Faith of our Ancestors » J.O. Patenaude: A Man of Faith, Hope & Charity

J.O. Patenaude: A Man of Faith, Hope & Charity

by R.J. (Ron) Welwood


A few parishioners of the Cathedral of Mary Immaculate still remember Joe Patenaude, a quiet spoken, gentle man who lived in Nelson for almost 60 years between 1897 and 1956.

Little is known about Joseph Ovile Patenaude’s formative years except he was born in Iberville, Quebec, October 23rd 1871. By the age of sixteen he ventured to Montreal where he was employed by Henry Birks and Sons in 1887. Later, he joined the Montreal Optical Company and to further his optometric education he studied both in Chicago and Toronto. He was one of the first recipients of a Canadian optometric diploma and as he later explained, “There were no optometrists in those days, they were only opticians.” In 1892, Patenaude broadened his vocational repertoire by becoming a qualified watchmaker.

Accreditation in these professions enabled Patenaude to work almost anywhere, so he decided to seek his fortune in the Klondike and set his sights westward. En route to the Yukon he visited his brother, Dosithe, in Helena, Montana and then continued west to Spokane where he boarded the Great Northern. Heading north he detrained at Nelson’s Mountain Station on a sunny evening in October 1897. According to Julius Riesterer, a longtime Nelson parishioner, “The sun cast a ribbon on the lake and he decided that Nelson was to be home. He took a cab down into town, found lodgings and went straight to the telegraph office where he wired home for his tools to set up his trade.” One month later, “J.O. Patenaude: Optician and Watchmaker” was open for business operating with the motto, Age Quod Agis (“Anything worth doing is worth doing well”) — a motto exemplifying both his business practice and his philosophy of life.

His quality of workmanship, meticulous attention to detail, professionalism, gentle manner, plus his energetic and enthusiastic personality were assets that made his burgeoning business a candidate for further expansion. With financial assistance from brother Dosithe, “Patenaude Brothers” was established as a three faceted operation — optometry, watchmaking or repairs and jewelry [sic]. Sadly, this partnership ended with his brother’s death in 1905.

Quality workmanship required superior products. As a manufacturer of artistic jewelry Joe Patenaude imported precious gems to incorporate into ornate settings for rings, broaches, cameos, etc. Also, as a diamond merchant he purchased stock directly from De Beers of Kimberley, South Africa.

These valuable gems were the substance for varying stories about Patenaude’s diamonds being lost and miraculously found. On June 11th 1907, when Nelson’s beloved parish priest Father John Althoff was walking past Patenaude’s shop he noticed a great commotion inside the store. Near closing time the previous day, a potential customer had viewed some unset diamonds for an engagement ring. Because it was too late to return the diamonds to the store’s time-locked safe, Patenaude wrapped them in tissue paper and inserted them in his waistcoat pocket. After closing shop, he canoed to his summer cottage (Camp Take-it-Easy) across the lake from Nelson. The next morning, the diamonds could not be located in the safe nor in his waistcoat pocket — thus the commotion witnessed by the priest. In desperation Patenaude asked Fr. Althoff to say a Mass in honour of St. Anthony and promised that, if found, he would donate three diamonds for the monstrance that Althoff had commissioned to be made from Kootenay silver and gold with its lunette decorated in precious stones. Later, when returning to his summer camp, Patenaude spotted a packet of tissue paper floating by his wharf. Miraculously it held his precious trove of 31 diamonds! True to his word, he gave Fr. Althoff three of the largest gems for the monstrance designed and fabricated by noted Dutch silversmith, Camille Esser.

This generous gift represented only one of many contributions he made to Nelson’s Church of Mary Immaculate. According to Patenaude’s former ward and niece, Jeannette (Leriger) Gleeson, “Uncle Pat was the person who designed the hanging lights in the Church. He found people like the Scanlans, Choquettes, Gelinas, etc., to each be responsible for one of the chandeliers, including himself of course.” When the church was completed in 1899, the congregation sat in straight-backed wooden chairs; but in 1907, the proceeds from a St. Patrick’s Day Concert were set aside to pay for one side-aisle of pews. Learning that Fr. Althoff had ordered pews for the opposite side, a Committee of three young men headed by Patenaude, solicited funds from parishioners to offset Fr. Althoff’s personal expense.

As a devout Roman Catholic J.O. Patenaude was a great supporter of the church and its many activities. He had served as Secretary for the first Parish Advisory Board (1899) whose main purpose was to establish a Catholic School in Nelson. In February 1900, St. Joseph’s School was formally blessed and opened with an enrollment of 84 pupils. Later, plans were drafted to construct a more permanent building to include Sisters’ quarters, a chapel, room for boarders, kitchen and dining area. On March 19th 1923, the first Mass was celebrated in the convent chapel that featured four imposing stained glass windows, gifts of Mr. Patenaude, Fr. Althoff and parishioners Mrs. A. LaPointe and E.F. Smith. In 1979 the outdated, wooden school, including its chapel, was demolished. The beautiful windows were removed, stored and neglected for over three decades. When the Cathedral’s rectory was renovated in 2010, Blessed Sacrament chapel was added to the building. Three of these windows were finally resurrected, restored and installed to brilliantly radiate their former glory.

At the age of 39, Joe Patenaude joined “a sufficient number of eligible men” who applied for and received a Knights of Columbus Charter for Nelson on May 28th 1911. He remained an active, charter member of Nelson Council No. 1560 for the rest of his life.

In 1936, Reverend Martin M. Johnson was appointed Bishop of the newly established Diocese of Nelson. Upon leaving Mass after the announcement was made, Joe Patenaude was heard to remark, “That’s going to be quite a mouthful, saying The Cathedral of Mary Immaculate!” With this change in identity from parish church to cathedral, parishioners became accustomed to having a bishop in residence. Bishop Johnson and Joe Patenaude became good friends; and since the cathedral was conveniently located three blocks from Patenaude’s home (302 Carbonate Street), the Bishop became a regular Sunday luncheon guest. Undoubtedly the two had many conversations relating to the development and growth of the diocese during these formative years.

Bishop Johnson, “the Builder,” could always rely on his friend Joe Patenaude for financial assistance. In 1937, Joe supported the inauguration of a diocesan paper, The Prospector. In addition, Patenaude became a generous benefactor and supporter of other diocesan projects such as the Camp Lourdes summer camp, Mount St. Francis Infirmary for the aged and infirm (later Hospital) and Notre Dame College. The College buildings were constructed on land that Patenaude had donated for educational purposes — later a classroom building was renamed Patenaude Hall in honour of the College’s greatest patron.

In 1947, fifty years after Joe Patenaude’s arrival in Nelson, he was awarded the medal, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice or the Cross of Honour. This award is one of the highest honors awarded to the laity by the Roman Catholic Church. The award recognized “the contribution to Church and country made by all the pioneers of whom Mr. Patenaude is a most worthy representative”.

Although a bachelor, Joe Patenaude raised more children than many married couples. Over the years he was guardian to ten wards and he once remarked that he was destined to foster other people’s children. “Uncle Pat” was very proud of them all — particularly Jeannette Leriger who joined the Department of External Affairs in 1948, was posted to Indo-China and later served as Personal Assistant to the Canadian Ambassador in Washington and, later, Ireland. Whenever any of his former wards visited Nelson with their children he would remark, “You see I am a grandfather without children!”

Around 1910, Joe became engrossed in a metallurgical puzzle to efficiently refine the Kootenay’s complex ores of silver-lead-zinc. He gave unused assay equipment to a prominent metallurgist who was experimenting with a promising electrolytic zinc reduction process. However, with Canada’s participation in the Great War and the insatiable demand for zinc, Trail’s Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company’s much larger electrolytic refinery commandeered the process. This apparent patent infringement eventually led to protracted litigation. Julius Riesterer well remembered when students at St. Joseph School prayed for the success of this litigation that went to the Supreme Court and the Privy Council.

Joe Patenaude’s extraordinary service was not restricted to the Church. He was also involved with matters relating to the state. He served as a City Alderman twice (1908, 1920) and was an active member of the Board of Trade’s industrial sector that promoted mining in the Kootenay region. The Board strongly advocated the use of silver for Canadian currency while Patenaude ardently proselytized using it to mint a Canadian silver dollar. Finally, when the silver dollar was minted in 1935, he was so overcome with joy that he innocently counter stamped his initials on these coins and issued them as change to his customers — little did he realize that defacing coins was illegal. Today a “J.O.P.” silver dollar is a coveted numismatic collectible.

Patenaude took many business trips to Europe to acquire quality “goods” and supplies. While on these excursions he also purchased exquisite personal objets d'art, for example, an ivory crucifix and an oil painting of the Holy Family. Evidently these items were considered sufficiently valuable that Bishop Johnson submitted photos and sought professional advice from Professor Guido Nincheri, Academie de Florence. In response, Nincheri indicated that he admired the ivory sculpture for its classic beauty and expression of suffering. He was certain that Italian sculptor, Cassiani, a migrant to France, executed this work. Nincheri found the painting of the Holy Family a valuable original, although he did not believe it to be the work of Leonardo nor Raphael. Both the crucifix and the painting were itemized in Patenaude’s will — the former to his nephew in Montana and the latter to Bishop Johnson. Except for some other specified items, all furniture, books, pictures and household effects were bequeathed to his housekeeper.

 As time passed Mr. Patenaude downsized his business. The jewellry operation was sold in 1930 and his optometry business in November 1950 — a record 53 years for the same Nelson business owner to operate from the same location. Six years later, this truly gentle man passed away peacefully at the grand age of 85 on May 10th 1956.

Joseph Ovile Patenaude was fondly remembered by many Nelsonites; and, in particular, St. Joseph School students who recalled an elderly gentleman with a neatly trimmed mustache and swinging cane who would respond to their cheery greeting in his soft, French accent, “Very well, thank the Lord.”

Various products imprinted “J.O. Patenaude” are now coveted collectibles: eyeglasses, watches, jewellry, souvenir spoons and cups, photographs, posters, stationery, etc., but the most prized Patenaude collectible is the J.O.P. silver dollar. There is little doubt that he left behind an enduring and marked impression on many people for he was truly a man of great faith, steadfast hope and incredible generosity.