The Oblates in Southern Alberta
By Raymond Huel, PhD
Emeritus Professor, University of Lethbridge
The first work of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate among the Aboriginal Peoples of Southern Alberta was done by Father Albert Lacombe, OMI. When Lacombe was recalled from the Blackfoot missions in 1872, his work was continued by two other Oblates, Constantine Scollen and Léon Doucet, whose names became closely associated with Southern Alberta.
In 1873, these two missionaries founded Our Lady of Peace Mission West of Calgary. This was the first permanent mission among the Blackfoot and the first Catholic mission in southern Alberta. As in the case of most Catholic missions, Our Lady of Peace occupied a strategic position on the bank of the Elbow River, and served as a point of departure for missionary ventures South among the Bloods and Peigan and West among the Blackfoot proper. For nearly a decade, Scollen visited the Bloods and Peigan as well as the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) posts at Fort McLeod and Calgary. A permanent mission was established at Brocket in 1881 (The Conversion of St. Paul), and in 1882, a small Oblate mission was built at Blackfoot Crossing and named Most Holy Trinity. The Blood Reserve continued to be visited from Fort Macleod and Brocket until the establishment of a permanent mission, St. Francis Xavier at Stand Off in 1889.
While Catholic missions in Southern Alberta were being established on a permanent basis, the Canadian West in general was changing significantly and this would have a profound impact on the Oblate missionary frontier. The creation of the Province of Manitoba in 1870 and the subsequent extension of federal authority over the remainder of the North West coincided with the decline of the traditional economic activities. Traders and hunters gave way to the farmers, ranchers, lumbermen, miners, while villages, towns and urban centres appeared on the Western landscape. Numerous Catholics were among these newcomers and their spiritual needs had to be addressed within existing Catholic structures that consisted of a missionary church directed by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
Thus, the Aboriginal missions were called upon to provide the personnel to minister to the spiritual needs of White newcomers in Western Canada. In the case of Southern Alberta, certain centres were advantaged because they possessed a significant White population in addition to being in proximity to a Catholic mission on an Aboriginal reserve.
Fort Macleod, for example, was the headquarters of the NWMP and this attracted service industries and settlers. Fort Macleod had been visited for the first time in 1875 by Father Scollen who noted the growing importance of the settlement. In these initial visits to White settlements, a Catholic would offer to feed and lodge the missionaries and provide his home as a place to celebrate Mass. Later, when it was decided that a dedicated structure was necessary, a small building was erected to house the missionary and serve as a church. The building of such a modest structure in 1880 allowed Father Scollen to spend the winter in Fort Macleod. As a Catholic centre, Fort Macleod grew in importance because, until permanent missions were established among the Peigan and Bloods, missionaries to these reserves were stationed in Fort Macleod. The presence of additional missionaries made possible visits to minister to the needs of Catholics in outlying areas such as Lethbridge and Pincher Creek.
In the meantime, Fort Macleod became the centre for the expansion of Catholicism in Southern Alberta as clergy stationed there spread out and visited outlying areas to minister to Catholics. One of these was Pincher Creek, first visited in 1869 by Father Lacombe on his way to Fort Benton, Montana, to ensure an alternate supply route for the Western missions in the event that transportation was disrupted by the Red River Insurrection. A number of French Canadians, working in the Oregon Territory, had settled in the Pincher Creek region and a small chapel was built in the town in 1885. Oblates from Macleod continued to serve Pincher Creek. In the early 1890s. Pincher Creek acquired an illustrious resident as Albert Lacombe decided to retire there and spend the remainder of his days as a hermit in a rustic dwelling he named St. Michael’s Hermitage. However, his superiors had other plans for him, including ministering to the construction gangs that were building the Crowsnest Railway line. As a result of that railroad, Pincher Creek became an important centre and that was reflected by the appointment of an Oblate as resident priest in 1887. Construction of a church began in 1901 and St. Michael’s Parish was canonically erected in 1911. Sisters of the Congregation of the Daughters of Jesus opened a private school and boarding school in 1904. Five years later, in 1909, St. Michael’s Separate School District was established. In 1924, the Daughters of Jesus opened St. Vincent de Paul Hospital. As an important Catholic centre, Pincher Creek became a missionary centre in its own right and its clergy ministered to outlying areas such as the Pass, Beaver Mines and Waterton.
In the Pass, Coleman, which initially had been a mission of Pincher Creek, in turn, became the strategic centre of Catholicism in the region as a result of being the most important mining town. Coleman had its own missions Blairmore, Bellevue, Hillcrest, Frank and Lille.
Lethbridge was another centre that was advantaged because of local natural resources such as coal. The mines required labour and there were numerous Catholics among the miners. Even before the opening of the mines, Father Scollen had visited Fort Whoop Up, the settlement preceding Lethbridge, a number of times between 1873 and 1877. In 1884, another Oblate, Leonard Van Tighem from Fort Macleod, visited Coalbank (renamed Lethbridge in 1885) and, given the number of Catholic miners, he decided to make monthly visits. Three years later, the first St. Patrick’s Church was built on land donated by the North West Coal and Navigation Company. In 1888, Van Tighem moved to Lethbridge as permanent pastor. He engaged in a building program that expanded the church, and included building a school and convent for the Faithful Companions of Jesus. In addition to his work in Lethbridge proper, Van Tighem was responsible for a number of missions such as Taber, Coutts and Milk River. As Lethbridge grew, so did Catholic institutions. St. Patrick’s Church assumed its current proportions in 1952. The convent of the Faithful Companions of Jesus was expanded and relocated, and Catholic elementary schools and a high school were opened. Hospital services were provided by the Sisters of St. Martha. New parishes were erected to keep pace with the growth of the city.With respect to growth, probably no area in Southern Alberta was more advantaged than Calgary as a result of the NWMP presence and the construction of the CPR. When Constantine Scollen established Our Lady of Peace Mission on the Elbow River, Catholicism had gained a foothold in Southern Alberta. Upon learning that the NWMP were going to establish a post at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, Scollen had a small structure built there in 1875 to serve as a mission. Population growth necessitated that it be relocated and expanded. At the same time, Calgary was named an Oblate missionary district and headquarters for the Blackfoot missions. The arrival of the CPR and the need to minister to the construction gangs gave additional importance to Calgary as a Catholic centre.
This project has been supported in part by the Canada-Alberta Agreement on French-language Services; the opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the Governments of Canada or Alberta.
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