Movement West - The Missions
In 1845, Mgr Norbert Provencher, the bishop of the territory extending from the Hudson Bay west to the Rocky Mountains and North to the Arctic, made an appeal to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate for missionaries. Since Provencher’s arrival at St. Boniface in the Red River Colony, there had been few missionaries in Canada’s northwest. Those who did come quickly left and few of them could speak the Aboriginal languages.
Because of the need for Catholic priests to continued evangelize efforts to continue evangelization among the Aboriginal People of the North-West, Mgr Provencher began to look for a missionary order, reaching out first to the Jesuits. When this failed, he informed the Archbishop of Quebec about the situation in the West, and requested that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate be sent west. Bishop Bourget of Montreal supported Bishop Provencher’s request and wrote a letter to Eugène de Mazenod on his behalf. De Mazenod agreed to Provencher’s request and he ordered the Superior of the Oblates in Canada, Joseph-Eugène Guigues, to send Oblates to the Red River Colony.
The first Oblates in the West, Father Pierre Aubert and his companion, Novice Alexandre-Antonin Taché, arrived at the Red River Settlement by canoe on August 25, 1845. They were sent to St. Boniface Cathedral, the Bishopric’s seat, where they began studying the Saulteau (Ojibwa) language. In 1851, St. Boniface would become the seat of the first Oblate vicariate of missions in the West; thus, the Oblates of the West became independent from the Oblates of Eastern Canada. Father Aubert was sent to minister among the Saulteaux of Wabbasimong and Lac-à-la-Pluie, and had limited success, while Taché travelled among the Chipewyan (Dené) and the Cree at l’Île-à-la-Crosse, Green Lake, Portage la Loche, Caribou Lake, and Fort Chipewyan, with considerably more success. Father Taché’s success, and his appointment to succeed Mgr Provencher as Bishop in 1850, secured the Oblates’ future in the West and stopped de Mazenod from cancelling the missions, which were in jeopardy due to the harsh conditions faced by the Oblates including isolation, long distance travel over harsh lands, and the difficulties of evangelizing the nomadic and spread-out populations of Aboriginal Peoples.
Despite the small numbers and limited resources of the Oblates, the Congregation spread quickly through Western Canada. The Oblates of the Diocese of St. Boniface gradually extended their reach westwards to the future provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and to the Great North, but not to British Columbia. Rather, it was the Oblates stationed in Oregon who went north to minister the coastal tribes of British Columbia.
At the time of the arrival of the Oblates, the Diocese of St. Boniface, formed in 1847, included the Athabasca-Mackenzie areas in the North, and most of the future provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the 1860s, the Diocese of St. Boniface was subdivided into vicariates and dioceses; a vicariate apostolic is a provisional Catholic territory erected in missionary areas where there are insufficient numbers of Catholics to warrant a diocese. The Vicariate Apostolic of Athabaska-Mackenzie was formed in 1862, and included the river systems of the Athabasca, Peace and Mackenzie, from the Rockies to the Arctic Ocean. In 1868, the Vicariate of St. Albert was formed from Southern and Central Alberta, part of Saskatchewan and the Northern part of Manitoba. Three years later in 1871, St. Boniface was elevated to an archdiocese, and St. Albert became a diocese. The Vicariate Apostolic of Saskatchewan was separated from the Diocese of St. Albert in 1890; it did not become a diocese until 1911.
Grant, John Webster. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.
Levasseur, Donat, (O.M.I.) Histoire des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée: Essai de synthèse. Vol. I: 1815-1898. Montréal: Maison Provinciale, 1983.
Levasseur, Donat, OMI. “La Venue des Oblats de Marie Immaculée en Amérique.” In Raymond Huel (Ed.). Western Oblate Studies 2/Etudes Oblates De L'Ouest 2: Proceedings of the Second Symposium on the History of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada. Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
Levasseur, Donat, OMI. Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée dans l’Ouest et le Nord du Canada, 1845-1967. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.
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