Father John Brioux drew people ‘like bees to honey’
NORTH VANCOUVER—Parishes and First Nations communities from B.C. to Ontario are mourning the death of Father John Brioux, OMI, an Oblate priest with a deep spirituality and love for his flock.
“He just gave it his all and he was much beloved by all the people,” said Father Robert Haggarty, OMI, who met his fellow Oblate when Father Brioux entered the community as a novice in Ontario 53 years ago.
“He would draw people like bees to honey. He was a joy to be around.”
Father Brioux, pastor of St. Paul’s Indian Catholic Church, died of a heart attack May 24, two months short of his 75th birthday.
He is being remembered as a renaissance man who inspired artistic talent and had a remarkable passion for First Nations people, a deep spirituality, a strong sense of history, and a drive to build for the future.
First Nations ministry
Father Brioux served First Nations communities in B.C.’s Shuswap and Chilcotin regions for at least 20 years, according to Father Haggarty, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Lillooet.
During those years, Father Brioux built relationships with local chiefs, learned First Nations cultures and languages, and encouraged locals to deepen their faith by joining Cursillo, a Christian renewal movement, or participating in the Fountain Lake pilgrimage he launched.
“He was very creative, well received, and much beloved, and that’s to put it mildly,” said Father Haggarty. The pilgrimage, regularly held 20 kilometres north of Lillooet, was “a tremendous place for reconciliation and meeting.”
When Father Brioux moved south, he continued building relationships with local First Nations, including at St. Paul’s in North Vancouver.
“Father Brioux was not only a great priest, but also a father figure to us and a lot of people in the community,” said Deacon Rennie Nahanee, a member of the Squamish nation and St. Paul’s. “We loved him. We are heartbroken.”
Father Brioux would wear Aboriginal regalia to funerals and welcomed the use of eagle feathers and cedar branches at St. Paul’s. Deacon Nahanee was the parish music minister when Father Brioux became the pastor in 2010. It was thanks to the priest’s guidance and mentoring that he became the area’s first locally ordained permanent deacon.
“He’s the one who vested me” during ordination in 2015, Deacon Nahanee said. Both were so excited that Father Brioux accidently placed Deacon Nahanee’s vestments on backwards.
“I guess he was quite excited that there was a Native deacon on a First Nations reserve and we’re going to be working together.”
A sense of history
Father Brioux was also interested in restoring tiny Catholic churches in remote First Nations communities; in the 1980s, he renovated the aging St. Paul’s in Canoe Creek and added a church bell at Immaculate Conception in Dog Creek.
He also led St. Paul’s in North Vancouver, a national historic site, through a major renovation. It was originally built in 1884 and its spires, which had been added in 1909, were rotted through and leaking.
With the help of a generous donation from Luigi Aquilini (father of Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini) Father Brioux helped fix up the community church, where a diverse community, including many First Nations people, continues to worship.
Father Haggarty said Father Brioux also had a surprising knowledge of Oblate history.
Building for the future
Renovating old churches wasn’t the only way Father Brioux guided his parishes into the new generation. While he was a pastor at St. Augustine’s, he learned children had been going to school in makeshift cinderblock classrooms since their school was torn down in the 1950s.
When then-principal Catherine Oberndof approached him in 1999 to ask about building a new school, Father Brioux wrote a prayer. That prayer was recited at the school every day for the next 15 years, and in 2015, a new school was blessed.
“The biggest legacy that he began and left was the construction of the new school,” said Jayne Le Vierge, St. Augustine’s parish secretary.
Father Brioux hired Le Vierge about 15 years ago. She said in the seven or so years he moved to St. Paul’s, she was struck by his open, welcoming and honest personality.
“He made everyone feel like they really meant something to him,” she said. “If I had a penny for someone who ran by my office who said, ‘He’s a friend of mine,’ I would be wealthy.”
Father Brioux would write personal messages in all Christmas cards and throw parties for the newly baptized after the Easter vigil.
“Father John was an amazing pastor and friend to so many people, always present to them, always ready to sit down and talk,” said longtime parishioner Linda Arnold. “He was truly a good shepherd to us all.”
The Oblate was also known for his musical talents; when motion picture soundtrack composer Peter Allen put together a CD of musically talented St. Augustine’s members, Father Brioux and Father Lorne McDonald, OMI, were featured on it.
“He had a tremendous musical ability,” said Father Haggarty. “When he came west as an Oblate, he was so impressed with the Rockies” that he “composed a piece of music.”
Some of Father Brioux’s sketches and paintings still hang at Oblate houses and at St. Augustine’s.
“The John the people mourn today was not at all different from the John I knew 53 years ago. There was something very special and gifted about him,” said Father Haggarty.
Father Brioux died one day before the 43rd anniversary of his ordination.
A prayer service was set to be held at St. Paul’s in North Vancouver May 31. St. Augustine’s Parish will host vigil prayers June 1 at 7 p.m. and the funeral Mass June 2 at 10:30 a.m.