September 1999 Print

Archbishop Lefebvre In Memoriam Part 2

Part 2

Rev. Fr. Michel Simoulin

This account of the last days of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was written by Fr. Michel Simoulin, who was at the time rector of the Society's seminary in Ecône, Switzerland. It is taken from Les Cahiers de Controverses, No. 1. It has been translated from the original French and appears for the first time in English.

Friday, March 15. In the afternoon the Archbishop was taken to Monthey for the scan. They had planned to take him by car, but the Archbishop preferred to go in an ambulance, since it would be easier, especially with the IV stand. "The chauffeur was from Martinique. You should have seen it! I had to hold on tight in the with Fr. R., but at least we didn't waste any time." That evening, having returned from Montalenghe, I brought him Communion with Fr. G., one of our young priests who came for the ordinations tomorrow. The Archbishop was in bed. After Communion he told us to sit down. He had a big smile, springing from remembered adventures with one of his turbulent sons, who came to be known throughout Valais as "the Cardinal." They exchanged some thoughts on the priesthood and the difficulties he was encountering in the apostolate, notably with families on the subject of education.

The Archbishop's disposition towards his own case is the same: indifference and confidence in Divine Providence. He was having trouble with his intravenous tubes, which were causing edemas. It was necessary to change the arm, and one unskilled nurse did not know how to insert the tube. An anesthetist came while we were there and gently placed the tube into the vein of the right hand. I told him, "You have tough veins!" "No, on the contrary. It seems that they are too fine and delicate! Do you realize...for a bishop of iron! The fluid passes through the vein into the tissue. Now they no longer know where to stick me." The Archbishop, who did not wish to offend anyone, apologized to the anesthetist for seeming to be critical: "I do not reproach her, but she has injured my arm," he said, showing the small hematoma caused by the clumsy nurse. Before our departure, the Archbishop blessed us, in spite of the intravenous tubing which encumbered his right hand.

APRIL 29, 1990.
Friedrichshafen, Germany. Archbishop Lefebvre had already promised to preach, but, after hesitating, he agreed to officiate. His fatigue disappeared, he remained standing for the entire sermon and its translation. "Fortunately," he said, "I had my third leg! Without my crozier, I would never have made it."


Saturday, March 16. At Ecône, it was the day of the ordinations to the subdiaconate. "I am indeed united by prayer to the ordination of the subdeacons," said the Archbishop to Fr. Puga. "It is the first ordination which could not have taken place if you had not given us bishops!" "Yes, indeed. That year, 1988, was a great grace, a blessing from God, a veritable miracle...This is the first time that, being gravely ill, I find myself perfectly at peace. I must admit...I am sorry...but before, when I would fall sick, I was worried that the Society still needed me, that no one could do the work in my place. Now I am at peace; everything is in place and functioning."

That evening it was Fr. C., who had come for ordinations, who brought Communion to our founder. I accompanied him. After Communion, the Archbishop expressed his joy at seeing one of his older priests, and we chatted for a while. The Archbishop spoke humorously as always about his approaching death. "It is better that it be me than another. If it were one of our priests on the circuit, it would be necessary to replace him... This would be quite a job, and our poor Superior General would have more problems. But, as for me...there is no need to replace me, I have nothing more to do. All is in order and I am of no use any more! It is true...I am good for nothing. So then, it will be off to the vault with him, and no one will talk about him any more." At the moment of parting, the Archbishop apologized for not having his ring for us to we kissed his hand.

Sunday, March 17. The doctors have decided to operate on the Archbishop on Monday if the anesthetist, who should see the Archbishop today, gives his approval. The surgeon left it up to him to decide and would operate only if he deemed the Archbishop's system and heart could tolerate the shock of an operation.

Again at the same hour, I took him Communion, accompanied by one of the older subdeacons ordained yesterday. This was to be the last Communion of our founder, who received sitting. The Archbishop seemed tired. His face, showing suffering on our arrival, showed relief after Communion. After his thanksgiving, he bade us to sit down. He addressed words of congratulations to our subdeacon, telling him that yesterday he had prayed for them. He confirmed the operation to us. The anesthetist had found no contra-indication and it would take place at 9:00 a.m. The Archbishop was very resigned. "Let the good Lord take me, if He wills." "But we are all praying for the opposite." "We shall see who wins...I didn't dare tell Dr. Tornay, but I wanted to tell him that if he wished to obtain worldwide renown, and to have his name in all the newspapers, he need only leave me on the table." "Indeed, but it could have an adverse affect upon his practice." "Yes, that's true." All this banter was punctuated by the Archbishop's mirthful laughter.

The Archbishop spoke again of his difficulties with the nurses in inserting the intravenous tube. This evening it is placed in his shoulder; fortunately, the Archbishop has his "crosier" (that is what he called the IV stand on which the bags and tubes are suspended) and that enables him to move about without too much trouble.

He recalled the gift which had been brought to him and what he planned to do with it. "We shall drink the brandy together when I return to the seminary, and I will give the chocolates to Fr. Puga. He'll distribute them to the nurses. He knows the whole group, and he will know to whom to give them." We speak a little of the Society, the future priests, of their nominations. The Archbishop could not help but jest a little on this subject. He asked if there were news of our Sisters dispersed to the four corners of the world. We finally asked the Archbishop to bless us and we left him to rest in order to be ready for the surgery. Before Compline, we recited the Litany of the Saints for the Archbishop.

NOVEMBER 29, 1990
Ecône, Switzerland. Group photo of seminarians and guests
on the occasion of Archbishop Lefebvre's 85th birthday.


Monday, March 18. "When the doctor told me to count to ten, just before I fell asleep, I made a huge sign of the cross...and then...nothing. Then I woke up and asked, "The surgery is off?" "But M. Lefebvre, it is over!" he replied. That is how the Archbishop recounted his surgery.

About 10:45 a.m., a telephone call was received from Nathalie B. "The Archbishop is leaving the operating room. All went well and he is awakening nicely." Deo Gratias. I immediately informed the seminary and the Mother House. The Archbishop was moved to Intensive Care. The surgeon had removed a tumor the size of a grapefruit. It appeared to be benign, but we must await the pathology report. Visitation to the Archbishop was very limited and was made by Fr. Puga twice a day. The Archbishop was exhausted by the operation, but he smiled behind his mask and tried to communicate, though he could not sustain a conversation. Some daily worries and some difficulty regulating his cardiac rhythm would mark his first days, but all returned to normal, little by little.

Wednesday, March 20. At 2:00 p.m. I made a short visit to the Archbishop. The gastric tube and the mask rendered his talk almost unintelligible, but his smile was well visible and the word "thanks" was clear on his lips. He asked if we had the pathologist's report yet, if it was cancer. The doctors and nurses were optimistic and tried to calm his fears. Fr. Puga got excited on his visit that evening when the Archbishop was difficult to rouse. The Archbishop seemed in distress. He complained of backache and headache. His limbs were badly swollen. He believed that the priest had been called for his last moments. "It is the end, I have a terrible headache; it seems the good Lord is coming to fetch me. I desire ardently to die with some of my priests at my side to recite the prayers for the dying. One cannot refuse me that." The Archbishop passed a bad night because of the wearing off of the pain killers and a problem with edema of the lungs, cardiac weakness and renal difficulties. By morning, the Archbishop called Mr. Grenon, who alerted us. Fr. Puga went to see the Archbishop, who was again in distress (result of cardiac difficulties), believing that they were keeping the priests from coming to see him. The presence of Father reassured him, and the Archbishop gradually calmed down. When Father was leaving, the Archbishop had brightened up. By 1:00 p.m. the Archbishop was very calm, peaceful and suffering less.

March 21, Thursday evening. The Archbishop was sitting up in bed. He has found his optimism and moral strength. The gastric tube was removed and a transfer back to the surgery ward was foreseen. The Archbishop looked forward to returning to his Room 213. But he is still very feeble. As long as he is stretched out, he finds himself feeling well, but when he lifts himself, he realizes that he is still very sick and unable to maneuver, and he speaks less of going back to his room. The possibility of the seminarians taking turns keeping him company one by one was mentioned, but it would not be easy; it would have to wait. "That was the biggest surgery of my life, but it's over! I believe that it is not for this time...what is necessary now is that the area not get infected."

Friday, March 22nd. We learned yesterday that the Archbishop lost his appeal on the case brought against him by LICRA [which had charged His Grace with racism], but we do not speak of this to him. Rather, we make plans for the future, and the Archbishop's convalescence (a chalet, Italy...) but the Archbishop said to Fr. Puga: "When I leave here, you buckle me up!" It was to Ecône that the Archbishop wished to return, where he could be protected from importunate visits. The Archbishop asked that he be given his chain with his medals, his watch and his hearing aid. But it was not possible to put the watch on his wrist, so it was hung on the rail of his bed before his eyes. The Archbishop seemed more and more tired, spoke little and seemed more aware how little strength he had; the doctors, however, were optimistic...

Saturday, March 23rd. 2:00 p.m. I brought Fr. Ph. L. with me. The Archbishop seemed surprised at our presence and we sensed that he was troubled. Things cleared up when we realized that the Archbishop, deceived by the semi-darkness and his interrupted sleep, believed that it was 2:00 in the morning. He spoke of the painful and humiliating cares imposed upon him. He told us of his exhaustion at the least amount of effort. His hands were still swollen with edema. Having told him that we were in Passion week, the Archbishop closed his eyes and repeated: "Yes, it is the passion!..."

I reported that I had told the seminarians that he was offering all for them, for the Society, for the Church; he nodded his head: "Yes, it is true!" He told us of the great news and the great joy; he was served a bowl of coffee with milk! We reminded him finally of moving back up to his room and the perspective of being able to bring him Our Lord: "Yes, that I miss... I have need of Him...that will give me strength." We left the Archbishop, who smiled at us with emotion and warmth. Although medically the Archbishop seemed better, he appeared to us to be more and more fatigued, aware of coming to terms with a long suffering and the happy sweetness of coming to the end.

Saturday evening. The pathology report was communicated to us by Dr. Tornay himself. He was dismayed: the test results showed it was cancerous. Fr. Puga did not have the heart to tell the Archbishop. The Archbishop was less well, aching, but very lucid and very much at peace. He spoke to Fr. Puga about the last conference that he (Fr. Puga) was going to give tomorrow in Paris for Lent, and Father told him about the telephone call of Cardinal Oddi to the Abbé du Chalard. The Archbishop said nothing; he seemed indifferent. It concerned declarations of Cardinal Gagnon to the magazine Thirty Days, according to which he did not know if the Pope had read his report, and he had not found doctrinal error at Ecône. The Archbishop shrugged his shoulders. "One day the truth will be known...I do not know when, God knows, but it will happen." Until the end, our founder's mind was not troubled in the least by any doubt of the justice of his cause.

DECEMBER 2, 1990
Laying the cornerstone for the new building of the Carmel at Cremières.


Sunday, March 24. Palm Sunday. Towards 1:30 p.m. I called Mr. Grenon to learn if the Archbishop had been transferred back to his room in order to bring him Holy Communion. Several moments later, Mr. Grenon called me back, very shaken. He went to see the Archbishop, who was not doing well at all; he had been observed in Intensive Care. I rushed to the hospital and found the Archbishop very agitated, feverish and suffering. The Archbishop had a terrible rise in temperature (104°) and he had auricular fibrillation. The dosage of antibiotics had been modified to try to bring the fever down, and it was necessary to wait before making a decision. The Archbishop smiled sweetly when I told him how much I was distressed for not understanding. I spoke to him of the ceremonies of the morning, and he followed my words with attention and interest. I told him that his brother Michael had been alerted because of my concern and that he would arrive tomorrow to see him. The joy sparkled in his eyes. The Archbishop tried again to articulate his thanks and smiled as much as he could. I told him how many prayers, Masses and sacrifices were being offered around the world for him, to keep him here on earth, and the Archbishop smiled again, closing his eyes as if to say, what he heard was well, but the will of God was clear. One must let it be accomplished without disputing, and, as for himself, he only aspired to its accomplishment.

About 7:00 p.m. I returned to the hospital. The fever had fallen a little, but the Archbishop was failing. The nurse tried to reassure me by saying that things could improve tomorrow... I wished I could believe that! She worked very gently with the Archbishop, regularly moistening his mouth and his very dry lips. The Archbishop could not articulate a word, but he understood what I said to him. I spoke to him of the retreat that he was supposed to be preaching to us, and that he was preaching to us in a manner we had not foreseen; the Archbishop smiled! It was Fr. Ph. L. who had agreed to replace him...and the Archbishop shrugged his eyebrows approvingly! A certain number of Valaisans, among whom were the Archbishop's chauffeurs, were making the retreat with us...and the Archbishop smiled again. Helping a little to arrange his pillows, which supported his arms, I caught sight of the crucifix on the wall and I made a glowing remark about this hospital and its director who placed each sick person under the care of the Redeemer... and the Archbishop very slowly turned his head and his eyes to see the point which I had designated towards his left, then sweetly closed his eyes. I could do no more than be silent, and withdrew.

Returning to the seminary, I received a call from his sister, Marie Theresa, anxious to know if she ought to come; I call Rickenbach anew and the Superior General begged me to call him back and alert him if anything happened during the night. Before Compline, we recited once more the Litany of the Saints...and the night began.

At 11:30 p.m. the telephone rang. Fr. Laroche, faster than I, picked it up. Mr. Grenon had just been informed, and was calling us. The Archbishop had had a cardiac arrest and was being revived. We decided to leave immediately, each in his own car. I tried to call Rickenbach but the ringing was too quiet, and could not pull anyone from sleep. On our arrival at the hospital, about 11:50 p.m., Dr. Tornay, Dr. Schumacher, his assistants and the nurses were around the Archbishop. He was intubated to feed his lungs with oxygen, a cardiac massage had been done and cardiac stimulants were being administered. According to the radio, the doctors thought that he had a pulmonary embolus. He was given maximum treatment to help his systems restart, but no one knew if he could take the relay of the stimulants and continue alone. We were authorized to remain near him and do whatever was necessary, and the nurse who remained with the Archbishop was remarkably attentive. We recited the prayers for the dying. I then asked Fr. Laroche to return to the seminary, wake the community and recite in common the prayers for the dying in the chapel, then try to inform Richenbach, the seminaries, the districts, our sisters, friends of the community, etc., so that everyone could begin praying.

Monday, March 25: It was 1:15 a.m. when the bells of the seminary echoed. After a time of silence the voice of Fr. Laroche was heard: "All the community is asked to meet in the chapel to pray for the Archbishop who is entering his last moments."

At the hospital I remained alone then with our father in the priesthood to accompany him in his agony. Having found in his belongings his rosary, which he was never without during the hospital stay, I recited one rosary, then another... The hours passed slowly and I saw with dismay the indications on the control mechanism, which lessened little by little, meanwhile his breathing became less violent. The nurse came from time to time to regulate the apparatus, to change a sack, a syringe... We exchanged several grieving words. "It is sad not to be able to die at home," she said. I asked her if she knew who this patient was and she nodded her head with a big smile. "You are a privileged one," I said to her. "If I can do something useful," she said, "I would be happy to do so. I would like to remove the plank which is under his shoulders (which had been placed there for cardiac massage) and which is very hard, but I fear it would hasten things." About 2:30 a.m. the slowing down became more and more pronounced. His pulse, which at midnight had been more than 100, had fallen to 60, and the fall accelerated more and more. His breathing also slowed, while his brow was creased by pain. All became peaceful little by little. Towards 3:15 a.m., having said to the nurse that "his soul awaits only one thing, to leave the body which suffers, to rejoin God." She replied, "I believe that it is ready to depart." She went out leaving me alone for the final moments. I began the prayers "in expiration." At precisely the moment when I finished (it was near 3:20 a.m.), our Superior General entered Intensive Care. The dial face showed "00" for pulsations. I handed him the ritual and he repeated the prayers in expiration.

Our Superior General closed the eyes of our beloved father. It was the 25th of March, the day of the sacerdotal ordination of our Savior, Jesus Christ, Eternal and Sovereign Priest, in the womb of His sweet Mother. This date, according to the ancient Martyrologies, was also the date of the death of the Savior. It was between 3:25 and 3:30 a.m.