From time to time there are men in history whose heroism runs so counter to the spirit of the age that the arbiters of passing fashion must simply ignore him rather than run the risk of acknowledging his embarassing greatness and goodness. God has graced the New World with many of his saints, some of whom — Rose of Lima, Martin de Porres, Mother Seton — have already been raised to the altar, others — Fulton Sheen, Fr. Solanus Casey — are certainly on their way, but yet more remain unsung and almost forgotten. Paul Comtois (1895–1966), Lieutenant-Governor of Québec until his heroic death, is just one of these such saints.
Jean-Paul-François Comtois was born in Saint-Thomas-de-Pierreville, in Québec’s Yamaska County on August 22, 1895. His father, Urbain Comtois, was a merchant of old Québécois farming stock while his mother, Elizabeth (née McCaffrey) was of Irish descent. After completing the cours classique at the Collège de Nicolet, Paul Comtois was admitted to the Université de Montréal. He studied agronomy at the Institut agricole d’Oka, an agricultural institute run by monks at a Trappist monastery, and received his degree in 1918.
His studies completed, Comtois returned to Pierreville to run the family farm, Ferme des Ormes, whose land had first been cleared by his grandfather in 1835. In 1921, he married Irène-Anne-Rachel Gill, who provided Comtois with three sons and two daughters.
Paul Comtois continued to farm for two decades, earning the médaille de bronze du Mérite agricole in 1926, but became an increasingly active participant in the civic affairs of his community. He was made the head of the local school board in 1928, and ran as the Conservative candidate for the the Nicolet-Yamaska constituency in the 1930 federal parliamentary election, losing by just one vote! Comtois was chief evaluator for the Agricultural Commission from 1935 to 1936, when he became the general manager of the provincial Office du crédit agricole, a post he held until 1957. In the mean time, he served for a year on the Housing Committee in 1948, co-founded the agricultural cooperative in his native Pierreville, and was made president (from 1945 to 1961) of the Caisse populaire de Pierreville, one of the cooperative credit unions founded by the Church to provide for the financial well-being of rural Québec.
From 1948 to 1961, Paul Comtois was mayor of the parish of Saint-Thomas-de-Pierreville, and he was made Prefect of Yamaska County in 1956. One year later, he avenged his 1930 electoral defeat by being elected to the House of Commons for Nicolet-Yamaska in the 1957 election. That August, Comtois was appointed to the Privy Council and was made Minister of Mines in the cabinet of the legendary Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. After four years in the Canadian cabinet, the Governor-General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appointed Paul Comtois Lieutenant-Governor of Québec, the personal representative of the Queen in the province.
Comtois took to the viceregal office with great assiduity. A popular socialite, he was a member of the Garrison Club and the Quebec Winter Club. A devoted Catholic, he was active in the Knights of Columbus and the League of the Sacred Heart. As is custom for Canadian viceregal representatives, Comtois was made a knight of the Venerable Order of St. John. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sherbrooke in 1962, and another from McGill University a year later, and was made Commander of the Ordre du mérite agronomique.
Lieutenant-Governor Paul Comtois opens the annual session of the Parliament of Québec.
Yet while the Lieutenant-Governor and his wife attended balls at the province’s best hotels and were invited to dinner parties in its most prominent homes, the entire family said the Rosary together every day, often outdoors despite the harsh winter cold. The family lived in the official viceregal residence, Bois-de-Coulonge, in the Quebec City suburb of Sillery (a city named after the holy Frenchman Noël Brûlart de Sillery). Comtois sought permission from the Cardinal Archbishop of Québec, Primate of Canada, to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in the private chapel at Bois-de-Coulonge. The Cardinal was hesitant but eventually agreed to Comtois’s pious request.
“My father once told me that he had difficulty in being granted the special permission from the Cardinal to permanently keep the Blessed Sacrament in the private chapel,” Comtois’s daughter Mireille recalled later. “When he finally was given this permission, it was on condition that he be personally responsible for its safe and proper keeping. And my father was a man who lived up to his obligations at all costs.”
After midnight on the evening of February 21, 1966 — a bitterly cold night of -24° Fahrenheit, -31° Celsius — the Lieutenant-Governor, his family, and some guests returned to Bois-de-Coulonge from a social event. A half-hour after the assembled had said their good-nights and retired to bed, a ferocious fire erupted in the basement of the 105-year-old manor.
“The fire started as though it were in a matchbox,” Lt. Col. J.P. Martin, the Lieutenant-Governor’s aide-de-camp, reported. “It was incredible to see with what speed the flames spread through the building.”
As soon as the fire was noticed, the governor immediately took charge, guiding his wife and children out of the house into the cold winter’s night outside. His daughter Mireille, however, noticed her father would not yet leave the tinderbox house.
“As I was racing through the building to escape from the fire, I came upon my father in the chapel. As I was going to run to him, he firmly ordered me to jump from a nearby window and I did, wondering why he did not do likewise. The last I saw of him, he was standing under the sanctuary lamp in his pajamas and wearing around his neck the souvenir Rosary from his father which he said every night and wore to sleep.”
Having been assured that all his family and guests had escaped the inferno, the seventy-year-old Paul Comtois returned to the private chapel in which he visited the Lord every evening before bed to save the Blessed Sacrament from the desecrating fire. He reached the chapel, already engulfed in flames, but managed to make it to the tabernacle and remove the pyx containing the Body of Christ. Leaving the chapel, he descended the staircase which collapsed about him, and the Lieutenant-Governor was burned alive in the inferno. The fire in which Paul Comtois died was so hot that the first firemen on the scene could not approach within a hundred feet of the building.
“I was told,” Mireille continues, “that when they found him, his body was badly burned and his arms were no longer intact; but my father was a big stocky man and under the upper part of his body they found the pyx used to carry the Holy Eucharist. His body had saved it from the flames. … I can still picture him standing there in the light of the sanctuary lamp.”
Maurice Cardinal Roy, the Archbishop of Québec & Primate of Canada, said that “Mr. Comtois, as a Christian, gave an example of wisdom and goodness, humility, and radiant faith.”
“I jumped to safety from a second-storey balcony, injuring my back in doing so and was hospitalized for some time after,” said Mac Stearns, one of the family’s guests that evening. “My wife and I were good friends of the Comtois family. We were in the habit of visiting one another. I grew to be a close friend and admirer of Paul Comtois. He was a very sincere person, deeply concerned with the problems of humanity.”
“His tremendous religious faith impressed me greatly and was no doubt instrumental in my embracing the Catholic faith some time after his death. Knowing his great fervor for the Blessed Sacrament, I have no doubt whatsoever that Paul would do all in his power to rescue the Holy Eucharist from the fire.”
Paul Comtois’s heroism stands in direct contrast to the cowardice of the changing establishment of the time in reporting his death. “The left-wing press: Le Devoir, La Presse of Montreal, Le Soleil of Quebec City, played down the wonderful deed,” wrote Fr. J. M. Laplante, O.M.I. in The Wanderer (10 March 1966). “In other times, that news would have covered the world with headlines. But nowadays? I doubt if La Croix and Les Informations Catholiques Internationales of Paris, or the liberal Catholic weeklies, will give much coverage or comment to that sublime act of faith.”
“But what an act of reparation,” Fr. Laplante wrote, for the errant priests who do not believe in the Holy Eucharist and desecrate the Blessed Sacrament themselves. “The fact that, in 1966, a politician, a statesman, the Anglican Queen’s immediate representative in Québec, imitated the gesture of St. Tarcisius should be shouted from the rooftops. … Yes, His Excellency Paul Comtois, host of Christ in Bois-de-Coulonge Manor, gave up his life for the sake of Christ the Host!”
Sister Maureen Peckham, R.S.C.J., wrote in 1988 of the Lieutenant-Governor’s heroic death in her introduction to John Cotter’s The Affirmation of Paul Comtois:
“Over twenty years have passed since, in an act of gallant generosity, a supernaturally splendid ‘beau geste’, Paul Comtois, Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Québec, laid down his life for his Friend in the Blessed Sacrament. His story, far from making the headlines, was considered, by the secular press, not newsworthy, and, by the Catholic press, an embarrassment. The Church of the second half of the twentieth century is, to its shame, not noted for its faith in the Blessed Sacrament, and, one can only deduce that it was fear of being considered foolish and old-womanish — or, worse still, old hat — by an unbelieving world that caused the leaders of the Church in Québec to pass over, in blushing silence, Mr. Comtois’s noble deed.”
“Yet, Paul Comtois was a man of the world, a well-known socialite, one who had reached the heights of worldly glory; he was one whom the world could recognize as its own. Furthermore, his chivalrous and brave death should, even on the human and wordly level, have merited the title of hero. That he, who had been honored by the world during his lifetime, should have been ignored by the world at the moment of his death, can only be explained by the fact that he died for One Whom the world does not recognize and has ever refused to acknowledge.”
“The glorious martyrdom of Paul Comtois, passed over as it was by an unbelieving world, and by an all too unbelieving Church, has, nonetheless, remained in the faithful memory of God’s true friends. That one of these should today be putting into print Mr. Comtois’s shining witness of charity, in its radical and essential loveliness, is indeed a welcome and joyous event. May this inspiring story enflame the hearts of all who read it with an undying love for the Lord of the Tabernacle.”