Notre-Dame-des-Victoires at Lac la Biche
Lac La Biche was part of the water system that, via the Portage-La-Biche, linked the Churchill River system to the Athabasca, and served as one of the entry points into Athabasca Country. After the union of 1821, it was hoped that it would be a key transportation nexus for the Hudson’s Bay Company on their route to the Pacific. Due to the difficulty of the portage, however, this route was abandoned in 1824 in favour of the North Saskatchewan River with a portage at Fort Edmonton to Fort Assiniboine on the Athabasca River. David Thompson over-wintered there in 1798, and some voyageurs took up residence there after this time.
By 1840, there was a settlement of approximately 200 at the Lake made up of the Métis children of the voyageurs, and Cree and French were the languages spoken. In 1844, the aged voyageur Joseph Cardinal personally went to fetch the Diocesan missionary Jean-Baptiste Thibault, who was visiting the Chipewyan community of Cold Lake, and guided him to his home at Lac-La-Biche. Thibault made several mission visits to the lake until 1850.
This new location was a better fit for Mgr Taché’s grand scheme for Notre-Dame des Victoires. This Mission would serve as a depot and provisioning centre for the Oblate missions of the North. The plan was to use the Athabasca River as a supply route since the HBC was refusing to carry Oblates goods via the Portage-la-Loche.
After moving the Mission, Tissot and Maisonneuve began to develop it. They erected a modest log cabin as their residence in 1856. They also began farming to increase self-sufficiency and to encourage agriculture among the Métis living in the area. By 1861, Notre-Dame des Victoires had a thriving farm with crops of wheat, potatoes and barley, as well as livestock. In 1856, Oblates also immediately started a school for the local children; however, attendance was poor, as the parents did not see the value of the education. More buildings were erected at the Mission with the aid of the carpenter Brother Patrick Bowes. He built a rectory for the priests in 1858 and, in 1862, a convent for the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, who were invited by Oblates to start a new school.
The Sisters ran an impressive school at Lac La Biche though it grew slowly. They taught Aboriginal and Métis children the rudiments of the Catholic faith, as well as reading and writing in French. In addition, domestic arts such as sewing cloth and leather were taught. The children helped with chores, with the harvest, gardening and other farm activities. The Sisters also took in orphans, who had lost one or other parent, at their convent. The Grey Nuns moved to the Saddle Lake Indian Reservation when the proposed residential school was moved there in 1898. At Lac La Biche efforts were made to keep a school going, with the resident priest teaching school, but it was to be 1905 before a solution was found.
Meanwhile, the Mission at Lac La Biche began to develop as an entrepôt for the North. Fathers Tissot and Maisonneuve had cut a cart road from the Mission to Fort Pitt, to lessen their dependence on the Hudson’s Bay Company for transport. A warehouse was also built at Notre-Dame des Victoires. When Mgr Henri Faraud was named Bishop of Athabasca-Mackenzie in 1862, he began to pursue the continuing development of Lac La Biche as a provisioning centre. The first York Boat traveled from the Mission into Athabasca in 1867. Because Notre-Dame des Victoires was so important in supplying the missions of the Vicariate of Athabaska-Mackenzie, its administration was transferred from the Diocese of St. Albert to this Vicariate in 1871. The next year, Bishop Faraud moved the seat of his power to the Lac La Biche Mission, and arranged for the construction of a larger warehouse and boats.
Fathers Tissot and Maissoneuve had left the Mission, the first in 1863 and the latter in 1868. They were succeeded by Father Végréville. During this period, the Mission at Notre-Dame des Victoires grew with new buildings and services. Sister Ursule Charlebois arrived on an inspection visit in 1871 and opened the Hospice of St. Joseph to provide a boarding school for residents of Lac La Biche and area. In 1877, the Sisters acquired their own land to re-establish the Mission school, which had been floundering. A new residence was built for Bishop Faraud and Father Vegréville. In 1879, Brother Bowes erected a new frame church.
In the next decade, the Mission began to decline due to the new reservation and residential school system as well as navigation on the Athabasca River and improved rail connections to Edmonton. Notre-Dame des Victoires became obsolete as a provisioning centre and transportation nexus. The last barge sailed from Notre-Dame des Victoires in 1888. In 1889, Bishop Faraud retired to St. Boniface. The Métis continued to live at Lac La Biche but the men took work on the river brigades on the Athabasca during the summer. They would stop at the Mission to receive a blessing before they went; this is noted in the codex historicus.
Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.
Lac La Biche Mission, 1853-1963: A Cultural Rendezvous. Calgary: Great Plains Research Consultants, 1987.
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.
Maccagno, Mike. Rendezvous, Notre Dame des Victoires. Lac La Biche, Alberta: Lac La Biche Historical Preservation Society, 1988.
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