It was one year ago that my hands were on the smooth poles that ran along the side of the coffin. Along with five of my cousins, I had the privilege and solemn responsibility to bear the lifeless body of my grandfather Marcel from the church to the vehicle waiting to take him to a hole cut into the ground. A hole made to receive a resurrection seed. The room was silent and my mind was distantly aware of the hundreds of eyes following my movement through the sanctuary.
It was good to be with my cousins. Men I love, admire, and respect. That may sound strange, and it is: in fact it took me a long time to realize just how strange our family is. Strangely blessed would better describe it. I began by assuming such a thing was normal, for every child’s family is a normal family to them at first; and then I took it for granted – for years – while I should have known better. In recent years I have become more grateful and committed to stewarding and continuing this legacy of grace that we have been given.
It’s strange to say, but I have learned more about my grandfather Marcel’s ministry and kingdom impact since he passed away last year on April 22nd than I did while he was alive. The fact is, he was not my pastor or leader, but simply my beloved Grandpa. And yet how wonderful it has been to discover the ways the Lord used him, human and flawed as he was, to build up the body of Christ in Quebec and Canada.
Marcel was born in Coaticook, which is in southern Quebec, in 1930, in a French-Canadian home. Quebec at that time was almost uniformly Roman Catholic, and the Cotnoirs were no different. The Scriptures and the gospel were hardly known among the laity, and in fact reading the Bible was often discouraged by the Church. It held much of the society in an iron grip and was loath to let go. This is part of why the first Baptist missionaries from Ontario were met with such resistance, leading to arrests and jail time in rural Quebec in the 1940’s and 50’s. You can read more about that story in a little book edited by Marcel’s daughter-in-law, my mom Ginette. Another excellent little book on that era is D.A. Carson’s Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, written about his father.
For the Cotnoirs, the gospel first broke into this spiritually suffocating atmosphere in 1949, starting with Marcel’s father Ovila, who owned a leather-working shop. Marcel told me the story this way: he remembered, as a 19-year old, coming into the living room to find his father with his back to him, standing unusually still, listening to the crackling radio. It seemed he had walked in on some important moment. A simple gospel message was being shared over the airwaves, and Marcel’s father was listening with every fibre of his being. When he finally turned around to face Marcel, tears were streaming down his face. Despite having lived his whole life in the Church, he had never heard this message of free forgiveness through the cross.
Within a matter of weeks, this reviving grace reached 19-year old Marcel as well and he gave his life to Jesus. Not very long after, he met a lovely young woman named Verna and they were married in 1952. Their marriage would last 66 years, lead to five children, fourteen grandchildren, a gaggle of great-grandchildren, and be marked by a sweet tenderness that lasted until the very end. Verna proved to be a pillar of strength and support throughout Marcel’s life. And she has been a pretty incredible Grandma to me these 34 years.
From early on, Marcel was involved in the local church. He worked for the provincial electrical company (Hydro-Quebec) and every two years he was transferred to different towns in Quebec. In each case, he helped to plant a church or was a key helper in a fledgling church. It was in these local churches that Marcel discovered and developed his gifts and passion for ministry.
Eventually Marcel was hired as a project manager in industry in the city of Laval. His family now counted 5 kids, and he joined a young church plant in Laval. Five years later he felt God calling him to full-time ministry, and so at 43, he became Assistant Pastor at a church in the north of Montreal, L’Église Baptiste Évangélique d’Ahuntsic, and eventually he became its senior pastor.
Marcel’s ministry was characterized by a strong emphasis on Biblical teaching and preaching, a warm pastoral heart for his people, and a legendary emphasis on personal visits. Under his leadership, the church grew and planted 3 more local churches in the Montreal region.
One person shared with me how astounded he was in the early 1990’s when Marcel gladly spent twelve hours with him repairing his broken Hyundai. This was the happy marriage of two great passions: Marcel’s servant heart and his love for fixing mechanical things. I can relate with that man as I took full advantage of Grandpa’s love for fixing things as a broke teenager with an oft-broken car, including a particularly memorable six hours of quality time spent together under my 1988 Toyota Tercel (affectionately called Betsy) to replace rusted brake lines. Marcel loved people through his love of machines.
His shepherd’s heart left an impact on many. Echoes of that impact sometimes reached me in unexpected ways. For example, my Missiology professor at Heritage Bible College, Charlie McCordic, lived in Montreal as a young man during the time of Marcel’s ministry there. When tragedy struck and he lost his mother to illness, Marcel’s ministry of presence and comfort was so meaningful to him that, many decades later, he recounted it to me, on numerous occasions, with deep emotion.
Marcel also had a heart for fellow pastors. He was a regular fixture at annual FEB Conventions and could often be seen talking earnestly with pastors and leaders from across Canada. I recently learned how he played a prominent role in the life of one particular pastor, Gerry Sauvé, who shared this story with a group of us after Marcel’s funeral. Earlier in his pastoral career, Gerry had found himself in a difficult and draining church situation that ended with him out of that church and deeply discouraged. He confessed to us that his state of mind was so downcast that he did not think he would ever attend church again, let alone contemplate ministry. In the midst of this, Marcel and Verna showed up unexpectedly at his door. He was sure he was about to get reprimanded and rebuked. Instead, Marcel had with him a cassette tape of Christian music by Michael Card for them to listen to together. Afterwards, they talked about everything except the church.
Just as he was leaving, Marcel told Gerry to come to his church that Sunday. Over the next months and years, a quiet restoration and healing took place. Eventually they served together on staff and Gerry continues to serve as a pastor to this day. In fact, he was the one who led Marcel’s funeral service, ministering wonderfully the grace and comfort of the gospel to the hundreds who attended.
After nearly 20 years in Ahuntsic, Marcel worked for the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada, travelling from coast to coast and sharing about the spiritual and financial needs of the churches in Quebec. I discovered this first-hand as I met people in Fellowship churches in both Cambridge (Hespeler Baptist Church) and Hamilton (West Highland Baptist Church) who remembered fondly Marcel’s visits and exhortations in this role.
Marcel’s love for the Word and his burden for the church in Quebec led him to an unexpected partnership and friendship with John MacArthur. When he first came across the signature expository verse-by-verse teaching of MacArthur in 1980, he felt compelled to share this with as many Quebecois as possible. Solid Biblical teaching was sorely needed to strengthen the many Quebec French churches, filled as they were with first-generation believers. What started at first with ordering and distributing cassette tapes of John’s sermons eventually led to the start of Canada’s own Grace to You ministry and the translation of a number of MacArthur’s works into French. Phil Johnson of Grace to You told the story this way in his tribute to Marcel:
I loved Marcel’s enthusiasm—but candidly, I thought he was overreaching. I was well aware that translation work is arduous, time consuming, and expensive if done right. I worried that Marcel might lose heart when he learned how difficult it is to get published material translated and printed in French. Anyone who knows Marcel understands what a ridiculous concern that was. Nothing ever seemed to discourage him. In retrospect I think it would have been utterly impossible to dissuade him from pursuing the fulfillment of what God had laid on his heart to do.
Marcel’s initial vision bore remarkable fruit. Grace to You Canada grew into a thriving ministry and all of MacArthur’s New Testament Commentaries as well as many of his popular books were translated into French for use in Quebec and across the French-speaking world. In addition, a relationship was forged between the Quebec church and MacArthur’s ministry which led to numerous visits and mutual encouragement.
Growing up, I was unaware of much of this. Marcel was simply Grandpa. He loved to go camping, listen to classical music, work on cars, read books, eat sweets, and gather as many family members and friends to his house as possible. At Christmas, when the house was full, he would set a cauldron atop the stove and pour can after can of maple syrup into it until it bubbled and frothed. We children would catch a whiff of that delicious aroma and make our way to the kitchen from every corner of the house and yard. We would stand around the tub of snow on the kitchen island, blinking and sniffing and clutching our forks, waiting while Grandpa tested and re-tested that maple taffy until it was just the right consistency.
Then we ate until we felt sick.
As wonderful as those times were, it wasn’t until the Lord worked the miracle of new birth in my own heart, also at the age of 19, that I saw my grandparents with new eyes. I remember thinking: Here is a home filled with the warmth and welcome of the gospel. Here is a family, all of us, that has been given abundant grace. I listened with reverence to the mealtime prayers that he spoke, prayers rich with genuine gratitude to the Lord and an always-fresh appreciation for some gospel truth he had recently been turning over in his mind.
I thank God that I can say these astounding words: I worship the God of my parents, grand-parents, and great-grandparents. I meditate on the same Scriptures, I serve the same Lord, and I cherish the same cross that transformed the hearts of my forbears in 1949 and onwards since. Marcel has finished his labor and has entered into the joy of his Master. Until I join him, I have the privilege of continuing the kingdom work that was his life’s passion, a big part of which is loving and leading my own family so that we can continue and pass on that legacy of grace for generations to come.
Soli Deo Gloria.
My thanks to my dad (David) and Grandma (Verna) for help on this piece – getting the details and the words right!