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Alberta's Francophone Heritage
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The Missionary Oblates of Mary - Page 2
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The Missionary
Oblates of Mary

The Grey Nuns

The Sisters of
Assumption

Mission Communities

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During the first years of the missionary activity in the Northwest, Anglican, Methodist and Catholic denominations were allowed free passage on the HBC boats. As their numbers increased, particularly the Catholics, so did their luggage and provisions, and the Factors of the Company, as the regional directors were known, began to complain of rising costs to their superiors. The only passage used to enter the Athabasca-Mackenzie basin at the time was through the Portage-la-Loche, the height of land between the Arctic and the Hudson Bay drainages and a 20 km portage where the brigades usually met half way to exchange goods. After Bishop Provencher’s death in 1853, his successor, Alexandre Taché, knowing first hand the difficulties of life without adequate supplies in the far reaches of the hinterland, decided to try to supply the Northern missions via the Athabasca River. This was unheard of at the time. The HBC had lost several large canoes and men in the river’s dangerous rapids and the waterway was considered impassable. Bishop Taché’s intended to set up a supply and warehouse depot at the closest mission to the river, at Lac La Biche, and develop a farm to supplement the diet of the far-off missions as much as possible. It was a two year affair, but goods were carried overland by the Métis freighters to the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Mission, and the following year, after the spring break-up, were carried downstream via canoes or boats to the respective missions. 

In 1856, Taché descended the river with a crew of canoeists, arriving at his Northern missions of Nativity and Providence in a matter of days, as compared with the weeks necessitated for the Portage-la-Loche. He was delighted with his trip and set his plan in motion. Within a few years, a large farm was established at Lac La Biche, complete with livestock, cereal, and garden crops. A mill was built to saw lumber and grind wheat into flour. It was 11 years before the system was off and operating regularly, but the Oblates and their Métis employees mastered the Athabasca River transportation system so well that in 1881, the HBC approaches them for help in setting up a steam boat, thus avoiding the difficult and expensive La Loche route.4

In the meantime, the Vicariate of the Athabasca-Mackenzie was created and Father Henri Faraud had become its coadjutor bishop. There were four permanent mission sites in the North, which had at least one resident: Nativity on Lake Athabasca, St. Joseph on Great Slave Lake, Providence on the Mackenzie River, and Our Lady of Good Hope at Fort Good Hope, with a total of 12 priests and 8 lay-brothers.5 The Grey Nuns were established at two of these missions (Lac La Biche and Providence) and a missionary priest resided at Lac La Biche while another was at Dunvegan on the Peace River.

During those years, the missions on the Plains underwent great transformations. The warring tribes had agreed to a peace treaty. The Vicariates are enormous territory and each bishop concentrated on the region which has been given to him; with time they too become divided, and the area becomes more and more settled. Father Vital Grandin, who was first named coadjutor bishop of St. Boniface in 1859, eventually became the bishop of the diocese of St. Albert. At first, he had established his bishopric at Île-à-la-Crosse, but in 1869, he chose to come to St. Albert. At that point, he had seven missions in the vicariate of St. Albert: Lac St. Anne, St. Joachim in Edmonton, St. Albert, Saint-Paul-des-Cris on the North Saskatchewan River, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires at Lac La Biche, Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Île-à-la-Crosse and St. Pierre at Caribou Lake, in present day Saskatchewan.6

The Oblate missionaries continued their expansion almost until the 1960s, when the effect of the welfare state began to be felt in the more far flung regions of the Canadian hinterland. They built and administered many residential schools for Aboriginal children, where sisters from teaching orders taught. Hospitals were also built, mainly by the feminine congregations such as the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, the Sisters of Providence of Montreal, and the Sisters of the Assumption of Nicolet, among others.

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