Dr. Thomas Francoeur (92 yrs) is Professor Emeritus of McGill University in Montreal who specialized in Counselling and Religious Education. Through the roles of teacher, counsellor, mentor, spiritual director and retreat leader, Tom first and foremost tends to the care of souls. He could also be called a spiritual heart specialist, whose guidance has brought thousands of students, clients, and seekers of all kinds into alignment with the best of their human nature.
In his earliest years, Tom Francoeur became quietly aware of the nourishing dynamic of personal presence. He found himself drawn to a life offering peace of heart and mind through what he calls being ‘food for others’. This thread of insight steadily unfolded, as did the call for him to embody it in life’s moment-by-moment flow. When his career led at first to teaching at the elementary and high school levels, he observed the innate hungers of the young. Early opportunities to speak at parent-teacher meetings provided an arena in which to discuss the fertile emotional and spiritual aspects of youth, and the delicate nuturing involved. Those years also allowed him time and opportunity to broaden his vision by pursuing studies in clinical psychology. The summons to to find an inner direction for his gifts as a healer corresponded to a deeper sense of the woundedness of our world and the love we all need.
Like others whose personal journeys serve as GuideLives, Francoeur’s thread of insight unfolded through some strong early influences, which increasingly claimed his attention. Tom started out as a sick kid himself. Born on December 3rd 1921 in London, England, the second child of Leopold Francoeur and Gertrude Vitkovits, the first seven years of his life before the family came to Canada were a battle with illnesses such as diptheria and scarlet fever. Yet those years were also when the young Francoeur experienced what it meant to be ‘food for others’ in the person of his grandfather, Sandor Vitkovits. Although not a church goer or explicitly religious, his grandfather embodied the generosity of spirit that now characterizes Francoeur himself.
Once in Canada, the family boarded at the home of a great aunt, Yvonne Lavergne. It was 1929 and a time of poverty for so many, including Tom’s family. Yet the physical poverty was transcended by the unconditional acceptance and nurturing that came with Aunt Yvonne’s presence. She was a practicing Catholic who introduced Tom to the church and it was at this age that Francoeur experienced two transformative events. One was when she took him to see Brother Andre at what is now St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, when Tom was 8 and suffering from excruciating migraines. It was a two minute encounter during which Francoeur was impressed with the substance of Brother Andre’s presence. Another turning point in his young life was when he had to choose between two prizes at school. One representing an earthly pleasure, the other the devotional life. The event turned into a seemingly minor yet ultimately formative ‘moment of truth’.
In his late teens, while studying at L’Ecole Normale Jacques Cartier, Francoeur met Fr. Gerald Emmett Carter, another important influence, who went on to become the renowned Cardinal Carter. Subsequently, Francoeur studed at the Semaire de Philosophy with the intention of becoming a priest (not looking very priest-like as an officer-in-training during the Second War). He obtained a B.A. that allowed him to begin his teaching career which eventually extended to all levels from Grade 3 to St. Joseph’s Teachers College, and his long tenure at McGill, with a Ph.D in Education and later a Masters in Clinical Psychology gained along the way. Yet taking his place in the world as a man of God was not such a progressively smooth path once Francoeur met his wife-to-be, Mary (now 102 yrs). They have a daughter, Sr. Mary-Ellen and a son Emmett, who is a prominent pediatrican (named after Cardinal Emmett Carter). First there was a year of difficult discernment, the result of which was getting married and raising a family, which has allowed Francoeur to ‘minister’ to many in more ways than he could have done if he had been officially ordained. In effect, Francoeur became an ‘undercover priest’ and a ‘hidden saint’ whose manifold blessings have been quiet, private, unassuming and widespread. Cardinal Carter later told Francouer that he had never met someone whose vocation as a counsellor and spiritual director was as clear to him.
Francoeur’s message of hope and consistent faith in the resilience of the human spirit extended beyond the classroom and counselling office to communities across Canada, the U.S. and regularly took him to Ireland as a speaker and retreat director. At the same time, he kept up a private practice in counselling and spiritual direction in Montreal, and by correspondence, with persons and small groups met during his travels. Francoeur technically ‘retired’ in 1995 but has continued teaching and counselling as personal energy and circumstances permit. On Sept. 1st 2009, McGill University awarded Dr. Francoeur the lifetime title of Professor Emeritas. One of his former students (Joe Jaroslawski) had this to say: “Dr. Francoeur taught me in grade nine at Cardinal Newman High School in the early fifties and had the ability to ‘calm the savage beast’ in teenage boys. In the early sixties he was a professor at Saint Joseph Teachers College and was revered by all. When I had difficulty in academics and was forced to leave teachers’ college, Dr. Francoeur was most welcoming a couple years after when I returned. He most certainly is a hero to me!”
From 1954 when Francoeur first started his practice of counselling and spiritual direction to the present, he has seen countless clients and conducted hundreds of retreats while still teaching, without ever accepting payment for individual sessions. In the words of someone like John Cain, who speaks for many touched by Francoeur’s wisdom and guidance, “Tom’s message reminds me to be open and alert to the goodness in others and to be more childlike in my trust.” Tom Francoeur continues to have a profound life-changing effect on those who experience his healing presence. His life is a message that “Happiness comes from giving of oneself.”