The Congregation in Alberta
The early work of Oblates within the current political boundaries of Alberta took place within two Vicariates Apostolic. The first was the Vicariate Apostolic of St. Albert, which became a diocese in 1871, consisted of the central and southern parts of the province, including Calgary and the southern prairies; Edmonton and area; and some of the Lakeland region north of Edmonton. The Vicariate also included parts of Saskatchewan, notably the mother mission at L’Île-à-la-Crosse in northern Saskatchewan. The other Vicariate was Athabaska-Mackenzie, which governed the more Northern parts of the province of the Athabasca District, and also the Mackenzie District in the Northwest Territories.
Prior to the founding of these vicariates apostolic, the territories of the northwest, including Alberta, were included in the Diocese of St. Boniface. However, as Oblates began to enter isolated northern lands of the Athabasca and Mackenzie Districts, it was decided that a new religious province was needed.The Vicariate Apostolic of Athabaska-Mackenzie was established in 1862, under the leadership of Mgr Henri Faraud. Meanwhile, Mgr Vital Grandin was ordained as the coadjutor for Mgr Taché, the Bishop of St. Boniface. Mgr Grandin was given the task of administrating the missions north and west of Boniface. From the time of his appointment in 1859, Mgr Grandin resided at L’Île-à-la-Crosse. When the Vicariate Apostolic of St. Albert was formed in 1868, Mgr Grandin became the Vicar Apostolic of the territory. The next year, Mgr Grandin moved his residence to the mission at St. Albert, near Edmonton. In 1871, the Vicariate Apostolic was raised to a Diocese.
The first ventures of Oblates in the territory that is now Alberta were in the Athabasca District. The first important Oblate mission in the area was at Fort Chipewyan. Father Alexandre-Antonin Taché visited the area in 1847 and set up a residence, Nativity, two kilometres west of the trading post in 1850. From Nativity, Oblate missionaries traveled south and west along the Peace River to found missions in the region. The fur trading post at Fort Dunvegan, located along the Peace River, was an important post for the Beaver tribe. The Fort had been visited by non-Oblate Catholic missionaries prior to the arrival of Father Albert Lacombe in 1855. There was no permanent mission at the post until St. Charles mission was established in 1866 by Mgr Faraud and Father Tissier. Radiating from Fort Dunvegan were missions at Fort Vermillion, Fort St. Jean, Spirit River, and Portage-des-Montagnes-Rocheuses. The third major Oblate region in the Alberta portion of the Athabasca-Mackenzie Vicariate Apostolic was Lesser Slave Lake, between the Peace and Athabasca Rivers. The Métis Mission of St. Bernard (now Grouard) was founded there, becoming an Oblate residence in 1872. Nearby, there were also missions at Wabaska and Sturgeon Lake.
East of Lesser Slave Lake, Lac la Biche was to become an important site for Oblates. The first missionary to visit the place was J-B. Thibault, a diocesan priest from St-Boniface who attended the residence from 1844 to 1850. He was followed by Albert Lacombe in 1852, who although a priest, was not yet a member of Oblates. It was he who chose the name “Notre-Dame-des-Victoires” and suggested a new site.The young Oblate father, René Rémas was sent there in 1853, with the order to build a residence; he did not succeed. He was replaced by the Fathers Jean Tissot and Augustin Maisonneuve in 1855, who built at the new site which had been recommended by an elderly voyageur named Cardinal who lived nearby.The site was officially consecrated when Bishop Taché visited late that spring. The Mission was envisioned as a point of supply and shipment for the missions of the Far North, the Peace and the Athabasca. A warehouse and a farm were developed there after Bishop Taché descended the Athabasca River from Lac la Biche by canoe to Nativité Mission, when he ridiculed the perception of the river as being dangerous. The importance of Lac La Biche in supplying the missions of the Athabasca District resulted in the administrative transfer of the Mission to the Vicariate Apostolic of Athabaska-Mackenzie in 1869.
South of Lac la Biche and west of Fort Edmonton, Lac Ste. Anne was one of the oldest missionary sites in what was to become Alberta. Diocesan priest J.-B. Thibault first established a mission there in 1842; he, and other missionaries travelled to the Athabasca River, the Peace River, and the forts of the North Saskatchewan River. They were replaced by Father Lacombe in 1852. Father Rémas was the first Oblate to reside at Lac Ste. Anne, in 1853 when Oblates took charge of the mission. The mission at Lac Ste. Anne was the first in Alberta to receive the aid of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns).
Father Albert Lacombe, who was still a novice to the Oblate Congregation, was stationed at Lac Ste. Anne. He traveled to Fort Edmonton in 1852 where he began to learn Cree and contemplated a permanent mission at the Fort among the Métis population. The next year, Chief factor of the fort, John Rowand, donated a building for an Oblate residence. In 1854, Mgr Taché visited the Mission and christened it St-Joachim. The choice of the name St-Joachim was a counterpoint to Ste-Anne mission, as according to the tradition, Joachim and Anne were the parents of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Oblates were aware of the respect the Indigenous peoples had for their elders, and naming these missions after the grand-parents of Christ was a way of capitalizing on this cultural trait. This sort of synchronism as often been used by missionaries of the Catholic Church
From the Mission of St. Joachim, Lacombe traveled north to found the mission at St. Albert in 1861, a more advantageous location than the swampy Lac Ste-Anne. St. Albert, then, replaced Lac Ste. Anne as the dominant mission of the region. Father Lacombe built the first church there in 1861, which became a Cathedral in 1871 when it became the seat of the Diocese of St. Albert. Lacombe established an agricultural settlement for the Métis at St. Albert, and the Grey Nuns also opened a school and an orphanage in 1863.
Father Albert Lacombe was one of the most influential Oblates of Alberta. Aside from his work in Edmonton and St. Albert, he went on to establish St. Paul-des-Cris in 1865, where Brosseau is on the river today. This Métis/Cree settlement on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River was the first attempt at forming an agricultural colony among the Aboriginal Peoples. The Cree continued to hunt in the summer, returning to harvest crops. The settlement died out shortly after, after the termination of Cree and Blackfoot hostilities and the smallpox epidemic of 1870.
Father Lacombe also did important missionary work in Southern Alberta. He first visited the Blackfoot of the Southern prairies in 1863. The first permanent mission in Southern Alberta was not established until 1873, when Fathers Constantine Scollen and Léon Doucet founded Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix west of present-day Calgary.
In 1912, the Diocese of St. Albert became the Archdiocese of Edmonton, and the new Diocese of Calgary was split off from the old diocese. Then, in 1948, the Diocese of St. Paul in north-eastern Alberta was established, from the northern part of the Archdiocese of Edmonton. In the meantime, the Vicariate Apostolic of Athabaska split off from the Vicariate Apostolic of Mackenzie in 1901. The name of the Vicariate Apostolic was changed to Grouard in 1927 and, in 1967, the Vicariate Apostolic was raised to an Archdiocese and named Grouard-McLennan.
Champagne, Claude. Les débuts de la mission dans le Nord-Ouest canadien: Mission et église chez Mgr Vital Grandin, o.m.i. (1829-1902). Ottawa: Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1983.
Champagne, Joseph-Étienne, OMI. Les Missions Catholiques dans l’Ouest Canadien (1818-1875). Scolasticat Saint-Joseph, Ottawa: Éditions des Études Oblates, 1949.
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 Missionaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée: Essai de synthèse. Vol. I: 1815-1898. Montréal: Maison Provinciale, 1983.
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.
Levasseur-Ouimet, France. Saint-Joachim, la première paroisse catholique d’Edmonton, 1899-1999. Edmonton: F. Levasseur-Ouimet, 1999.
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