicine for the sick. It represents at least 50% of their recovery. ” During his 15 years of hospital ministry, Leopold was happy because of the daily contact it afforded with the suffering people. He made a big effort to procure equipment and medicine for the hospital.
In November 2010, Fr. Lalonde asked to return to Canada for good. He would have liked to continue working among the sick and suffering of Kasama but as he said in a letter, he was at the end of his tether and even exhausted. His strength had diminished over the previous months and his heart specialist advised a return to Canada. He found this decision to leave Africa very difficult. However, after praying about it, he accepted the will of God serenely and peacefully. So, he left Zambia, thanking the Lord for having allowed him to be His instrument for 55 years of missionary life in Africa.
When, he returned to Canada, Leopold asked to go to Sherbrooke. He put himself at the service of the community insofar as his strength allowed. However, his health deteriorated and he was diagnosed with cancer in August 2014. He accepted the verdict of the doctor calmly. It was a cancer of the lymphatic system and it was to lead to his eventual death. On the 10th March 2017, he died peacefully as he had wished in our community surrounded by the prayers of the community and the attentive care of the nursing staff of the house. He was 89 years old of which 62 years were spent as a missionary in Zambia and Canada. The funeral took place in the presence of his mortal remains in the Chapel of the Missionaries of Africa at Sherbrooke.
I will finish this brief biography of Fr. Lalonde by recounting an event which took place on the 24th October 2012, Zambian Independence Day. The President of the country honoureed a number of people for their service to the Zambian nation. Among the people so honoured was Fr. Leopold Lalonde who was awarded the Insignia of Mercy. The President explained that the medal was awarded for two main reasons :
- The first reason was the heroic courage of Fr. Lalonde. As a young missionary, he saved the lives of many men,women and children during the uprising led by the prophetess Alice Lenshina in 1964. By his coureageous intervention, he was able to protect and save from death a large number of Zambians.
- The second reason was the altruism and generosity he showed during his time as chaplain to the General Hospital of Kasama. Not only did he bring pastoral support to the sick but he made great efforts to get means of transport and medical supplies. As Leopold was no longer in Zambia at the time of this award, Fr. Jules Roy received it in his behalf.
Leopold responded to the awarding of this medal by saying, “ I am surprised to receive this medal and I wonder what did I do that was so extraordinary as to merit this honnour! I simply tried to be faithful to my missionary vocation. When I look at the Insignia of Mercy, I see again all these years spent in the vineyard of the Lord without any nostalgia but with much gratitude. I thank the Lord for these 55 years that he allowed me to live with the Zambian people. The joy that I feel today is the beginning of the reward that Jesus promised to us all. ”
Now our confrere, Leopold fully enjoys this reward that Jesus gives to his generous and ardent missionary.
Michel Carbonneau, M.Afr.