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N.H. brother on path to sainthood

Brother Wiliam Gagnon Photo via stjog.org

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The family would always get together whenever Brother William Gagnon visited New Hampshire from Canada.

"My father would go get him and take him out for clams. That was his big treat," said Yvette Leblanc McKenney, the niece of Brother Gagnon, a member of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God.

Brother Gagnon died in February 1972 while serving the Catholic community in Vietnam, where he is buried. On Dec. 14, Pope Francis declared him venerable, recognizing that Brother Gagnon lived the three theological and four cardinal virtues to a heroic degree.

Venerable Brother William Gagnon, who grew up in Dover, N.H. in a French-Canadian family, is now on the path to possibly one day being declared a saint in the Catholic Church. If his cause continues to progress, he would next be beatified and ultimately canonized.

"I was just flabbergasted when I learned," said McKenney, 77, who did not know previously that Cardinal Angelo Amatao, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, would present Brother Gagnon's name to the pope along with a list of others during a Dec. 14, 2015 audience at the Vatican.

"We just can't believe this is happening to my uncle," McKenney said. "He's so deserving of it. He was so good to people. He was very caring."

Brother Gagnon was born and baptized May 16, 1905 in Dover. He was the second oldest of nine children born to French-Canadian parents who had immigrated from Canada to find work in the city's cotton mills.

According to a biography provided by his order, Brother Gagnon from a young age had a deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and was inclined to be a person of deep reflection and prayer.

"If the good Lord wishes to take away all that we have, it must not concern us, for it is His will," wrote Brother Gagnon, according to a collection of his writings provided by the Hospitaller Order in Canada.

In 1916, his family returned to Canada for a short time. He was confirmed the following year at a parish in New Brunswick. In 1920, perhaps driven by economic reasons, the Gagnon family returned to Dover. There, Brother Gagnon and his brothers left school to work in the mills to help support the family, which was common at that time for working-class and poor families.

There is still a sizeable French-Canadian community today in Dover that feels pride that one of its own is being recognized by the universal Church.

"It's just a heart-warming thing for the people of the city here in Dover and the parishioners of the parish to see someone who was born here being raised to this level," said Father Agapit H. Jean, pastor of the Church of the Assumption in Dover.

"He responded to the call to serve, to give of himself in the name of Christ," Father Jean added. "I think it's important for people to know that God still calls people to that level and that there are people who have gone about and truly been like that."

In his early 20s, Brother Gagnon began discerning a religious vocation. He visited the Marists and applied to enter the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Hudson, N.H., which denied him entry because a medical examination had revealed a kidney disorder.

In the late 1920s, a local newspaper column about St. John of God, a 16th century Spanish saint who founded the Brothers Hospitallers to care for the sick and needy, piqued Brother Gagnon's interest. In 1930, he traveled to Montreal to enter the Hospitallers as a postulant. That same year, his sister, Maria-Eva, entered the convent of the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in Nicolet, Quebec.

Brother Gagnon left the order for a short time to help support his family in New Hampshire when his father was injured. He resumed his postulancy in April 1931 and received the religious habit three months later. He made his solemn profession on Nov. 21, 1935.

Brother Gagnon spent his first few years with the Hospitallers in Canada, where he directed a school and held several leadership positions, including prior of Notre-Dame de la Merci Hospital in Montreal, and provincial. In 1948, he resigned as provincial and was appointed prior of l'Hopital Saint-Augustin near Quebec City.

Moved by dreams of being a missionary from a young age, Brother Gagnon volunteered for overseas mission work in 1950. On Dec. 3, he was assigned to be the prior of the order's new foundation in Indochina, modern-day Vietnam.

Post-colonial Vietnam was in a state of political turmoil when Brother Gagnon and two other Hospitaller brothers in January 1952 took charge of the Hopital du Sacre-Coeur de Bui-Chu and its dispensary, which were located about 120 miles south of Hanoi. There, the brothers built the hospital and cared for victims of war, ranging from children suffering from malnutrition to adults wounded by shrapnel.

In 1952, a bomb tore apart the hospital's roof but no one was hurt. Bombs that also fell on their church did not explode. In a letter dated Aug. 11, 1964, Brother Gagnon wrote: "All of us, we remain religious missionaries and work only for the poor, regardless of what is happening around us."

Worn out by his apostolic labors, Brother Gagnon's health began to fail. On Feb. 28, 1972, Brother Gagnon died of heart failure in Saigon. He was 66. Almost immediately, people began venerating his grave in Vietnam.

"Brother Gagnon brought the face of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ, in reaching out to the people of Vietnam in a very difficult time," Father Jean said. "It was a very painful time for them with war raging between North and South Vietnam, but he was there to serve them and be that person of Christ."

McKenney, Brother Gagnon's niece, said he cared for everybody in Vietnam, including Communists.

"He never questioned who came to the door. He didn't distinguish them separately," said McKenney, who remembers the last time her uncle visited the family in New Hampshire before he went to Vietnam. She said the whole family posed for a picture, and added that there are still many relatives in the area.

"My children loved him," McKenney said. "He was a wonderful, good man."

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