Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
The First Catholics of Alberta
First priests visited local people already familiar with Catholicism
By JULIETTE CHAMPAGNE
Special to the WCR
As we celebrate Alberta's centennial and the contribution of Roman Catholics to this province, it is fitting to look back to the first official missionary visit to this region, 164 years ago, at the invitation of the residents of the upper reaches of the North Saskatchewan River.
The first Catholic priests to travel through what is now known as Alberta were the diocesan priests Modeste Demers and François-Norbert Blanchet, who ascended the North Saskatchewan River in 1838, bound for the Oregon and Vancouver missions of the Pacific Coast.
On their way, they provided the sacraments to the faithful - most of them the mixed-blood descendants of the fur-trade voyageurs. The records show the Baptism of many children. The first Mass celebrated at Fort Edmonton took place on Sept. 9, 1838, and in memory of this event, they erected a large cross. It can be seen on the extreme right of a Paul Kane painting of the Fort, done a few years later, to the east of the post on the painting, leaning a bit.
Lacombe moved cross
When Albert Lacombe first visited in 1852, the cross had fallen down and he repositioned it at that time. In a later painting by Émile Petitot, a similar view from across the river shows a cross in a small fenced graveyard which could be the same one.
John Rowand, chief factor of the Saskatchewan district and resident of Fort Edmonton, although he was not a Catholic himself, was sympathetic to them. After the passage of Demers and Blanchet, he wrote to Norbert Provencher, bishop of St. Boniface, asking that a priest be posted at the fort.
However, when Provencher asked for permission from the council of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), it was denied. The official policy maintained that Catholic and Anglican missionaries stay near the Forks of the Red River; Wesleyan (Methodists) missionaries were the only missionaries allowed in the interior.
Although, the missionary Robert Rundle visited Fort Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House regularly at the time, sympathies of the local population, mostly of French-Canadian and aboriginal descent, leaned towards Catholicism. Some voyageurs had taught the basic precepts of the religion and prayers to their families. Their grown children, many who had become hunters and traders, travelled a great deal, often yearly to Red River, and it was not unusual for them to have their marriage sanctified or their children baptized in passing.
The mixed ancestry population had developed a lifestyle similar to the First Nations people, and for safety's sake, in order to hunt buffalo on the prairies, they travelled in large bands. One such group was led by Gabriel Dumont, the elder (uncle of the younger Gabriel of the 1885 Rebellion), who during the 1830s, had established a settlement at Lac Ste. Anne (known then in Cree as Spirit or Devil's Lake), where the band returned seasonally.
Dumont and his siblings were born in the Fort Edmonton region from Josette "Sarcisse" and Jean-Baptiste Dumont, a French-Canadian voyageur with the North-West Company. After the union of the fur trade companies in 1821, they were left unemployed, but they developed a niche providing "country produce" for the HBC, hunting and provisioning as "freemen," that is, they were not bound by contracts to the company.
After the passage of the Pacific-bound missionaries in 1838, a strong desire for the presence of a Catholic priest manifested itself among this population, and in 1841, a freeman, known as Piché, probably on a trading mission at Red River, was delegated to visit Bishop Provencher at St. Boniface and present a formal request that a Catholic priest be sent to the "Rocky Mountains" (le fort de la Montagne).
The search for Piché
The bishop noted that Piché was a Métis, living "with and as the Indians." This Piché was well known in the Saskatchewan district and along the foothills, as he often worked for the HBC as a guide and as a hunter. Mount Peechee near Lake Minnewanka was named in his honour by the governor of the HBC, George Simpson, who was guided by him through Devil's Gap and on through the pass which bears Simpson's name. Piché was also the father of the famed Cree chiefs Ermineskin and Bobtail.
Fully aware of the HBC's policy, as he had just been refused permission to send a priest to Fort Edmonton, Provencher nevertheless promised Piché that he would have someone ready for the following spring, and Piché said he would return to accompany the missionary. Instead of Piché, Jean-Baptiste Laframboise, a Métis from the Fort Edmonton region, and probably a brother-in-law of Dumont's, guided Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault to the Upper North Saskatchewan.
They left on April 20, 1842, arriving at Fort Edmonton on Sunday, June 19, early enough to celebrate Mass. During this visit, the Fort-des-Prairies register of baptisms, marriages and sepultures was opened, as this is how Fort Edmonton was known to French speakers.
Thibault stayed in the Fort Edmonton region, although he did visit Dumont's settlement at Spirit Lake. He was looking forward to meeting Piché, but when a group of Blackfoot came to the post to trade and meet the missionary early in July, Piché was not with them. By the end of July, he still had not come, and so with Dumont for a guide, they went in search of him and his band.
They travelled due southwest, stopping briefly at Pigeon Lake. As they crossed the Red Deer River, they met a group of Métis who were on their way to the Columbia River, and who knew of Piché's whereabouts. Word was sent out to him and he immediately came to meet the missionary, leading him to his camp of 60 lodges at Dog Pound Creek, west of present-day Calgary.
During his visit, Thibault helped the Métis write up a petition to the governor of the HBC, asking that Roman Catholic missionaries be permitted to come into the region. Upon his return to St. Boniface, Thibault reported that he had baptized 353 children and blessed 20 marriages during his travels. The diocesan priests continued visiting the region periodically until the arrival of Oblate missionaries in 1846, who then took on the responsibility of the evangelization of the Canadian North-West.