Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 2, 2003
In search of forgotten martyr
Sioux war party slaughtered pious Jesuit priest
Fr. Jean-Pierre Alneau - Memorial - June 5
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
Relaxing behind the huge view windows of a lakeside restaurant, a large Northern Walleye sandwich seems most appropriate for Sunday brunch. Outside, activity ranges from food-seeking shorebirds to small craft traffic in the adjacent broad river mouth.
Diners, if they squint their eyes and stare out on the seemingly limitless watery expanse of the lake, might imagine a flotilla of birch bark war canoes barely discernable in the heat haze, quietly approaching the mouth of the Warroad River. More than 200 years ago, scenes like this accounted for the unusual name of this place, who's sometimes turbulent history belies the serenity of today's little resort town.
The Warroad River, where it enters the Lake of the Woods, once provided access for Sioux war parties, via a portage and the Roseau River, from Manitoba's Red River.
Many of the restaurant patrons had attended the crowded 10:30 Mass and enjoyed the excellent parish choir, at St. Mary's Church, downtown. It's an unusual log building that displays a large sculpture of a missionary priest and is commonly known as the Father Alneau memorial Church.
The story of this building begins in mid-point when, in 1889, a 150 year-old packet of letters was discovered that contained information regarding the life and tragic death of a Jesuit priest in once-remote New France. Jean-Pierre Alneau, born in western France, was recruited by Quebec Bishop Dosquit for missionary work in the unexplored West. A very pious person, he travelled to Quebec and was ordained there in 1735.
Almost immediately, Jean-Pierre was assigned to accompany noted explorer Pierre La Verendrye to his Fort St. Charles post on the Lake of the Woods. Over the winter, he spent time with local Chipewyan and Cree people and began a serious study of their languages.
Then, in the spring, a party of 21 men led by La Verendrye's son Jean-Baptiste, and including Alneau, were surprised and massacred on a remote island by a large Sioux war party who then fled up the Warroad River. Their bodies were interred within the walls of Fort St. Charles.
Much later, St. Boniface Archbishop Langevin became curious about the priest's final resting place, but by 1890 the locations of Massacre Island and of Fort St. Charles had been long forgotten. Expeditions eventually found the fort site (now restored) and recovered the remains of the 21, which were unfortunately lost in a fire at St. Boniface in 1921.
Long time pastor at Warroad's church, Emmett Shanahan, revived interest in the missionary's life again with the publication in 1949 of a biography Minnesota's Lost Martyr as an incentive to encourage construction of a new parish church for the town.
He succeeded, and the building of the present (1954) sanctuary became a work of love on the part of the parishioners, who felled and peeled pine logs in minus 20 degree weather and split some 70,000 cedar shakes for the roof. A fieldstone replica of the original Massacre Island cairn tops the bell tower while a stylized sculpture of Father Alneau peers out from behind fast-growing juniper trees.
St. Mary's is a comfortable church, finished in dark wood with open ceiling rafters, giving a sense of peace and serenity. Light is provided by nine German stained glass windows acquired from an older area church.
Jean Pierre's memory is honoured at Warroad, on June 5, the anniversary of his death after a short 15 months as a priest. And although routinely referred to as a martyr, authorities believe he was the victim of events only indirectly related to the defence of his faith and his cause for sainthood has not been advanced at the Vatican. Despite this, he is no less revered by the parishioners of the very active Father Alneau Memorial Church.