Wound In The City
Nick Gruner was in high school from the fall of Hungary to the fall of the Church Militant. From 1955 to 1959 he attended D'Arcy McGee High School, the same school his grandfather, Dr. Mullally, had founded 25 years earlier.
Few young men of that era could savor such continuity in family tradition. For Nicholas Gruner it would last a lifetime. Indeed it would have to, for tradition as it was known by home, school and family, was about to be swept away by a wind created outside of nature.
Nick had always been considered serious in nature even as a teenager. Not that he was totally immune to stimuli, but fads never seemed to touch him. Rock and roll, for instance, was popular, but it seldom consumed his interest. Fonder of Chopin and other classical favorites that Malcolm Gruner played at home in the evening, he became even more appreciative as he grew older.
“He was a bit of an entrepreneur in school,” his brother Tony recalls, “organizing ski trips, selling magazine subscriptions to raise money for school projects. He wasn't into a lot of sports but he did play hockey in the Parish hockey league after he left high school.” He had two sisters younger than himself. The last and seventh born, nine years Nick's junior, was named Jennifer. A classic moment of sibling co-existence is contained in her childhood memory of him.
“He was very good to me. He even taught me to ride a bike. I used to make him sandwiches, three cheese sandwiches every day. He'd pay me 10 cents. It was my first job. He was my first employer. But he'd complain to classmates when he got tired of them. By the time my older sister joined him in school she was jokingly blamed for making the sandwiches.”
As a family, they followed the practice of visiting seven churches in one day the week before Easter on Passion Sunday. It was one of the first great Catholic family traditions swept away by the changing times.
At university, Nick was voted in as president of the Newman Club, winning by one vote. He put a lot of effort into it, showing his characteristic willingness to lead the way even when unpopular, against opposition.
Though there was little time for it in his always busy schedule, he enjoyed playing hockey and football.
Always, he exhibited a lifelong character trait.
“He had a strong sense of right and wrong,” Jennifer recalled. “When Jehovah's Witnesses came to the door there was a strong family tradition of talking to them, not just for courtesy sake, but at length, to teach them. He seriously defended their attacks against Our Lady's virginity to which they were unable to argue. He would talk to them and they would go home to check out what he said, hopefully to think things through. But he did not talk about the religious life in the sense of his being interested in it.”
Looking back and reflecting on those early days forty years later, Father Gruner explains some of this secondary family and school formation: “I learned to ‘make it on my own’ very early on.” As the fifth child and the fifth son, he was in the middle of the family. “Of course, my sister's friends were not my friends. My older brother Tony was, and still is, a charming man. He made friends easily and was invited everywhere but, as older brothers are wont to express, he did not want his younger brother tagging along. Plus, we had different characters. As a result, I made my own way.
“That continued after leaving grade school. All my companions went to Loyola, which was run by the Jesuits. But my father insisted that, unlike my older brothers, I would not be taught by the Jesuits. Reputedly, they did not excel at teaching math and, as there was a possibility that I might go on to engineering as he had, he felt I would fare better at D'Arcy McGee, the school my grandfather Mullally had founded. It was then run by the Christian Brothers.
“D'Arcy McGee was in the heart of downtown Montreal, quite a different setting from where we lived. We weren't a rich family but we lived in what might be called a good neighborhood in what had originally been my grandfather's home. Though we wanted for nothing, and the house was well kept, we still did not have the extras that the neighbors had. Going to school in downtown Montreal at the age of 13, having no friends there, forced me to adapt to people of different cultures and diverse backgrounds.”
It might be said that like many who are considered more mature than their years, there were certain stages of growing up he never went through. The trajectory of his future career had already begun, one that would constantly pit him against superior numbers.
He came by that dynamic honestly, as Tony Gruner relates — his parents tended to be politically Conservative in a province that was, at that time, historically Liberal, the Gruners taking advantage of the option of voting against the party in power. Even as he entered school, he was developing a resistance to being outnumbered, no doubt in part a result of being raised in a non-French family surrounded by the French-speaking population of Montreal.
Montreal itself had been founded by a special act of providence, although most Montrealers would not know that today. It began as a missionary outpost, the result of a dream interpreted as coming from God, the seeds of Montreal being sown by a small population of French pioneers who accurately believed their endeavors, sacrifices and sufferings were in the service of the Gospel and the Catholic Church.
As a Montrealer, it was not lost on Nicholas Gruner that his native city could have had a very different history had Louis XIV consecrated France to the Sacred Heart in 1689, as requested by Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.1 If the powerful Sun King had obeyed, Protestant Europe might have been converted back to the Catholic Faith through France, and French North America might never have fallen to the English. As Nick Gruner learned later, these possibilities would dramatically parallel those promised by Our Lady of Fatima in return for the consecration of Russia. In retrospect, the parallels were even more poignant to him, when recalled, that his student days were lived during the collapse of the Church in Quebec. Would it have happened anyway? Would the Church in his native Quebec have withstood its almost total disappearance, along with the old Quebec, under longtime Premier Maurice Duplessis?
For all his faults, Duplessis understood the importance of keeping the province Catholic. He had even passed a law which kept the Jehovah's Witnesses out of Quebec. And, indeed, less savory aspects of Duplessis' reign made a profound impression on the young Nick Gruner.
A saintly Archbishop, the Most Rev. Joseph Charboneau, had confirmed him, the same bishop who soon got into trouble with the Vatican because he crossed a line drawn in the sand by Premier Duplessis. The famous strike of Quebec's asbestos workers struck the province like a cataclysm. It devastated incomes, starved families.
“Bishop Charboneau took the side of the union workers,” Father Gruner today recalls. “I remember him as a man of great courage and moral fortitude.”
Experiencing a unique brand of hellfire, Charboneau raised money to feed the starving workers.
“He saved lives,” Father Gruner points out. “Literally, Charboneau was a pastor feeding his sheep. Whether the strike was right or wrong did not matter, he would not see families destroyed by hunger.”
Duplessis was outraged that a mere Archbishop should be siding with the union workers against the government. He apparently enlisted the aid of some well-placed Vatican bureaucrats.
Charboneau was removed, sent packing, a broken man, to Victoria, as a confessor of nuns. He was the Archbishop of Montreal yet he was summarily dismissed and replaced. His departure left wounds in the city for a long time.
Charboneau's feeding of the poor was his downfall. There can be little doubt that the incident still reminds one to be cautious regarding careerist Vatican bureaucrats. The reality at the bottom of the crisis should never be forgotten.
Charboneau's replacement was Paul Emile Leger, later to be made Cardinal. Leger's transformation throughout his career mirrors with sad irony the disintegration of the Church in Quebec. In the beginning, Leger's presence and determination were edifying. In the early Fifties he had caused a sensation at 10 o'clock one night by approaching a roadside pornography stand downtown, taking magazines off the racks and throwing them into a bonfire.
By the time he died, thirty-some years later, women in long priestess gowns stood along the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral holding aloft coffers of burning incense in their hands as his coffin was carried down the steps, at the avant-garde Offertory, with baskets of bread on their head, all images of the post-conciliar Church Leger personally shaped in Quebec.
There were, admittedly, abuses of power executed by various Churchmen in Quebec over the centuries but overall this unique bastion of the faith in North America had been preserved. Then on October 8, 1958, Pius XII died. Pius had predicted Communism would strangle the Americas ‘at the neck’. The noose was tightening before Pius was laid to rest. Few had seen it coiling into place. The election of John XXIII was felt in every city, hamlet and classroom in the world. Then came 1960. In Quebec, Duplessis and his two political successors died in the same year. It set the province spinning. On February 8, 1960, the curtain rose on the most catastrophic decade in the history of the Church. That day, the Vatican anonymously announced that the Third Secret of Fatima, the details of which Catholics worldwide had eagerly awaited, would not be publicly revealed that year.2 The Sixties had started with a lie. Nick Gruner was still studying at McGill University in the critical year, 1963, when Pope John XXIII died, John Kennedy was assassinated, and Pope Paul VI reconvened the Second Session of the Vatican Council. Life seemed more serious suddenly.
Nick Gruner considered himself blessed to have gotten through the Catholic school system in Quebec before governmental attacks on education changed it forever. Ten years later, he would teach within that system, see how schools had been reorganized into large impersonal classes, both unwieldy and unwholesome. The public education system was not organized any better, and worse, it wasn't Catholic. By 1970 both systems would be destroyed, with few remnants of Catholicism surviving.
The priesthood had always been there. But even at 21, on retreat in Montreal, he had been cautioned, ‘Finish your degree first and then consider the priesthood’. He was then two or three years into his degree, with no thought of abandoning his studies. Basic to his plans was to enter the seminary with a degree in business. He earned his Bachelor of Commerce Degree at McGill University in Montreal, finishing in 1964. Then it was time off to see a bit of the world.
1. The Life of Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, Bishop Emile Bougaud, pgs. 263-273, Tan Books and Publishers, Rockford, Il.
2. Frère Michel de la Sainte Trinité, Vol. III, The Third Secret, Buffalo, NY., Immaculate Heart Publications, pgs. 578-579.