Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 5, 2000
Lacombe trumpeted education
Early Oblate helped establish residential schools, Catholic education
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Father Albert Lacombe, a missionary and educator in the St. Albert Diocese for more than 50 years, was a "special messenger" of the Canadian bishops in education.
His contribution to education in the St. Albert Diocese was that of an emissary, and often a mediator during a time when the Canadian bishops confronted grave religious and constitutional questions.
This description of the Oblate priest was given May 25 to the annual conference of the Canadian Catholic Historical Society by Sheila Ross, an independent scholar from Calgary.
Some 40 scholars and society members attended the May 24-26 conference at St. Joseph's University College. Ross was one of seven scholars to speak at the conference.
In her presentation, Ross examined the relationship between religion and education in the St. Albert Diocese through a study of the educational opportunities offered by Lacombe, a French-speaking Oblate who worked in the vast field that stretched west of St. Boniface.
Lacombe arrived in Fort Edmonton from Montreal in 1852, following his recruitment by the coadjutor bishop of St. Boniface, Bishop Alexandre Tach‚. He became an Oblate in 1855.
In 1862, while in charge of the mission of St. Joachim, he opened the first regular school in Alberta for families stationed at Edmonton House.
"Fort Edmonton was a pleasant place for the new missionary to find himself stationed - visiting and teaching in the North when weather permitted and ministering to parishioners at the fort during the rest of the year," said Ross.
"When missions were established to the southern part of the diocese, his visiting and teaching was among the Blackfoot from postings at Calgary, and then Lethbridge and Fort MacLeod."
With the signing of Treaty No. 7 with the Blackfoot in 1877, Lacombe became convinced that the best way to persuade the native population to coexist in peace with the settlers who were flooding into the West was to provide "structured learning in the activities of the newcomers," noted Ross.
Lacombe's biographer, Catherine Hughes, wrote that his thinking was the beginning of "an honest endeavour by men with the best interest of the Indians at heart to solve their problems."
Bishop Vital Grandin, the first bishop of St. Albert, had called upon Lacombe in 1872 to campaign in Eastern Canada and France for such schools, but to no avail. Ten years later, after placing a proposal before Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, Lacombe received approval to open Dunbow School, officially called St. Joseph's Industrial School, southeast of Calgary in 1884.
Lacombe served as principal, and two lay brothers and two Sisters of Charity staffed the new school, whose curriculum included academics and a music program for one-half of each day. The other half consisted of stock raising, blacksmithing, carpentry and crop raising.
The Dunbow School was only one of Lacombe's responsibilities as he was superior of the southern part of the diocese. To educate the children of parishioners, Lacombe had Grandin invite the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus to Calgary.
The sisters arrived in July 1855 and by September had established a private Catholic school. A few months later, in December, the Lacombe Roman Catholic Separate School District No. 1 came into existence. It was the first Catholic school district in Alberta. The name was changed in 1911 to Calgary Catholic Separate School District No. 1.
Public examinations were held, as required, yearly from 1886. "High school classes were introduced gradually, the early students forming the nucleus of the first Roman Catholic high school in Alberta (officially opened Oct. 1, 1889)," Ross explained.
"According to Mother (Mary) Green (the school's principal) the Protestants as well as the Catholics were happy to have a good school and sent many children."
Yet the period was not without anxieties, noted Ross in her presentation. "Manitoba's school question was an issue that caused Catholics of the Territories to fear that they might suffer a complete loss of their separate schools."
Tach‚ summoned Lacombe to St. Boniface in early 1894. "By April 1, 1984 he had canvassed throughout the country and was in Ottawa to present an appeal for minority rights in publicly funded schools to the government, signed by 31 bishops," Ross noted.
In early 1896 Lacombe was back in Ottawa, again acting on the school question for the Western bishops. At this point, Lacombe encountered negative publicity, unusual for him.
"Opposition journals said that Lacombe was being used as a go-between by the Dominion Government and the Quebec hierarchy, accusations he vigorously denied, claiming that he desired that the Conservatives should be returned to power simply because of their pledges to grant remedial legislation with regard to the school question."