Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 5, 2005
Man with good soul makes peace
Missionary Fr. Albert Lacombe mediated with and ministered to his far-flung flock
By JULIETTE CHAMPAGNE
Special to the WCR
Probably the most influential man in early development of the Canadian West was the Catholic missionary, Father Albert Lacombe. During his lengthy career, this charismatic individual had a finger in every pie.
The Cree called him Kamiyo-Atchakway (Man with the Good Soul) and the Blackfoot Arsous-Kitsi-Parpi (Man with Good Heart). He helped establish peace treaties between warring tribes on the Prairies, helped to negotiate the right of passage for the CPR through southern Alberta, was an essential member of most of numbered treaty commissions between the Government of Canada and the First Nations west of the Great Lakes, and helped develop the industrial school concept for Indian children.
Time of transition
He was also chaplain for the railway crews on the CPR line, worked to help landless Métis adjust to a more sedentary lifestyle, recruited French-Canadian settlers for the Canadian West, clergy for Ukrainian immigrants, and contributed largely to the establishment of Catholic schools in Western Canada, as well as several parishes.
He established a home for orphans and the homeless at Midnapore, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and counted crowned heads of Europe as patrons for his many charities. He has been the subject of several biographies.
Albert Lacombe was born Feb. 28, 1827, in a peasant family from St-Sulpice, Qué., on a small farm north of Montreal, which was said to have had some distant aboriginal ancestry. Although genealogists have recently shown this link to be doubtful, Lacombe often spoke of an ancestor who had been captured by the Iroquois, and this may have brought him closer to the indigenous peoples of the Canadian North West, where mixed-blood ancestry was commonplace.
A spiritual boy, he opted for the priesthood, and was still a student in 1848 when he heard Georges Belcourt speaking in Montreal about the need for missionaries to minister to the Métis from Red River. He was to spend two years at Pembina with Belcourt before returning to Québec in 1851, where he stayed another two years, and again returned to St. Boniface where he worked for Bishop Alexandre Taché. He was at that point a diocesan priest, but soon asked to be admitted into the Oblate order, where he took his permanent vows in 1856.
At the time of his arrival, there were few permanent mission stations in the North West, and little progress had been made in the evangelization of its native peoples. Taché sent Lacombe to Fort Edmonton in 1852. He spent most of the following winter with the Cree and Métis of Lac la Biche, returning to Fort Edmonton and then going to Lac Ste. Anne.
Travelling with the hunters
He began accompanying Métis, Cree and Blackfoot hunters out on the prairie on their expeditions, just as missionaries around the Red River had been doing for many years, often wintering with them, and in this way learning their languages. He founded St. Albert in 1859, where he established the first flour mill west of the Red River, and where he built a bridge across the Sturgeon River.
In 1865, he established a mission at the crossing of the North Saskatchewan River at present-day Brosseau and Duvernay, which he called St. Paul-des-Cris, where he taught the local Métis and aboriginal population to plant crops, such as oats and potatoes, which they would return to harvest in the fall.
During this time, he also visited Lesser Slave Lake and Peace River, but upon returning to his little mission in the fall of 1870, he found it in the throes of a smallpox epidemic. Alone, he nursed the sick, assisted the dying and buried the dead; he even took the time to visit the nearby Victoria Settlement, where smallpox had also taken a terrible toll on staff and residents alike. St. Paul-des-Cris Mission was subsequently abandoned.
In 1871, he was appointed to the Board of Health for the Plains region of the Northwest Territories. He was extremely fluent in Cree, which he liked to call the Italian of the Indian languages, for its musicality and beauty. His French-Cree dictionary was published in 1876.
Appointed vicar of St. Albert in 1872, the next year he travelled to Europe as Taché's representative to the Oblate congress, a trip which he was to repeat several times during his career. Upon his return, he served as parish priest at Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and began recruiting settlers for Manitoba from Eastern Canada and the New England region of the United States.
From Europe to Calgary
In 1879, he again represented Taché in Europe and was also appointed vicar of St. Boniface. In 1880, he became pastor to the railway workers on the CPR line, which was then under construction west of Kenora. Sent back to St. Albert in 1882, he was given the Calgary region to attend to, which included most of today's southern Alberta.
In 1883, he became Calgary's first parish priest, and that same year, because of his longstanding relations with the Blackfoot, he was able to convince Chief Crowfoot to allow the CPR to cross his lands. Because of this, the railroad company ardently supported his causes for the rest of his days, and gave him a permanent free pass on the railway, something which was most appreciated by his Oblate superiors, as money was a constant concern for them.
In 1884, he established Dunbow Industrial School at High River, a residential school for Indian children, and in 1893, a second one on the Blood Reserve, plus a hospital staffed by the Grey Nuns.
St. Anthony's chapel
He returned to Edmonton in 1894, where he was parish priest for St. Joachim. The following year he established a chapel south of the river, near the first railway, before the town of Strathcona even had a name, which he named in honour of St. Anthony of Padua as, according to legend, such a church would never run out of money.
During this time, he was also closely involved in the Catholic school question for the Northwest Territories, as well as the colony of St. Paul-des-Métis. Although he was advancing in years, he agreed to accompany the Treaty Eight Commission in 1899 to the northwestern reaches of what is present-day Alberta. In 1900 and 1904, he travelled to Austria, where he met the Emperor Franz Joseph, and to Galicia, in an attempt to gain religious personnel for Ukrainian immigrants to Canada.
He again returned to Calgary in 1902 and 1903; in 1904, he was established at Pincher Creek, and at Medicine Hat in 1905. He established Midnapore Home in 1906, and lived there until his death on Dec. 12, 1916.