WCR File Photo
Fr. Michael Blanch was inspired by Vatican II's emphasis on social justice.
LACOMBE – Father Michael Blanch was know as a humble priest and an advocate for social justice
More than that, he was a beloved shepherd and friend to many – a gentle soul who spent long hours talking and listening to his flock.
A priest for 58 years, Blanch, 84, died Oct. 12 after a lengthy illness.
"He was a good man and a lifelong advocate for social justice," said Candace Curkan, secretary of St. Stephen's Parish in Lacombe and a friend of Blanch. "He will be sadly missed by all of us."
Blanch served at St. Stephen's for 11 years, beginning in 1986. During the celebration of his 50th anniversary of priesthood in Lacombe eight years ago, parishioners gave thanks to God for Blanch and referred to him as a "good shepherd" and a "faithful disciple" of Jesus Christ.
"He is a very quiet, gentle pastoral person who really cares about his people," Audrey Erickson, former administrator of St. Stephen Parish, told the WCR during Blanch's 50th anniversary celebration in 2003.
"He is a gentle soul who finds the good in everyone he meets and is quick to offer words of kindness and encouragement to all."
Archbishop Joseph MacNeil echoed those comments. "He was a very good priest – a quiet, humble priest who loved the priesthood, the Church and its people," he said Oct. 17. "He was very kind to them."
MacNeil presided at Blanch's funeral Mass at Red Deer's Sacred Heart Church Oct. 18.
Blanch served at St. Stephen until 1997, when he officially retired as parish priest. However, he agreed to continue serving the parish as dominical vicar and helped with prison ministry in Bowden and Red Deer.
In an interview during his 50th anniversary celebration, Blanch said he had no regrets in having chosen the priesthood but made it clear he would change several things in the Church given half the chance. These included allowing married priests to return to active ministry, ordaining women who do most of the work in the parishes and making celibacy optional.
"I think the priesthood is quite a lonely life," he said, noting that many priests feel out of place in social events because they have no family ties.
"I have seen many good men leave the priesthood because they don't have that gift. I think celibacy should be optional."
A man of peace, Blanch spoke against the invasion of Iraq, and took part in antiwar protests in Red Deer. When the war took place, he was "profoundly disappointed with those who did everything to justify an unjust war."
Blanch was born June 20, 1927 in Stratton, Ont., the youngest of 13 children. In 1928, the family moved near Humboldt, Sask., and Blanch attended school at St. Peter's Abbey in nearby Muenster.
In 1947, he began studying for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminary in Edmonton and was ordained in Muenster, June 7, 1953.
He began his priestly career as assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton's inner city. A few months later, he was given his first parish, St. Rose of Lima in Onoway.
In 1967 Blanch was transferred to Our Lady of Victory Parish in Thorsby.
The influences of the Second Vatican Council, which he welcomed, were beginning to be felt at the parish level. Blanch educated the people and encouraged them to form parish pastoral councils.
He also welcomed the renewed emphasis on social justice that resulted from the council.
Vatican II, he noted, made it possible for lay people and pastors like him to get involved in the daily struggle for justice and equality for the world's poor and marginalized.
In 1970, Blanch was transferred to Christ the King Parish in Stettler. At the end of the decade he was moved to St. Pius X Parish in Edmonton, where he served for two years.
In 1981, he joined the Scarboro Mission Society and was appointed to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
For the next five years he served as pastor at St. Mary's Cathedral in Kingstown, developed a catechism program for children and served in various projects for the poor. The experience solidified Blanch's sensitivity for the poor and the marginalized.
In 1986 Blanch became pastor of St. Stephen and soon started celebrating Mass at the Bowden Federal Institution and at the Red Deer Remand Centre, eventually becoming chaplain at both institutions. In 1991-92 Blanch took on added responsibilities as administrator of St. Augustine Parish in Ponoka.
He retired as pastor in mid-1997 at age 70 but continued to serve as a dominical vicar for St. Stephen until 2007. He also filled in for priests on vacations or other absences until his illness last year.