At the beginning of 1950, a completely unexpected event shook the Catholic population of Montreal. Confirming rumours that were circulating under the cloak, the newspapers published news on February 9th of the resignation of Msgr. Joseph Charbonneau as Archbishop of Montreal. What happened?
In short: on the preceding January 2nd, the Archbishop's letter box contained a letter from the Secretariat of State asking him to resign with accusations that remained unknown. This resignation was thus not a volition on his part; it was ordered. The Archbishop asked the Vatican authorities to let him respond and present his defence. This was denied. The decision was made, he had to submit to it.
Occurring during a young episcopate, such a resignation created a surprise, a shock, even anxiety, among the priests and faithful of the diocese. Why? Why? What mysterious reasons could justify it? Assumptions were made. Was it a political problem? A confrontation with the provincial government which was then led by Mr. Maurice Duplessis? Was it the Archbishop's Statement on Social Issues? A divergence of views at the Assembly of Quebec Bishops? Was it pressure on Rome, and by whom? Poor administration style? None of these hypotheses could really be substantiated. Credible witnesses, people who were closer to the event, challenged or denied them. At this point, we are still only left with snippets of information.
What we know is that on January 31, Msgr. Charbonneau left Montreal. He left for Victoria, British Columbia, where he lived in anonymity and simplicity for nine years, avoiding all publicity until his death. He visited the sick at St. Joseph's Hospital and accepted to be chaplain at the Provincial House of the Sisters of St. Anne. He read abundantly, answered many letters, welcomed many visitors. He passed his days in prayer, in servitude, and certainly in reflection. In 1955, he suffered a heart attack. On the afternoon of November 19, 1959, he died at the age of 67.
His memorial services were impressive in both Victoria and Montreal. Most Reverend Hill, Bishop of Victoria, invited Msgr. Laurent Morin, Bishop of Prince Albert and former Vicar General of Msgr. Charbonneau in Montreal, to deliver the eulogy.
The Archbishop of Montreal, Cardinal Léger, was on his way to Rome for his ad limina visit. He addressed a message to the archbishopric, expressing his "great desire to see our predecessor rest in the crypt of the Bishops of Montreal" and encouraged all the priests and faithful of Montreal to pray for the one who was, for ten years, their spiritual father.
On November 27, 1959, in the Cathedral in Montreal, a moving funeral was celebrated in the presence of a considerable crowd, composed of bishops, prelates, religious superiors, priests particularly touched by the death of their former archbishop, members of his family, friends, representatives of all governments, and faithful from all walks of life. Msgr. Sebastiano Baggio, Apostolic Delegate to Canada, who had recently taken up his post in Canada, delivered a eulogy that revealed a particular knowledge of the deceased. He had these evocative words:
"The majesty of death and its sublime transfiguration in the faith and in the liturgy of the Church take even more prominence near the coffin of a bishop, and especially of this bishop with a troubling biography, so deeply marked by the scandal of the cross...".
Msgr. Joseph Charbonneau had asked for nothing other than to be simply buried in the cemetery of his native parish. He who had chosen as his episcopal motto Ad augusta per angusta (Through difficulties to honours) entered the chapel where his fellow bishops rest, supported by the sympathy of an apostolic delegate, by the prayer of a gathered and grateful crowd, and with the cross he had carried.
Denise Robillard, « Pourquoi Mgr Charbonneau a-t-il démissionné? » Bulletin d’Histoire Politique, 2015, 23 (2), 204–218.