WHAT better way to prepare for the new year than to share the energy and optimism of a man who has served Jamaica in so many spheres, and who believes that Jamaica will continue to hold her own?
Father Louis Grenier was assigned by his Jesuit superior to Jamaica in 1950 and remarked: "I could not have received a more wonderful assignment." During his 63 years here, he has been co-founder of Operation Friendship, Girls' Town and the FISH Clinic, earning a national honour and many other awards.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of French Canadian parentage, Father Louis said he has visited over 70 countries, and none have the varied, beautiful landscape of Jamaica.
"When you travel along the coast and see the many colours of the water — it is incredible," he said.
Father Louis does not allow himself to be dragged down by depressing conversations about the economy. He recalls the low tourist arrivals of the early fifties compared to the present, and says we will see great benefits when the new Kingston to Ocho Rios highway is completed. "The Bahamas has more visitors per year than residents," Father points out. "We are just about equal, so there is room for growth."
Regarding employment, Father Louis wants to see more emphasis placed on vocational training and believes that there are great examples, citing Sister Benedict's Laws Street Trade Training Centre which has brought harmony to Central Kingston, Operation Friendship, Dr Henley Morgan's AIR in Trench Town, the YMCA, and HEART/NTA. He believes that just as has happened in many cities throughout the world, there will be a renewal of downtown Kingston, bringing greater opportunities to inner-city dwellers.
Now retired, Father Louis went on a self-imposed diet and lost 35 pounds this year to maintain his good health. He enjoyed his sister's birthday party in June, remarking that she goes to the gym four times a week. What makes all this remarkable is that Father Louis is 94 years old, and his sister, Bernadette, who is a very capable driver, was celebrating her 98th birthday.
Retirement has hardly slowed down this energetic priest. He continues his 30-year chairmanship of the FISH Clinic, and serves on the boards of the Boys Scout Association, the Girl Guides Association, Archdiocesan Education Board, The Jamaica Catholic Teachers Association, Board of Governors of Campion College, and the Jamaican Jesuit Consultors. He is up at dawn each day, setting out to say mass at various churches and chapels.
During his 23 years at Above Rocks, Father Louis was a passionate ally of the farming community. He established a farm store and pulled a team together of Peace Corps workers, a top representative of the Jamaica 4-H movement, securing the first USAID grant of its kind to the Caribbean. With the funds, they established hundreds of kitchen gardens, scores of goat- and rabbit-rearing projects, and promoted nutrition education in the eastern parishes.
He also cites 'extraordinary assistance' from Food for the Poor, whose Jamaican Board he served, and which honoured him as a 'Servant of the Poor and Cornerstone of the Food for the Poor Ministry'. As a member of the Festival Commission and past chairman at various times of their parish committees in Kingston & St Andrew, St Catherine and St Mary, Father Louis has even found himself judging Festival Queen competitions.
The forward-thinking priest set up 'one of the very first high school computer facilities at our St Mary's College' in Above Rocks (alma mater of Jamaica Observer founder Hon Butch Stewart). He was dedicated to that community: "Though I made trips to Kingston every weekday, I always returned at night to Above Rocks, so that people could count on seeing me at least the first thing in the morning."
Father Louis drove his weather-beaten pickup on that Junction Road up to his 92nd year.
His life has been somewhat of an adventure, peopled by the who's who of the world. As a scholastic, he taught at the Cranwell Preparatory School in Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1945, at the time when the late Senator Ted Kennedy was a seventh grader.
He was sent to Nicaragua to do a two-year regency, part of Jesuit training in the early 1940s. Former President of Nicaragua Enrique José Bolanos was one of his students and so appreciative was the dignitary of his teacher that he invited Father Louis to be part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the Atlantic coast town of Bluefields.
"He had me three times in his presidential office," said Father Louis, "flew me to Bluefields, gave me a place of honour at a large diplomatic dinner, and treated me to a banquet with himself and his wife, to which he invited more than 20 of my former students and their wives."
This speaks volumes of the high regard the President had for a young student priest who did not know more than 'buenas noches' when he landed in Nicaragua. Father Louis is so understated that you only discover by chance his giftedness and versatility.
As a young priest Father Louis met Father Samuel Carter at Weston College in Cambridge. He would collaborate with him as Jamaica's first native Roman Catholic Archbishop, and commented that education was one of Archbishop Sam's priorities.
When I asked him what Jamaica's biggest need was, he answered, "Better family life". He is not judgmental however, as he sees the challenges faced by young men who want the best for their children but who earn low or no wage. Father Louis believes that once they get more opportunities, we will see a change. "I am encouraged by the fact that I am seeing more men nowadays taking their children to school and clinics."
Our interview over, we took Father Louis to the Pegasus for his weekly Rotary Club meeting — faithful to all his commitments, he has not missed a meeting in 33 years. Father Louis is one-of-a-kind, and the kindest man you will ever meet. Let us take his gift of faith into the new year. Have a blessed one!
I stand corrected on information I gave in last week's column. Research for the historical Gleaner front pages in Club Mobay and Club Kingston at our two international airports, was done by the Gleaner's Information Services Manager Mavis Williams and her team, while Isabel Barnes organised the framing and display.