Fr. Francis Ebner, OMI
Oblate Father Francis Ebner was known as the "motorcycle missionary" because he drove his Harley Davidson across the Northwest Territories to serve a string of remote towns, hamlets and villages.
The Minnesota native went north to save souls and find adventure but did a lot more than that. He is known to have started the Catholic School District in Yellowknife in 1952 and the Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith during his final years in the North.
Ebner moved to St. Albert in 1992 to take over as director of the Vital Grandin Centre Museum before retiring in 2003. He died Nov. 17 at the Sturgeon General Hospital in St. Albert at the age of 95.
Ebner was born in the waiting room of a railway depot in Nickerson, Minn., during a blizzard - a fitting beginning for a life that strayed from the ordinary.
The missionary once said he wasn't sure why he chose the priesthood but he was happy he did. He attended seminary in Texas and was ordained a priest in 1944 in Superior, Wis. He was expecting to be dispatched to the Philippines before war broke out in the Pacific.
In late 1944, however, he was sent to do mission work in Tulita, formerly Fort Norman, where he stayed for seven months.
Ebner admired the Inuit, a people rooted in tradition. "The people really lived off the land back then," he told the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. "I feel privileged that I got up there and got to see that way of life before it was gone."
Today things are different, he said, because people can get anything they want, provided they have the money to pay for it.
Fr. Francis Ebner worked hard and lived a simple life.
After a year in Tulita, Ebner moved along, landing in Yellowknife in 1947. He spent 15 years there before moving to other communities, including Hay River, Fort Smith and Inuvik.
In Yellowknife, he became well known for his motorcycle. For his entire 50 years in the North, Ebner always rode a Harley-Davidson, even on icy roads.
When Bishop Dennis Croteau, bishop emeritus of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith, moved north in 1960, Ebner was assistant pastor at St. Patrick's Parish in Yellowknife.
"He was different in the sense that he rode a motorcycle," Croteau recalled. "His dad always supplied him with a new machine every few years."
The young missionary would ride his Harley from Yellowknife down to the (United) States for his holidays "and he rode his motorcycle here even in winter on the icy streets of Yellowknife."
"He was a kind of a well-known figure around here," Croteau said. "He had three or four accidents with his motorcycle."
One time in Saskatchewan, as he was returning to Yellowknife, he hit another car and broke his back. Three weeks later he was out of the hospital.
In 1952 Ebner started St. Patrick's Catholic School in Yellowknife, the only place in the Territories with a Catholic school at the time.
"He was a very hard worker," Croteau said. "When they finished the school, he became the furnace man and the janitor. He was everything."
For six years, Ebner lived in the school's boiler room with an ale box as a typewriting stand, a small cot and a wash sink as furniture. He'd get up at 5:30 a.m. to celebrate Mass and then head to work as the caretaker of the school.
When he moved to Hay River, Ebner paid similar attention to the school there, doing all the maintenance work in the school.
"He was a very hard working man," recalled Croteau. "He would spend all day working and would eat at 10 o'clock at night. However, he was very healthy; he practically never got sick while he was in the North."
Ebner was also known as an avid hunter and as a storyteller who could entertain people for hours. Once he killed three lynx, but since he didn't have a hunting permit, he asked some aboriginal friends to retrieve them.
He lived a simple life and was never demanding, Croteau said. One time after he sold his Harley, Ebner drove from Yellowknife to the U.S. to visit his elderly mother in a seniors' home and slept in the back seat of his car for three weeks. "He would not stay in a motel."