“Paul Theriault: Offering Symbols of Love,” Ensign, Jan. 1987, 68–69
Many victims of cerebral palsy are beginning to learn about the life of Jesus and to get a taste of great literature through the efforts of a Canadian Latter-day Saint teacher who has spent most of his adult life in service to others.
Paul Theriault spent his early years in a small fishing village in northern Quebec, the second son born to Hormidas and Beatrice Theriault (pronounced Terry-O). The small community in which they lived offered no education beyond seventh grade. At some sacrifice, his parents provided the opportunity for Paul to go to Cornwall, Ontario, to continue his studies.
His teens in Cornwall were uneventful. “I was overweight and unathletic, and, added to this, I had no social activities.” He was so poor in sports, Brother Theriault recalls, that he wasn’t even allowed a tryout for the junior basketball team of St. Lawrence High.
“At the end of high school, I felt it was time to give my life some direction. I thought I would join the Oblate Order of the Catholic priesthood and become a missionary.” He entered one of the order’s seminaries, which “brought about many changes for me. I enjoyed community life which I had missed in high school. I was finally able to take part in athletics (everyone made the team), and I began university studies. In the summer, I worked in Montreal with the ‘Brothers of the Poor.’ We spent our days tending to the needs of widows and widowers.”
Still, his life seemed unfulfilled. “I came to realize I longed for a companion and a family.” He was also troubled by questions about the theology and the priesthood of his church. “So, after four years, when I had reached the stage of making final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience for life, I decided to leave the seminary.”
Paul Theriault was teaching school in Ottawa when one day two LDS missionaries visited him in his classroom after the students had left. He recalls: “My serious concerns about religion had recently resurfaced, but after listening to the discussion on the Restoration and one young elder’s testimony, I felt what I would describe as a sense of freedom—freedom from many years of burdensome philosophies and counter-explanations.
“Later that week, my wife Elizabeth and I (I had found a lovely companion) attended Church. But it was all too new for us, so we didn’t return.”
Some time later, however, missionaries in Montreal taught and baptized Paul’s brother Roland and his family. Paul set out to prove his brother’s new religion wrong. Having gone through the seminary, he felt he was something of an authority on the scriptures. “Discussions with the LDS missionaries were long and thorough. Increasingly, I felt vulnerable. I set out to read all that I could. The final stroke came when my brother gave me a copy of Jesus the Christ by James Talmage. At that point, I stopped fighting the truths implanted by the elders. Never before had I come across such clear-minded writing. ‘I’ve found the truth,’ I said to myself. And so I braced myself for some major changes in my life.”
On 22 May 1980, his thirty-third birthday, Paul was baptized into the Church by his brother, Roland. A month later, his wife became a member.
Immediately, Brother Theriault was dismissed from the teaching staff of the Roman Catholic Separate School Board. The Sunday following his baptism, the elders quorum president asked quorum members to fast and pray that Brother Theriault’s search for a job might be fruitful. “Monday morning at eight o’clock,” Brother Theriault says, “I received a phone call. I was offered a new job at a substantial increase in salary.”
His life has since taken a number of turns he could not have expected only a few years earlier. He is president of the Chatham Branch, London Ontario Stake. In addition to a wife, he has four children. And instead of being a missionary priest, he is a special education teacher, ever aware of those whose needs may not be met.
After baptism, he rededicated himself to fulfilling his intense desire to write books in the Blissymbolic language. “Blissymbolics is a pictograph language designed to help cerebral palsied children and adults communicate by simply pointing to a symbol representing a word or an idea. The language was originally designed by Charles Bliss,” President Theriault explains.
What sparked his interest in wanting to write these books?
“I attended a presentation similar to the one I have given countless times. I felt strongly moved by the plight of these children. When I asked the presenter what the children had to read, she said, ‘Nothing.’ During her presentation, I felt deeply moved when she read a ‘Bliss’ statement by ‘Barb’ (a local Bliss user), who had not communicated with anyone for the first twenty years of her life. Barb had a deep and sensitive understanding of the Christmas story which she had conceived only inadvertently through the years. Until she learned Blissymbolics, no one had communicated with her in a meaningful way. All these feelings had been trapped within her. I resolved then to take whatever steps were necessary to provide these Bliss users with books. The Story of Jesus—Part 1 (his first Blissymbolic book) was dedicated to Barb.
“For two years prior to 1980, I had made awkward attempts to translate the Christmas story, but to no avail. During the summer of 1980, I set myself to the task once more. What happened was an unmistakable miracle. In early October, the book was a chapter short of completion when my funds ran out.”
Funding was a difficult problem. The books had to be free because many of those who needed them are in institutions, with no money available. President Theriault wanted the book out to them by Christmas. It was, after all, the International Year of the Child.
“At this point, I prayed for help, and recall feeling my first encounters with real faith.” Shortly afterward, he began speaking to service clubs about his project. He felt awkward the first time, but the club pledged to provide backing. Other clubs and religious groups also pledged support. The youth of the Chatham Branch contributed money earned through a service project. Happily, one thousand books went out in time for Christmas. By Christmas of the next year, a second printing was necessary.
In 1983, his hard-cover edition of the Romeo and Juliet story was prepared and printed so that Blissymbolics readers could enjoy a bit of great literature. Funding for this project was provided through a Province of Ontario grant.
The Story of Jesus—Part 2 has just recently been released. It deals with the period between Christ’s three great temptations by Lucifer and his delivery of the Sermon on the Mount.
Paul Theriault’s work has made it possible for cerebral palsied children everywhere to come to know Jesus and to realize that the Lord meant them, too, when he said, “Suffer little children to come unto me, … for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16.)