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Retiring Place des Arts executive director says he’s headed for ‘le petit paradis’

Léo Therrien can’t wait to get to paradise, otherwise known as Alban, now that he is retiring
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Léo Therrien is retiring as executive director of Place des Arts in downtown Sudbury.

If you’re looking for Léo Therrien after April 1**, you’ll find him in Alban, at camp, a place he calls “le petit paradis” or “the little paradise”. 

If you are looking for his influence, you can look at the work of Village International, the Maison McCulloch Hospice, and Place des Arts. Therrien recently retired from the latter, and is looking forward to spending more time in paradise. 

That, and volunteering. 

Retirement won’t be a slow down for Therrien, simply a chance to choose what he does with his time, devoting his energies to whatever calls to him. 

And taking in every show he can at the Place des Arts. 

Arrived in Sudbury in 1981 from Opasatika, Therrien attended Laurentian University and graduated in 1984 from the School of Social Work. He’s been in Sudbury ever since. 

For 15 years, Therrien worked in International development, the first five with the non-government organization (NGO) Development and Peace, the international development organization of the Catholic Church in Canada. 

Therrien said he learned English on the job, and had more than a few problems with syllable emphasis, laughing as he pronounces “development.” He loved the travel he did to Nicaragua, Kenya and Senegal, among others. He would observe the NGO-sponsored projects after working to raise the funds, and he loved learning about new cultures and seeing the world as well. 

Those experiences would influence the next part of his life; that, and meeting the love of his life, Christine. He wanted to spend more time at home, and so, Village International was born in 1990. Therrien describes his decade there as one of the best times in his life. 

There were more than a few NGOs headquartered in Sudbury at the time, including Development and Peace, which was situated at the corner of King and Notre Dame, along with a few others. 

By regrouping NGOs like Amnesty International, Oxfam, the World University Service of Canada, Tools for Peace and Project Ploughshares in a central location, “we created what we called a Global Education Centre, that’s what Village International was about,” said Therrien.  “All these groups would have their meetings there, we had a resource centre, and then we started selling arts and crafts from around the world from a fair trade store.” 

Therrien said Village International was selling fair trade coffee like Bridgehead in Sudbury before anyone had even heard the words. 

“For Christmas gifts for my family, they always had something quite unique,” he said. 

But in 2000, things got a bit different for Therrien. Not just the needs of his two young daughters, Emma, now 25 and Alexandra, now 29, but a little trouble called Y2K, a software bug that many feared would crash computer systems the world over. Much time and money was spent in the years leading up to the year 2000 updating code to fix the issue.

Y2K was the only challenge Therrien said he faced that year. A more immediate issue it was  the federal government then cutting funding to Village International. 

With the need for a steady schedule and a paycheque, Therrien said he decided to find something that would fulfill both needs, while still offering personal fulfillment. 

A fateful phone call would find him the job as executive director at Maison la Paix Hospice in Sudbury, the palliative care service that would evolve into Maison McCulloch Hospice. 

A fateful experience many years earlier would be the reason he’d take it. 

In his first year studying social work at Laurentian, Therrien travelled to Haiti for two weeks to live with the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, an organization founded by Mother Teresa. 

It would solidify his choice to continue in social work — “I wanted to help people,” he said — but it would be the reason he felt at least a little comfortable working at the Maison de la Paix, an AIDS hospice in Sudbury.

He had spent time at the house of the dead while with the missionaries, a centre for palliative care, focused on relieving pain and comforting the dying. 

His choice to take over at Maison de la Paix would lead him on a 20-year journey through the growth into the Maison Vale Inco Hospice and now to Maison McCulloch Sudbury Hospice, overlooking Bethel Lake, offering a peaceful transition for families and patients. It is a journey that has offered so much peace to so many families in Sudbury he is regularly stopped and thanked for his caring when they are suffering the most. 

He has always, and will always care and support palliative care, as “death is a part of life.” It is a part of his life as well, his mother dying in the hospice only five hours after she arrived there and only 48 hours since she first became ill. 

She died, surrounded by her family and loved ones, and Therrien said he is forever grateful, not just for the staff and volunteers at the hospice, who offered them compassion and support, but for the opportunity it gave to his family, to see how beautiful death can be, if we respect it as a part of life. 

But her death changed Therrien in many ways, not the least of which is the way he now looks at the hallways of the hospice. He was surrounded by memories of her loss, not the memories of her he wished to cherish. 

It was time for another change. It was time for the arts, for culture, and to bring his community together once again. 

Well, in a way. The COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that not many people are coming together. Therrien said the work from home mandate of the past two years has been taxing. 

“I miss people,” he said. “I really miss people.” 

While construction has been ongoing for the entirety of his tenure as executive director for the downtown arts centre, the bricks and mortar result of more than a decade of work by ROCS (Regroupement des organismes culturels de Sudbury) and its seven founding Francophone organizations. 

While there have been a few art installations occurring in the lead up to the opening of the Place des Arts, Therrien is still very excited for all the new programming. The founding members are set to move into the building in february, “COVID-19 permitting,” and Therrien won’t be far behind them. He credits the staff and volunteers for all their work in getting the project on its feet, something he said wouldn’t have been possible without them.

For his retirement plans, he said he can be found at the Place des Arts, taking a show or having coffee in the bistro, but also, he might just tend the gardens that surround the Sudbury Hospice. Most certainly of all, he can be found in paradise, otherwise known as Alban.

**This story originally stated Therrien's last date would be March 31, it has been corrected.