04/08/2015 04:57 EDT | Updated 06/07/2015 05:59 EDT

Jean-Claude Turcotte, Montreal archbishop emeritus, dead at 78

Jean-Claude Turcotte, the longtime Archbishop of Montreal, has died at age 78.

The Archdiocese of Montreal confirmed Turcotte's death on Wednesday at Marie-Clarac Hospital in the city.

Archbishop for 22 years until his retirement in 2012, he had fallen gravely ill in recent years. He was hospitalized in mid-September.

Born in Montreal in 1936, Turcotte was the second of seven children.

In 1955, he entered Montreal's Major Seminary to study theology, and was ordained a priest in the Church of St. Vincent de Paul four years later.

Turcotte rose through the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church to heights he never expected, becoming archbishop in 1990 after eight years as an auxiliary bishop.

Even so, he knew from a young age that his calling was to help people. In the mid-1960s, he earned a degree in social ministry while studying in France.

"For me, being an educator is not about showing people things, but to allow others to achieve their full potential," he said.

Turcotte fought tirelessly for the underprivileged and poor, spending his first Christmas as archbishop celebrating mass with the homeless.

Close relationship with Pope John Paul II

Turcotte was ordained as a cardinal in 1994 by Pope John Paul II.

His relationship with the Pope played an important role in his life and career.

"John Paul II is a second father to me. I found some of my own father's qualities in him," he said.

He was named to the Order of Canada in 1996 by then Gov. Gen. Roméo Leblanc, but later returned it in 2008 when Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the prominent abortion rights activist, was named to the Order.

Turcotte issued a statement criticizing the decision to give the Order to Morgentaler, saying "I feel obliged in conscience to reaffirm my convictions regarding the respect for human life, from conception to death. We are not the masters of human life; it rests in the hands of God."

The archbishop emeritus was not one to follow tradition blindly, however. In 2010, he spoke out against the sexual scandals plaguing the Roman Catholic Church.

"It's unacceptable, inexcusable and we can only ask for the forgiveness of the victims who suffered these things and perhaps indiscretions made in the past," he said at the time.

Turcotte stepped down as archbishop two years ago, when he reached the maximum age allowed to fulfil that role.

He spent the last years of his life in fragile health, suffering from several issues related to diabetes.