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Oldest Assumptionist priest dies at 104

Father Oliver Blanchette was a missionary to Africa in his 80s

Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service

Updated: May 18, 2020 06:27 AM GMT
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Oldest Assumptionist priest dies at 104

Assumptionist Father Oliver Blanchette, who was a missionary in Africa until the age of 90, died on May 11 at 104. (Photo: Crux)

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Father Oliver Blanchette, the oldest Assumptionist in the world and beloved by many in Worcester Diocese in the United States, died on May 11 at Notre Dame Long Term Care Center in Worcester after a period of declining health. He was 104.

His funeral Mass will be celebrated privately with burial in the Assumptionists' section of St. Anne's Cemetery in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. A public memorial Mass will be held at a later date.

"Father Oliver didn't just live a long life," said Assumptionist Father John L. Franck, a former assistant general of the Assumptionists, who now serves at St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge. "He was a man of great wisdom ... experience ... foresight ... support and an apostle. ... I can't tell you how much he's going to be missed by so many people."

Father Blanchette was a missionary to Africa in his 80s and ever since he returned home, at age 90, he was raising money for Assumptionist projects in Africa, Father Franck said.

He said Father Blanchette was so lucid that, a month before he died, he was giving Dr. Frederick Bayon, chairman emeritus of Assumption College's board of trustees, instructions on how to run the college. Father Blanchette told him, in effect, "You have the ear of the president. Tell him he's doing a great job and here's some more advice."

"I went to Africa when I was 83," Father Blanchette told The Catholic Free Press, Worcester's diocesan newspaper, for a story marking his 100th birthday in 2016. "I came back when I was 90."

Father Blanchette said he had always had a little desire to go to the missions and was sent to be present to the younger people, partly to inspire aspiring and new Assumptionists. He was an English teacher and spiritual director, serving from 1999 to 2007 in Nairobi, Kenya, and Arusha, Tanzania. People in Worcester formed the group Friends of Father Oliver to help fund his projects there.

But he called his years as associate pastor of St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge, staffed by the Augustinians of the Assumption, his most meaningful assignment.

He also served in a variety of other Assumptionist ministries as well as being a leader in the Cursillo movement in the Worcester Diocese, helping the diocese with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, joining diocesan priests in the Emmaus spiritual support group and reaching out ecumenically.

He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 12, 1916, the only child of Armand and Olive (Gahan) Blanchette. His mother died when he was seven and his stepmother, Rhea (Fugerem) Blanchette, helped raise him.

"As a young boy, I seemed to have a call," he told The Catholic Free Press. "I tried to stifle it as a teenager."

He attended Technical High School in Springfield and graduated from Assumption Preparatory School in 1934. A relative convinced him and his family the Springfield college he wanted to attend was "pink," having communist leanings, he said.

"OK, I'll go to Assumption, but they better not try to make a priest of me," he declared.

"But by the second year, I chose to become an Assumptionist on my own," he recalled. "I was afraid to lose my soul to the world ... if I didn't become a priest." At age 100, he said his reason for being a priest was to serve the Lord and his kingdom.

Father Blanchette was awarded a bachelor's degree from Assumption College in 1937 and studied philosophy there from 1937 to 1938. He studied theology at the Seminary of Quebec at Laval University from 1941 to 1945, and received his licentiate in sacred theology. This was followed by graduate study from 1946 to 1947.

He made his first profession on Oct. 2, 1940, in Canada and was ordained to the priesthood on June 16, 1944, by Cardinal Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve in Quebec.

Father Blanchette began his ministry by teaching philosophy, education and religion at Assumption Preparatory School from 1947 to 1956. He was sub-prior and master of scholastics there from 1947 to 1954 and superior of the community from 1956 to 1962.

He then became the regional superior and master of novices at the Montmartre Community in Quebec for one year, then superior in Saugerties, New York, from 1964 to 1967. The next year, he was master of novices in Dedham and assistant provincial.

Father Blanchette returned to Assumption Prep as superior of the community from 1968 to 1970.

From 1971 to 1977, he was a spiritual director at the John XXIII Center in Cassadaga, New York.

He served in an Assumptionist community in Worcester from 1977 to 1980 and was superior for one year. Then he became assistant pastor at St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish in Sturbridge, serving there until 1999, when he went to Africa.

In his retirement, he worked with the Lay-Religious Alliance of the Assumptionists through the internet for another 12 years.

In his younger years, he enjoyed playing hockey and tennis. More recently, he enjoyed studying church matters, pastoral and spiritual works.

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