George Olsen was born in Kirkland Lake, Ont., on May 2, 1942. The second child of Cliff, a plumber, and Susie, a nurse and homemaker, he was a quiet child, but one who took charge. “If we played army, he would always be the general,” says his younger brother Cliff. The family was staunchly Catholic, and the Church fascinated George. As a kid, his favourite game was mass: he’d deliver the sermon and enlist Brenda, his older sister, and Cliff, as altar servers.
When George was six the family moved to Susie’s hometown of Killaloe, Ont., two hours west of Ottawa. They took root in the local church, and George and Cliff served as altar boys. Cliff was never particularly interested, but the parish priest noticed George’s enthusiasm and took the boy under his wing. “George showed all signs of wanting to be a priest,” says Cliff.
In fact, George had decided to enter the clergy before he even graduated from elementary school. But while he was unusually well-behaved and attentive toward his schoolwork, he was a typical child. He’d spend afternoons wrestling with Cliff or playing shinny on the creek that bisects Killaloe, and delivered papers to save money for clothes or to buy gifts for his mother. When he got a bit older, a neighbour taught him to dance. George was a natural, and spent many nights of his teenage years driving girls crazy at a nearby pavilion. “He was so smooth,” says Cliff.
At 17, George left home to join the priesthood. “I was at the bus stop with him,” recalls Cliff. “I figured this would be, ‘Hey, I got the place to myself, I got my brother out of my hair.’ But the bus pulled away and I was crying in the street.” The family didn’t see much of George while he was at the seminary, but he came back to be ordained in Killaloe when he was 25. “He didn’t run with the crowd anymore,” says Cliff. “I remember my mother, she would say to Brenda, ‘Now don’t you encourage him to dance.’ But that wasn’t a problem, George had given it up anyway.” The priesthood hadn’t totally changed his brother, though. “He was still George,” says Cliff. “He loved to have a laugh.”
Over the next decade, Father George worked at a number of churches in the Ottawa valley before being transferred to the tiny Quebec town of St. Joseph. There, his rectory was a small, isolated house surrounded by farmland, and he was always on the road—the congregation was so spread out that he had to oversee three churches more than an hour’s drive apart.
George was known for his laugh, and every service started with a joke. “He sometimes chuckled, like Red Skelton, before he delivered the punchline,” says Clarence Shires, a friend and long-time parishioner of Father George’s. “His sermons were always short, but they were not a fast-food restaurant. His words were wholesome meals that enriched the heart.”
In 1994, after 15 years in St. Joseph, Father George was posted to St. Casimir’s in Round Lake, Ont., just 13 km from his hometown. This brought him closer to the family, and allowed him to attend his siblings’ annual May long weekend trip at a cottage Cliff built on land he and George inherited from their grandfather. At one such gathering in 1995, they were all sitting on the porch when Brenda mentioned that she’d love to buy property nearby but didn’t have enough money. “George said, ‘You can have mine,’ ” says Brenda. “He signed it over, no cost or anything. That was just how he was.”
Father George devoted himself to the community in a similar way. For the last 17 years, he constantly met with parishioners, visited the sick, and worked with Round Lake’s tiny Catholic school. He was chaplain at the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus, and became especially dedicated to the club when, after 9/11, he was asked to organize an annual “blue mass” in honour of emergency personnel, when police, firefighters and paramedics from the diocese attended a service and a luncheon with the priest.
On March 20, a week after this year’s special service, Leonard Chaput, a friend of Father George’s who was visiting to help with chores the next day, left the priest watching TV in the rectory basement. Leonard woke up to a smoke-filled house and the priest’s cries for help, but couldn’t find Father George in the blaze. Firefighters, many of whom had attended the previous week’s blue mass, managed to save the attached church, but the flames were too intense to rescue Father George. He was 68.