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Most Rev. Raymond William Lessard

Deceased: 2016-01-03


Seminary Graduation Year: 1957

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 Raymond William Lessard was born in Oakwood, North Dakota, December 21, 1930. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Victor A. Lessard, retired from farming to live in the neighboring town of Grafton.

After graduating from the parish high school in Oakwood and attending business school for one year in Grand Forks, North Dakota, he began studies for the priesthood in 1949 as a college freshman at Nazareth Hall Preparatory Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Two years later, he was enrolled at the St. Paul Seminary, where he earned a B.A. degree. In 1953, he was sent to Rome by the Bishop of Fargo, to study theology at the Pontifical North American College. He was ordained a priest in Rome, for service in the Diocese of Fargo, on December 16, 1956, by Archbishop Martin J. O’Connor. In June of 1957, he was graduated from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, with a license in sacred theology.

Returning to the United States in the summer of 1957, he served for three years as assistant pastor of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Fargo. In 1960, he was assigned back to Rome as secretary to Aloisius Cardinal Muench, former Bishop of Fargo and now a member of the Vatican administrative offices (Curia). At the same time, he continued graduate studies in theology and canon law at the Gregorian University. After Cardinal Muench’s death in 1962, he was named assistant superior of the North American College Graduate House in Rome.

During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), he served as personal advisor to his own Bishop of Fargo and attended many of the Council’s sessions. In January of 1964, he was assigned to the staff of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, a position he held until his appointment in 1973 as Bishop of Savannah. Also, from 1969 to 1973, he was director of Villa Stritch, a residence erected in Rome for American priests and bishops working at the Vatican.

His appointment by Pope Paul VI as Bishop of Savannah was made during a Consistory held on March 5, 1973, at the Vatican. He received episcopal ordination in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah on April 27, 1973.

As a member of the former National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, Bishop Lessard served on a number of Conference committees, such as the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the Committees on Doctrine and on Education. He also served as chairman of the Committee on Pastoral Research and Practices. From 1977 until 1984, he was co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation in the United States. In 1983, he was named a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission and of the special commission on Religious Life in the United States. In 1985, he was elected chairman of the Committee on Doctrine, a position he held until November 1988. In November of 1989, he was elected secretary of the NCCB-USCC for a two-year term. Bishop Lessard served as president of the Georgia Christian Council in 1990.

For nearly 22 years, Bishop Lessard served as chief shepherd of the widely-dispersed Catholics in the 90 southernmost counties of Georgia, the largest state east of the Mississippi River. In 1973, there were 35,275 Catholics in the Savannah Diocese, organized into 42 parishes and 29 missions. By 1995, there were 68,410 Catholics in 53 parishes and 27 missions.

Among the structures established or strengthened by Bishop Lessard to further collaboration in ministry were the Board of Vicars (senior diocesan staff and vicars forane or deans), Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Senate of Priests (now the Presbyteral Council) and the Council of Religious. He restored the twin towers of the Cathedral and consolidated the diocesan offices in a single pastoral center.

Bishop Lessard also established the permanent diaconate in the Savannah Diocese, ordaining approximately 35 deacons in 1979 and 1985. He also ordained 30 priests, for the Savannah Diocese and for religious orders.

Bishop Lessard emphasized religious education at all levels, for many years making a circuit of the diocese for his “mini-retreats” on various aspects of the Church’s teaching. One program instituted by Bishop Lessard that had far-reaching effects was A Heart Renewed, a three-year program of spiritual and pastoral renewal that proved to be very popular. Some parish groups continued to meet for years. The later Fullness of Time program, devised by many of the diocesan staff people, built on A Heart Renewed.

On February 7, 1995, Bishop Lessard’s resignation, for reasons of health, was accepted by Pope John Paul II. Since his retirement, he has taught theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary, Boynton Beach, Florida. Bishop Lessard returns to Savannah several times during the year to participate in special liturgies and church celebrations.