Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
Bishop Grandin fought for schools
Native of France volunteered for Oblates' missions in Canada's North
By JULIETTE CHAMPAGNE
Special to the WCR
Born in 1829 in the department of Mayenne, in northwestern France, the ninth child of a large peasant family, Vital Grandin still did not know how to write at age 13. Yet, he ardently desired to become a priest, and an older brother, already in the orders, helped him achieve that goal.
Grandin entered a seminary near Le Mans in 1845, and later went to Paris, where he had hoped to be accepted in the Foreign Missions to go to China. Turned down because of a speech impediment, he was later accepted by the Oblates, although not necessarily for missions abroad. In 1854, he was ordained at Marseille by Bishop Eugene de Mazenod, founder of the order.
And on to Canada
While at the novitiate, he met the newly ordained coadjutant of the Diocese of St. Boniface, Bishop Alexandre Taché, and after his ordination enthusiastically volunteered for the Canadian North West missions. He left for Canada in June 1854, along with two other aspiring missionaries. At that time, there was only a handful of Oblates in the North West and it was difficult to find willing recruits.
After a year spent at St. Boniface, he was sent to Île-à-la-Crosse and on to Lake Athabasca to Nativity Mission, near Fort Chipewyan, where he spent the winter. He remained in that region for four more years when he was named coadjutor to the bishop of St. Boniface.
He returned to France to be consecrated and then came back in 1860 to administer the Vicariate of Athabasca-Mackenzie where he had to cope with failing health, the exceedingly difficult climate, a chronic shortage of funds and the incessant competition of Protestant missionaries.
The Diocese of St. Boniface was again subdivided in 1867, and Grandin became the vicar apostolic of Saskatchewan and the Diocese of Saint Albert, while Bishop Henri Faraud took over the management of the Vicariate of Mackenzie.
With the destruction by fire of his residence at Île-à-la-Crosse, Grandin chose to relocate to St. Albert, which had just been established as a permanent mission site in 1861.
In 1870, due to civil unrest and war in France, charitable contributions to the North West missions, on which Grandin depended, ceased. As well, smallpox struck the region, and some 300 of the 700 Métis living around St. Albert died. Grandin was intent on establishing schools for the native and Métis children in the North West, and hoped to obtain financing from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Paris.
He returned to Europe in 1877 with this in mind and, although he obtained the approval of Pope Leo XIII, he was unable to obtain financing from the society. Nevertheless, he obtained more missionaries, and was able to collect funds elsewhere.
Back to Canada
He returned to Canada in 1879, and a few years later, travelled to eastern Canada in an attempt to obtain financing from the Canadian government for the three schools (St. Albert, Lac la Biche and Île-à-la-Crosse) in his diocese.
He strongly believed that Indian and Métis children should be allowed to study together, as he felt that the former learned from the latter and eased the culture shock they were subjected to upon entering a school. The federal government did not support his view, and only intended to provide schools to Indian children, so in the end, Grandin received little support from these agencies.
A family affair
Several other missionaries from his region joined him in his missionary efforts, including Valentin Végreville and René Remas. His cousin, Émile Grouard, accompanied him to Canada in 1860, and his nephew Henri Grandin came in 1875. Both spent the remainder of their lives in the mission field.
Others include Brother François Leriche, a blacksmith by trade, and Hippolyte Leduc, also from Mayenne. As well, Grandin convinced feminine Church circles in the greater area to provide dowries for young missionaries who were leaving for the North West. They donated Church vestments, sacred vessels, prayer books, and other basic necessities.
Bishop Grandin attempted to aid the native peoples and the Métis by encouraging them to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle in face of the disappearance of the buffalo and with the arrival of settlers.
He also tried to recruit French Canadians to settle in the Canadian West; at this he was relatively successful although most of them came from Franco-American communities.
During his last years, he was involved in maintaining the right to have Catholic schools in Western Canada. Upon his death, there were 30 parishes in his diocese, 25 missions, 42 schools and orphanages and five hospitals.
He died in St. Albert June 3, 1902. His body was interred in the crypt of the St. Albert cathedral, and in 1929, canonical investigations were undertaken for his beatification.