French-born Oblate provided Yukoners and Western Canadians with 'divine gifts of redemption'
By Alistair Burns
The B.C. Catholic
He escaped from Nazis, learned English on the fly in small-town Saskatchewan, endured dog-sled trekking in the Yukon, and faithfully served dozens of missions and parishes for 55 years across Western Canada. Father Charles de Campigneulles, OMI, one of the last great Oblate pioneers, died April 8. He was 85.
Father de Campigneulles was born Nov. 1, 1926, in Campigneulles les Grandes, France. The blood of French nobility ran through his veins, yet he decided to give his property to his brother and enter the seminary.
In 1940 the cataclysm of the Second World War became apparent when the German blitzkrieg overwhelmed the French army in a matter of weeks. For Father de Campigneulles, studies continued, albeit at a slower pace, but after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, the war suddenly struck the seminary, as Nazi soldiers forcibly evacuated the students.
Father Oscar Pauwels, OMI, remembers Father de Campigneulles's story. "The Germans put Charles and the others on the train. They were heading east to an internment or a concentration camp; he wasn't sure."
For the new prisoners salvation lay near Paris. "There was some Allied shelling. The train stopped, the German soldiers abandoned their positions." Eventually, the seminarians decided to take a chance and jump from the train.
After a few more years of study Father de Campigneulles professed his vows in 1949.
Father Pauwels met Father de Campigneulles in 1953, in Battleford, Sask. Both French priests had to take a crash course in English to serve in Canada.
The next year Father de Campigneulles was appointed to the Yukon, specifically the Ross River mission. By 1960 he became a chaplain at Dawson City.
Father Pauwels chuckled at the conditions the Oblates endured. "There were no roads, hardly any cars until the '60s. Winter lasted eight months, sometimes it went down to minus 40, and each mission was usually 100 miles away from the other."
Sometimes, because of an illness, a priest had to cover two missions, which meant taking a dog sled team for a week-long ride. This environment would have been a challenge for an elite force such as the British SAS or the U.S. Marines, let alone Oblates from France.
Father Pauwels thought of Oblates as "Priests on a divine mission; they may not build the church themselves but they give divine gifts of our redemption. The rest is all accidental."
Father de Campigneulles tried to tough it out by making use of the very short three-month gardening season. He was a paradoxical man of exuberance and laughter along with timidity and nervousness. According to Father Pauwels, although he was dedicated and spiritual, Father de Campigneulles was not really suited for the Yukon.
The harsh climate took its toll and Father de Campigneulles decided to hone his theological skills. He attended St. Paul University in Ottawa for a year until 1983, and the benefit included becoming a chaplain.
Afterwards, Father de Campigneulles was ordered west to B.C. He settled in Merritt, and enjoyed the amenities of the small town. After years of surviving on provisions and game, he took comfort in the simple pleasures of selecting a meal and having three kinds of shirts to choose from.
He moved to the mining town of Cassiar at the end of the '80s, just south of the Yukon. Three years later the mines closed and everyone, including the priest, packed up and left.
Father de Campigneulles, who had learned English in Saskatchewan, came full circle when in 1995 he returned to the province to pastor the flock in Fox Valley, a small mine and mill town closer to Medicine Hat than Regina. According to parishioners, he suffered from asthma later in life.
Then, appointed chaplain to the Sisters of the Child Jesus, Father de Campigneulles came to North Vancouver. His duties included visiting patients at Lions Gate Hospital. Father Pauwels recalled that the Sisters "loved it when Father Charles said Mass en franáais."
When the sisters moved to Coquitlam, Father de Campigneulles became an unofficial chaplain to the Talitha Koum Society. The sisters and girls under their care appreciated his hard work and kindness. This position lasted until 2010.
By this time doctors discovered Father de Campigneulles had cancer of the esophagus. Once again he returned to Saskatchewan. He died at St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon.