Father John Lessard-Thibodeau received a shocking welcome to his first assignment as a pastor in the Diocese of Springfield, Mass., in August of 1999. Hours after he completed his first set of Masses in his new post, his church burned to the ground.

Some friends had invited him to a Boston Pops concert that Sunday afternoon. He returned to find Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Holyoke engulfed in flames. By the time the conflagration was contained, 17 buildings had been destroyed. The disaster was the handiwork of a pair of juveniles who wanted to try their hand at church-burning.

Ordained in 1992 in the Diocese of Springfield, the priest had arrived facing an already daunting assignment: Facilitate the merger of three parishes and four cultures. The buildings that burned were aesthetical and architectural marvels and were intended to be the parish’s new home.

The other parish buildings — those belonging to Sacred Heart Catholic Church — were dilapidated and slated for razing. The buildings of the third parish involved in the merger, Precious Blood Catholic Church, had already been torn down a decade before.

The fire took more than a suitable home for Father Lessard-Thibodeau’s parish; he lost all of his personal belongings, including all his memorabilia from his mother, who died in 1986. (He hyphenates his surname in her memory, Thibodeau being her maiden name.)

And yet, rather than let the tragedy defeat him, Father Lessard-Thibodeau used it as inspiration for his ministry. He healed his own grief by helping his parishioners to heal theirs.

“All the memories of my mother went up in smoke,” Father Lessard-Thibodeau told the Register. “And they can’t be replaced. That helped me to empathize with the heartbreak of the parishioners who had lost their church, their school, everything. I knew I had to gently but quickly pull them together and take the steps to move in a positive direction.”

Parishioner Bob Grenier witnessed Father Lessard-Thibodeau’s first step. Grenier had heard the fire alarm on the scanner and rushed to the church to see if he could help. He saw the smoke and entered the church to close the windows, an effort to minimize smoke damage. Then he tried to open the tabernacle in order to save the Blessed Sacrament. But the tabernacle was locked and he didn’t have the key. Overcome by smoke, he left the church. Seconds later it exploded in flames.

Two days later, Grenier met with insurance-company representatives to discuss the case. As they sat talking, Father Lessard-Thibodeau walked into the room wearing a firefighter’s uniform.

“I was so surprised to see him dressed up like that,” Grenier recalls. “I teased him and asked him if he’d given up the priesthood to become a fireman.”

Father Lessard-Thibodeau assured Grenier that he hadn’t given up the priesthood, but that he had indeed become a fireman. He had the fire chief deputize him so that he’d be allowed to go into the ruins to retrieve the Eucharist from the tabernacle. He also became the fire department’s chaplain.

According to Grenier, Father Lessard-Thibodeau amazed onlookers as he courageously and deftly climbed ladders over and into the ruins. He retrieved the ciborium from the buried tabernacle, found a piece of altar cloth large enough to cover the ciborium and re-climbed the ladders all without releasing his protective hold on the sacred vessel.

“He walked up and down those ladders like they were a set of steps,” Grenier says. “Nobody could figure out how he did that.”

Once outside, Father Lessard-Thibodeau showed Grenier the ciborium. The gold on the outside had been burned off, but the inside was still gilded. The hosts had been toasted a light brown. Both Grenier and Father Lessard-Thibodeau saw this as a sign for a new beginning for the parish.

“The slate was wiped clean,” Father Lessard-Thibodeau says. “I was now the founding pastor of a new parish.”

A talented amateur architect, Father Lessard-Thibodeau began restructuring the buildings of the new parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe. He re-installed the confessionals and refurbished the inside of the church. Using his own resources, he’s now working on the rectory.

Meanwhile he restructured the parish by re-instituting time-honored devotions such as frequent confession, Eucharistic processions and adoration, including the 40 Hours devotion. He also began a program of living Rosaries during the months of May and October as well as novenas and retreats during the rest of the year. Plus he offers the Tridentine (Latin) Mass once a month.

Parishioners run the cultural gamut, but most are either Quebecois, Hispanic or Irish-American. Additionally, a high percentage of the parish members are active military.

A military man himself, Father Lessard-Thibodeau is honored to minister to the men and women who serve their country. As a seminarian in 1990, he obtained release from his bishop to join the Army Reserves. He had hoped to join his two cousins who were deployed in the Persian Gulf.

By the time he completed his training, the Gulf War had ended. But he never lost his appreciation for the military.

Father Lessard-Thibodeau is a self-proclaimed abortion survivor and he avidly promotes the pro-life cause. When his mother was pregnant with him, she was advised to have an abortion. The pregnancy occurred late in his mother’s life and there were other extenuating circumstances. The family was told that, if the baby survived at all, he would has serious congenital defects. His parents chose life anyway.

“Although some people might call me a monster for other reasons,” Father Lessard-Thibodeau says with a laugh, “I’m just fine. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Eucharistic Center

Father Lessard-Thibodeau credits his parents’ faith and example for his vocation to the priesthood, which was apparent to him at an early age. After high school, he entered St. Cyril & Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich. He also studied at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland (the same university in which Pope John Paul II studied) and spent time in the Vatican as an interpreter for the Pope. He’s multilingual and speaks Polish, French, Hebrew and Spanish fluently.

But the language he speaks best is the language of the Eucharist.

“The Eucharist is everything to him,” says choir director Joan Higby. “There’s an obvious sense of mystery and sacredness whenever he says Mass. He also has a very strong attachment to Our Lady and that shows in everything he says and does.”

His ardent devotion to the Eucharist helped Father Lessard-Thibodeau pull his new parish together after the fire.

In the disaster’s aftermath, he sought the advice of his cousin, Father John Sullivan. Father Sullivan told him to look for the common ground, stand in the center and invite the parishioners to come to him.

The “common ground” Father Lessard-Thibodeau claimed was the Eucharist.

“He took on the responsibility of making three separate parishes into one,” Father Sullivan says. “And he did it. That is a great tribute to his pastoral sense and priesthood.”

And a great sign of hope for the people of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Holyoke, Mass.

Marge Fenelon writes from

Cudahy, Wisconsin.