Site Profile: Father Lacombe Chapel, St. Albert
A number of Catholic clergy had visited western Canada prior to 1759 with traders such as the La Verendrye's. Little is known of their activities and after the fall of New France in 1759-60, missionary activity was stopped until the early 19th century. Critics of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in Britain regularly raised the point that it had done nothing to promote Christianity in its territories - limiting itself only to the occasional sermon and service led by post officers for their men (and that at the discretion of the individual officer).
The founding of the Red River Settlement in 1811-12 changed that and made the Company modestly aware that it might support some sort of missionary activity - and some members of the governing committee as evangelical Christians pushed the issue. In 1818 two Catholic missionaries visited Red River and 1820 the HBC sent an Anglican minister, John West, to act as company chaplain and to explore the prospects for missionary work in the company's territories. West stayed in Red River until 1822 before returning to Britain. These first tentative steps in missionary activity established some of the main issues for the next decades. First of all it was not exactly clear who these missionary priests were being sent for - company employees and their families or as evangelists to First Nations. Secondly, where were they needed? Most initially concentrated their efforts on the Red River Settlement. And what was their relationship to the HBC? George Simpson clearly decided not to favour one faith (aside from Christianity) over others and Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian missionaries were all allowed to try their hands in the field. Also the fur trade was not absolutely opposed to missionary activity, but some individuals and ideas suited fur trade companies better than others. Basically Simpson and his officers tended to be concerned when missionaries encouraged ideas and behaviours that had a negative impact on the trade: not paddling canoes on Sundays or giving up trapping to farm for example.
Not long after the first missionaries reached Red River they began to head west to explore the wider fur trade territories and it soon became clear that this was a vast field of activity - hundreds of posts, a scattered population, dozens of First Nations, hundreds of distinctive bands. Anglican, Methodist and other Protestant clergy were often married and had families which placed some limits on where they could successfully establish missions. The unmarried Catholic clergy had fewer constraints, as well as strong organizational backing for missionary activity. As a result Catholic missions spread rapidly north and west. Father Thibeault is credited with being the first Catholic missionary to actively work in what would become Alberta when he visited Edmonton and other sites in 1842. He later established a mission at Lac Ste. Anne with Father Bourassa.
In 1849, a young priest from Quebec, Father Albert Lacombe came west to join this missionary enterprise. For the next two years he worked at a mission with the Red River Métis at Pembina, near what would become the Manitoba/North Dakota border. After a brief return to Montreal he was sent west again to replace Father Thibeault at the Lac Ste. Anne Mission. Here he learned Cree and developed a considerable following among the Métis who were settling in the area and with the Cree as well. His success at Lac Ste. Anne and his interest in the Métis led him to propose the creation of a new mission that would be the centrepiece of a Métis settlement between Fort Edmonton and Lac Ste. Anne. In 1861 he established this settlement at St. Albert on the Sturgeon River. This location was ideal for his purposes as it offered a chance to develop an agricultural settlement based on river lots, while still allowing residents to retain an interest in the buffalo hunting, freighting and plains trading that had been mainstays of Métis life for decades.
Lacombe quickly completed a small chapel and residence on a hill above the river, and began clearing land for crops. Several Métis families followed him to the community - most from Lac Ste. Anne - and by the following year it was reported that about 20 cabins were clustered on long river lots stretching back about two miles from the river. That same year 1862 a bridge was built and a grist mill to grind flour and a new convent to house the Grey Nuns who had come to join Father Lacombe. Over the next few years as the settlement grew a hospital, a school and an orphanage were all added to Lacombe's mission site.
Lacombe didn't stay long at his new site. Even as he was establishing it he was interested in pursuing a more evangelical mission among the Blackfoot and other First Nations of the southern plains. By 1865 he was off pursuing this goal, but the community he founded carried on and flourished. It may not always be easy to detect the original Métis river lot community that underlies the modern city of St. Albert but it is there in a handful of buildings such as the Cunningham House, and the buildings on mission hill. For example, Father Lacombe Chapel, a Provincial Historic Site that although it has been moved - perhaps more than once - still sits on mission hill above modern St. Albert as it has since 1861.