When Gilles Grondin was posted in Niger, West Africa, as Resident Representative of the United Nations, he received a worrisome telegram. His married daughter, Marie Lou, then living in Montreal, wired “Worried about pregnancy. Husband position insecure.” Gilles wired back, “Best news ever. How happy I am. Absolutely nothing to fear. Behind you one hundred percent. Is that clear? Love Papa.”
Now, 23 years later, Gilles says, “My grandson, Michel, is the joy of my life. He’s even taller than I am.” Marie Lou later told her father that his return telegram was a turning point for her. She could now stop worrying and look forward, with joy, to birth of her baby. Says Gilles, “At the time, I didn’t realize how important those few words of encouragement were to my daughter when she was so upset.”
Often he’ll ponder that anxious moment when carrying out his pioneering pro-life work as head of Campagne Québec Vie (the Quebec affiliate of the national Campaign Life Coalition). He assumed the voluntary position in 1988, shortly after his retirement as a career diplomat (who often missed with world leaders) with the Canadian government. Little did he know then that, at 67, he would be dedicating his retirement years to building a French network of pro0life groups in his beloved Quebec.
Unexpected new career
In a hectic, cramped downtown Montreal office, Gilles, tall and impeccably dresses, who is fluent in French, English and Spanish, says his dream of a retirement cottage in scenic Beauce county (not far from Quebec City) is on hold. Born and raised in “La Beauce” as one of seven surviving children, he was educated by Redemptorist priests in Ste. Anne de Beaupré After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree, he joined the diplomatic corps in Ottawa. For three decades he worked in exciting and dangerous postings, including Korea, Laos. Vietnam, Cambodia, Senegal, Niger, Haiti, Mexico, New York City (at the United Nations) and back to Ottawa where he retired in 1986.
He says he “fell into pro-life work.” Facing an enormous challenge in a modern secularized Quebec, once a traditional stronghold of Catholicism, he confides, “Every morning when I get up I wish I didn’t have to do this work, but I have to and so I continue. I see it as an apostolate, as an instrument for God’s help in other ways of life and as a means of saving my own soul and those of my loved ones.”
Of his past, he explains, “I was many years without practicing my faith or leading a Christian life. In the career diplomat’s life there are many temptations. One is separated from one’s family (while posted in Laos, Cambodia and Korea, his family lived in Japan) and there is plenty of tobacco, alcohol and worse, to dull one’s loneliness. It’s not a normal way of life.”
In 1977, while posted in Haiti as Charge daffier (highest ranking government official in charge of the embassy, in the absence of the ambassador who resided in Cuba), Gilles awoke one morning with a start. “It was as though I felt a distant message from God. I realized I could no longer live like this or I would die within a year.” He gave up tobacco, alcohol and began to pray. A few months later, he was posted back to Ottawa, where instead of slipping into a comfortable way of life, he adopted a Spartan lifestyle. He chose to rent a room in a downtown Oblate rectory because he knew the Oblates from Haiti, where he had helped them obtain government-sponsored projects for the poor. Meanwhile, he returned to his Catholic faith and resolved to help those in need.
In 1988, he recalls reading a Globe and Mail article on Opus Dei, a lay apostolate movement begun by Spanish scholar and activist priest, Jose Maria Éscriva, who died in 1975. It was written by an acquaintance, Richard Bastien, whom Gilles called to thank. During their conversation, Richard asked Gilles if he would become a CLC lobbyist in Ottawa because they wanted someone who spoke French and who knew how government and Parliament worked.
A few months later, Jim Hughes, President of Campaign Life Coalition, asked Gilles to organize CLC in Quebec. Again Gilles agreed and moved to Montreal. That summer, Gilles found himself immersed in the sensational Chantal Daigle abortion case as the pro-life spokesman. He followed the highly-publicized case from its beginnings in Montreal to its appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa. (The unborn baby’s father obtained a Quebec injunction baring Chantal, the mother, from aborting their baby.) The media blitz around the sensational case was just what Campagne Québec Vie needed to make its mark in the media. Wherever Chantal went, so did Gilles and the media, who noticed him and asked him repeatedly what he thought about the situation. He seized every opportunity to give the pro-life side.
During this time of media prominence for Gilles, he used every occasion to ask the provocative question :”Is the problem in Quebec ‘les maudits anglais’ (the damn English) or is it that we have no more French Canadian babies?” His outspoken comments gained wide publicity for the pro-life side and he received supportive phone calls from Nova Scotia, New York City, and even Paris, France.
In 1991, after Morgentaler’s Toronto abortuary was destroyed, the media remembered him and called to ask, “Did your organization do that?” Calmly, Gilles replied, “No, but in keeping with the idea that Morgentaler is a martyr, I want to say that there is martyrdom is this situation, but not with Morgentaler. He is the executioner and all the unborn babies who die in his abortuaries are the martyrs.”
In preparation for the expected 1993 fall elections, Gilles and CLC Ottawa colleague, Paul Lauzon, traveled this summer to the main regions of Quebec, setting up pro-life committees to screen all political candidates on abortion and euthanasia. In collaboration with national CLC strategy, pro-lifers will then be notified as to which candidates re pro-life.
Gilles sees his hectic pro-life work as an echo of what St. John the Baptist (patron saint of French Canada) was trying to do in the desert. “I’m sure God wants this pro-life voice to be heard in Quebec,” he says. “It challenges and forces French Canadians to reflect upon the meaning of life and what abortion does.”
Surprisingly, because of his prominent pro-life profile, Gilles finds that young people “seek my counsel.” Among them is his grandson, Michel, who recently told his grandfather that he went to be baptized and receive instructions in Catholicism. A few months later, on August 1, 1993, Michel was received into the Church, to the joy of his grandfather.
Despite his eighteen-hour days (often including weekends), Gilles says there are consolations in this difficult work. He says Jim Hughes is always there to support him morally and financially. In turn, Jim says, “Gilles’ total abandonment to the good Lord’s work is a powerful example to all of us. He’s a beacon of hope in the anti-life storm raging in Quebec and elsewhere.”
As well, the informative, French pro-life newspaper, Vitalité, which he writes and publishes, now has a circulation of over 25,000. Among its readers are three Quebec bishops, who faithfully write him letters of encouragement and offer prayers. One recently wrote, “You cannot stop ‘le petit reste’” (Scripture for ‘the little flame that never dies’).
In the Campagne Québec Vie Montreal office, Gilles has several staff and some volunteers. Recently, he added a new one, his wife of 40 years, Simone. Separated for years during Gilles’ exotic career, they’re still close friends, but in a different way. Gilles rents a room in a Catholic rectory and Simone rents a room in a Dominican convent. Once a month they have dinner with their cherished grandson, Michel. One evening, she told Gilles how bored and lonely she was in her tiny room, so he invited her to join him in the office. He says, “She’s a godsend to me. She’s worked in embassies all over the world and has so many skills.” Together now, they work to protect unborn French Canadians from abortion.
There are rare moments, too, when Gilles sees results from his pro-life efforts. Recently, he received a long-distance phone call from Beauce county. A 30-year-old woman, who had been a premature baby and frail all her life, telephoned to say she had read Vitalité and just wanted to say “how wonderful it is that some people still care about the tiny little ones.”
“That Is why,” says Gilles, shyly, “that despite all the problems I continue to do this work. If I give up, it would be like giving up on God.”