Rorate Caeli

A Tribute to Father Yves Normandin (1925 – 2020), Hero of the Traditional Mass in Canada: “We ought to obey God, rather than men.”

 A Tribute to Father Normandin (1925 – 2020) 
by Jean-Claude Dupuis, PhD 

 Father Yves Normandin died on December 30, 2020. He left his mark on the history of the Church in Quebec. In 1975, the humble parish priest of Sainte-Yvette in Montreal became famous for continuing to celebrate the traditional Mass in Latin. Archbishop Paul Grégoire relieved him of his duties for “disobedience.” Fr. Normandin and his traditionalist supporters occupied the church of Sainte-Yvette illegally for six months. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), Fr. Normandin celebrated the Mass of Paul VI like every other priest. 

But he began to question it when he learned that Protestant pastors had participated in the planning of the liturgical reform. He was shaken by such texts as the encyclical Pascendi, Pius X’s letter on the Sillon, Louis Salleron’s study La nouvelle messe [The new Mass], the works of Léon de Poncins and Pierre Virion on Freemasonry, and all the writings of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. His conversations with Fathers Noël Barbara and Réal Bleau convinced him. 

In 1973, he travelled to the traditional seminary in Écône, Switzerland. He was impressed by the piety of the young seminarians. He went on to Lourdes, Rome and Jerusalem in search of the spiritual strength to fight the battle of a lifetime. In June 1975, he made his definitive return to the Mass of St. Pius V. Fr. Normandin agreed with Cardinal Ottaviani’s conclusion in his Short Critical Study of the Novus Ordo Missae (1969): “The Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent.” The conciliar spirit was producing disastrous results. Priests sought defrocking, the faithful were losing interest, Catholic institutions were disappearing. It was necessary to reverse course. 

The archbishop of Montreal, Paul Grégoire, did not enter into discussion with Fr. Normandin. He simply repeated the argument from authority: “The pope changed the Mass; you must obey.” Abp. Grégoire remained polite, but intransigent. Fr. Normandin argued that bishops could not forbid the Tridentine rite. The bull Quo Primum (1570) had instituted this rite “in perpetuity.” Article 30 of the Code of Canon Law stipulated that “immemorial custom” cannot be abrogated without being expressly revoked. But while Paul VI’s liturgical decree (1969) allowed celebration of the new Mass, it did not forbid the traditional Mass. Pope Benedict XVI would recognize the truth of this argument in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum (2007). 

Fr. Normandin refused to leave his parish. The media said he occupied Sainte-Yvette’s church and rectory “illegally.” That was incorrect. He had appealed Abp. Grégoire’s decision to Rome. He had the right to keep his appointment until the Apostolic Signatura settled the dispute. In November 1975, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre came to support Fr. Normandin. His visit added an international dimension to the Sainte-Yvette affair. Abp. Lefebvre was considered the leader of traditional Catholics. The Osservatore Romano covered the Sainte-Yvette affair. But the Quebec press did not mention Abp. Lefebvre’s presence in Montreal. Radio host Yvon Dupuis nonetheless broke the media silence by inviting Abp. Lefebvre onto his phone-in broadcast. 

Abp. Grégoire did not dare to ask police to expel the traditionalists of Sainte-Yvette, who prayed day and night before the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar, thus benefitting from the article of the Criminal Code that forbids police to interrupt a religious ceremony. The archdiocesan lawyers resorted to guile. They summoned Fr. Normandin to court as a witness. He was obliged to go. The faithful thought he had given up the fight. Archdiocesan employees entered the rectory in his absence and changed the locks. The new parish priest of Sainte-Yvette removed the monstrance to put an end to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In the end, the faithful left the church. 

When Yves Normandin returned, he was a “pastor out in the cold,” with neither home nor income. But the traditionalists would support him financially for years. Fr. Normandin celebrated Sunday Mass in a Bavarian brasserie in Montreal called the Beer Garden (which traditionalists discreetly spoke of as “the German house”), and then at the more suitable location of Lucien-Pagé School. During the week, he travelled across the entire country of Canada to say Mass for little groups of traditionalists who asked for his services. 

Fr. Normandin spent eight years of his life on planes, in trains and on buses (1976 – 1984). In his youth he had dreamed of becoming a missionary to Africa. He was a missionary indeed, but in his native land. Fr. Normandin’s apostolate established the foundation for the future establishments of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) in Canada. This religious congregation was founded in 1969 by Abp. Marcel Lefebvre to defend the Catholic Faith and the Latin Mass. Some of Fr. Normandin’s little altar boys would later become priests of the SSPX. 

In 1984, Fr. Normandin distanced himself from the SSPX to rejoin the archdiocese of Montreal. A non-territorial parish of Tridentine rite was granted him, the Latin Community of Saint Paul, which had its home at the church of Sainte-Cunégonde (1984 – 2000), then in Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (2000 – 2007), and since 2007 Saint-Irénée, which in 2016 was given into the care of the Fraternity of Saint Peter. But Fr. Normandin had to make a concession. He stated in writing that the Second Vatican Council and the Mass of Paul VI contained no heresy. Some traditionalists reproached him for this “weakness.” He himself was somewhat uncomfortable with this episode in his life. But it must be recalled that in 1984 many Catholics, including Abp. Lefebvre, thought that John Paul II would bring the Church back to Tradition. They were disillusioned when the interreligious Day of Prayer in Assisi took place in 1986. 

On the practical level, the existence of a traditional Mass authorized by the diocese made it possible to draw Catholics to Tradition who hesitated to join the SSPX because of its canonical irregularity. Around 1990, I was one of those Catholics. I owe a great deal to the Latin parish of Sainte-Cunégonde. 

At the end of his life, Fr. Normandin returned to the SSPX: “This is my real family.” He lived and said Mass at the Precious Blood Residence in Lévis [Quebec]. His failing health unfortunately put him in a long-term care centre, where he endured the fallout of Covid-19. The priests from Holy Family School could no longer bring him Communion. A generous family offered to take him in. 

Fr. Normandin spent the last months of his life surrounded by children. The young priests of the SSPX could once again visit him and soak up his example. He refused morphine, offering his sufferings for his faithful. Fr. Normandin’s funeral took place on January 4, 2021, at the SSPX priory in Saint-Césaire, Quebec. He was buried in the cemetery of Cowansville, the town of his birth. The spirit of Fr. Normandin can be summarized in one sentence. It is the famous response of St. Peter to the Sanhedrin: “We ought to obey God, rather than men.”

[This is a translation of a tribute by M. Jean-Claude Dupuis, originally written in French and posted to the website of pro-life group Campagne Québec-Vie on January 6, 2021.]