My father, John Theriault, died about a week ago. We watched him pass in our family living room, sung home by Cat Stevens.
Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the worldSweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Our family drank powdered milk, never bought new furniture, wore 2nd hand clothes, and drove cars held together by faith and prayer. My dad knew how to live without money, having come from a family without money: ten kids- one bathroom. Even though the Canadian Theriault family were financially poor, they were not poor in spirit or generosity. Dad’s mom (our memere) had a tradition of inviting those less fortunate to the family table. Jesus approved of this tradition in Luke 14 when he told his disciples
‘When you give a dinner, do not invite your friends, or rich neighbors, in case they invite you back and repay you. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the blind; then you will be blessed, for they have no means to repay you so you will be repaid when the upright rise again.”
Passion originally meant “to suffer.” Compassion means “to suffer with.” It is the act of not only understanding another’s suffering, but alleviating it by taking the suffering upon yourself. To give without any pain, to give from your surplus, is not the true spirit of compassion.
Mom and dad always gave 10% to the church, even if it meant our family would do with less. But giving 10% wasn’t enough for mom and dad. They drove to Mexico bringing food, clothes, and shoes. They housed family, friends, strangers for weeks, sometimes for months. I’ll never forget one Christmas dad told us that we were going to put all of our money in a jar on the table. The money was going to a priest for an orphanage in Ireland. That jar hurt my heart. We needed that money. But deep down I understood that someone needed it more. That’s when I started understanding the difference between compassion, and passionate compassion. The Gospel of Matthew speaks of Jesus’ passionate compassion:
A man with leprosy came and knelt before [Jesus] and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” Jesus said. “Be clean!” Immediately the leper was cleansed.
Jesus didn’t need to touch the leper. He could have healed him from afar. He had shown such power many times. But this leper, who had been physically shunned, needed more than healing, he needed that extra step. My dad lived that extra step.
When dad worked at Catholic Worker he didn’t just serve food. My dad would spend the week calling and meeting with people to raise money to buy the food. Then he would scour grocery store coupons to buy as much food as he could, load it up in his car and cook the same type of meal he would cook at home. My dad never wanted to just feed the poor, he wanted to feed them with dignity. He wanted to make delicious food, memorable food, food that a loving father would make for his family. He was passionate about his compassion.
He even gave away our car. My parents were a sponsor family for the Tran family after they arrived from Vietnam. The Trans lived in Huntington Beach, but Mr. Tran worked in Riverside. Mr. Tran didn’t have his own car so a fellow worker would pick him up and drive him to Riverside every day, but after work Mr. Tran would have to wait hours for a different worker to drive him home. My dad could have given some money to Mr. Tran, but he knew that Mr. Tran didn’t need money, he needed a car. So dad gave him our white VW bug. I would have loved to have owned that car when I turned sixteen, but Mr. Tran needed that car. He needed dad’s passionate compassion.
Our world is ablaze with need. Some needs wait like a parched field. Who will water their needs, who will quench their thirst?
The lord gives us his answer in Isaiah 49 verse 10:
He who has compassion on them will guide them
and lead them beside springs of water.
I ask all of you to remember my father with your acts of passionate compassion.
Thank you dad. I love you.
What can our fathers teach us? Lots of things. We learn lessons from them and because of them. Here are a few lessons my father taught me:
- If you yell at your kid, they don’t hear the message they hear fear, desperation, and anger.
- If you hit or spank your child, they learn that physical violence is an answer to a problem.
- Love is not a feeling, love is a daily decision.
- The job is not done until you put the tools away. (I still struggle with this dad)
- Grilled cheese with a little jam or jelly on top is way better than you’d think.
- The neck of a chicken or turkey has the more tender meat.
- Gizzards cooked in broth are delicious.
- If you cook your ham with pineapple, brown sugar, and whole cloves, you can use the cooked pineapple and the pan drippings and add some dijon mustard and make the best relish for eating with your Easter meal.
- There is nothing better than using a little wine and a little butter to get the baked bits off the bottom of a pan and then using a piece of bread to wipe it up then quickly eat the bread over the stove while smiling with your cooking partner.
- Have fun. Be silly. Dance the jig. Wear a funny hat. Life is short.
- Dress for the occasion.
- You have a personal style. Lean into it.
- It’s easier to wrap paint rollers and brushes in plastic wrap and put them in the fridge than to wash them at the end of the day, if you aren’t done painting.
- A little vanilla in a gallon of paint can help mask the smell.
- A little crayon, candle wax, or soap will take care of a stuck zipper.
- Soak your corn in ocean water before roasting them at the beach to pre-salt them.
- Scrape onion juice into your potatoes for a little extra flavor.
- Mittens keep your hands warmer than gloves
- A car is just transportation. But take care of it, so it can take care of you. I learned how to jump start a car, change a tire, change the oil, replace a carburetor, replace a fuel pump by working on cars with my dad, he even replaced an engine once.
- Always ask. The worst they can say is no, in which case you are right back where you were before you asked.
- You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, but you CAN make him thirsty.
- Beware of kickback when using a table saw.
- Don’t let your tie show below your collar.
- Put Vaseline or a petroleum-based lotion on your hands before working with cement so your hands won’t dry out.
- Bending a cheap pen can give you a little more ink.
- Buy a suit that fits, don’t count on the tailor to fix it right.
- Fishing and BBQs are a good place to have a talk with a friend.
- Bury a fish or use fish emulsion when you plant a fruit tree.
- Freeze lemon juice in ice cube trades and then put them into ziplock bags to use to flavor drinks of for when you need lemon juice but there are no lemons on your tree.
- How to fix a toilet. If the toilet won’t stop running it’s 1. the flapper 2. a stuck chain 3. the valve and don’t buy the cheapest plunger.
- Use teflon tape when connecting water fittings.
- Don’t let your feet get wet when it’s cold.
- Blueberries love the ashes from your fireplace.
- Roses love epsom salts.
- Use the broken concrete from your last job to fill in space in your new concrete job so you end up using less wet concrete.
- If your pipe is dripping a little water while finishing your repair you can stuff the pipe with a bit of bread and it will flush out when you are done with the repair.
- Maple syrup might be the blood of Canadians, but it’s molasses that will power you through a cold day of work.
- Soapy water will help you find a bike tube or gas leak.
- Tapping a stuck lid with the back of a butter knife so that you create a small narrow dent in the corner of the lid- do it in three spots, will usually free it.
- Heat the pipe not the solder when fitting copper. Flux is your friend.
- America can be what you hope it can be, but you have to work for it.
- America’s greatness is defined by the sacrifices that American’s make so that people all over the world can live a better life. Our army is built with the sons and daughters of our immigrants. My parents were immigrants and loved this country, but were never satisfied with what is was and worked tirelessly to make it a better place and a welcoming place for everyone.
- Leadership is service to others. Every Holy Thursday my dad would pour a bowl of warm water and get a towel and wash the feet of his family as they sat around the table. It was a reminder to him and to us that Jesus lived to spread the message of love, acceptance, and helping those most in need of our help. Even though he was “king” he would wash the feet as a sign of commitment to serve others.
- My dad was proud of being considered a “radical” Catholic and took pride in being a member of a social justice group and dedicated his life to working for social justice for those in need.
We will miss you dad. Mom misses you. A lot. You inspired your prayer group and their work with The Illumination Foundation and The Theriault Emergency House in Stanton CA. Your words inspired many, but your actions serve as a model for all.
The following bio appeared in the Memorial Mass program and was written by my sister Angele McQuade.
John Theriault was born 1942 and raised in Saint-Basile and Iroquois, New Brunswick, Canada, one of the ten children of Annette and Claude Theriault. He emigrated to the United States in his early 20s, chasing after his beloved Monique. Drafted by the U.S. Army while still a Canadian citizen, he served during the Vietnam War in Puerto Rico, where he and Monique were married on St. Patrick’s Day. They later settled in Pasadena and then Huntington Beach with their four children, and opened their home as shelter to family, friends, and sometimes even strangers.
John worked his entire career for the phone company, where he was also a union steward and fierce protector of the occupational health and safety rights of his co-workers. He was a tireless, lifelong advocate for the homeless and others, volunteering thousands of hours for organizations such as the Catholic Worker.
John loved Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen and Cajun fiddle music. He loved Jamocha shakes at Arby’s. He gave the very best hugs. He loved boogie boarding in the Pacific, driving his orange VW bus, and watering his garden. He dearly loved the family he left behind in Canada, and talked to them frequently though he was only rarely able to visit.
John loved breakfast, and ketchup, and especially ketchup on hash browns at breakfast. He could make soup out of anything he found in the fridge, and was legendary at the Catholic Worker for transforming something as random as frozen hot dogs into a gourmet meal. Each year for decades, he created vast pots of his special vegetable soup for the Theriault family’s annual New Year’s Day Open House that drew more than 100 friends and family from morning to night.
John was a craftsman. He loved to fix things and improve things and find ways to create whatever he needed out of the endless inventory of randomness in his garage workshop. He built an addition to the family house almost single-handedly after never having built anything but a bookshelf.
John loved dressing well, and often wore a spiffy sports coat and his signature railroad cap to the adult day center he attended in his final years. Though Lewy Body Dementia may have dimmed his mind, it never dimmed his spirit, or his generosity.
John loved candied orange slices, going to the store for “just one thing,” and gathering with dear friends for the 1980s couples fellowship sessions they called Sharing Group. He always searched for ways to improve the world, whether as an informal mentor/father figure or a Marriage Encounter weekend retreat leader. He had no shame in asking anyone for anything if he thought it might help someone else. He was the king of embellishment, but no one ever minded how accurate his stories were because they were simply just that good. After more than 55 years in the United States, John never lost his French-Canadian accent.
What John loved more than anything was his wife Monique, his children, his extended family, and his grandchildren. Monique and her family thank you for the love you have shown us.
Cats in the Cradle – Harry Chapin (w lyrics) from Ed Rowan Lee on Vimeo.
I’m going to put a few resources for my family and others below. They are Google Docs. They will be a work in progress and will grow over time. Not everyone in our family is on Facebook or social media so I want them to be able to visit these.
- Words from the vigil and funeral
- Stories about John Theriault
- Pictures of John Theriault and family
- A Google Doc about living and dying with Lewy Bodies and what we learned from our five days of hospice care at home. There is very little information out there about the process of dying and I want to collect some information here to share with others.