Jean-Claude Turcotte, a cardinal and the longtime Archbishop of Montreal who made his reputation as a defender of the poor, has died at age 78. 

The Archdiocese of Montreal confirmed Turcotte's death in the palliative care unit at Marie-Clarac Hospital in the city, at 1:15 a.m. ET Wednesday.

Pope Francis expressed his condolences in a message from the Vatican.

He called Turcotte an attentive and enthusiastic priest who was devoted to helping the Catholic Church overcome its challenges. 

The life and times of Cardinal Turcotte

Archbishop for 22 years until his retirement in 2012, he had fallen gravely ill in recent years, and 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 as 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.

"His constant love for the poor, his preoccupations for the poor was very present in him, not only in words but in his life," said Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine.

Close relationship with Pope John Paul II

Turcotte was elevated 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.

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Montreal Archbishop Jean-Claude Turcotte received his red biretta from Pope John Paul II during a ceremony inducting him into the College of Cardinals at the Vatican on Nov. 26, 1994. Born in Montreal, he died in Marie-Clarac Hospital in Montreal early Wednesday. (Luciano Mellace/Reuters)

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."

Archbishop Lépine said it was a difficult moment for Turcotte. He wanted to respect people's liberties and choices, but felt it necessary to defend his own point of view.

"It was important for him to have his convictions and to express his convictions," Lépine said.

Turcotte spoke on sex abuse

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 three 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.

Health rapidly deteriorated 

According to his doctor at Marie-Clarac Hospital in Montreal North, he had been transferred from the main hospital to the palliative care unit after his condition deteriorated over the past month.

"We did everything we could to comfort him," said Sister Pierre Anne Mandato.

Lépine said he visited Turcotte at the hospital a number of times over the past month.

"I went to comfort him, but he was the one comforting me," said the current archbishop.

He said Turcotte's health declined rapidly after he retired as archbishop.

The medical and religious staff at the hospital said Turcotte lived as he died — in peace and serenity.

"It was an enormous privilege to take care of Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte," said his doctor.

Turcotte's funeral will take place at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral in downtown Montreal on Friday, April 17 at 2 p.m. His body will lie in state starting at 7 a.m. that morning.

The public is welcome to pay their final respects to Turcotte on the eve of the funeral, on Thursday, April 16 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the cathedral.

With files from CBC News and Radio-Canada