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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
Long before St. Vincent would be called home by a small community of Franco-Albertans, the Canadian Aspenland region was the domain of the Cree and the Métis. Expansion in the lucrative fur trade in Canada and rumours of the area’s productive farmland, however, began to lure increasing numbers of Europeans to the West. The first to visit this area was William Pink, a Hudson's Bay Company man who explored the Beaver River to its source in 1766-67. Quantities of beaver and buffalo attracted many more fur traders after Pink. The area, which lies approximately 210 kilometres to the northeast of Edmonton, was surveyed in 1884 by A.F. Cotton. Originally called Dog Rump (or worse) in Cree, he renamed the lake “Vincent” after his son. The missionaries promptly renamed it St. Vincent Lake.
Not far behind the fur traders were the missionaries. By the 1850s, Oblate priests had begun their missionary efforts and were travelling through the area on their way to Lac la Biche Mission. Some fifty years later Father Albert Lacombe helped establish the nearby colony of St-Paul-des-Métis. By 1905, the St. Paul colony was deemed a failure, and the territory was opened to settlers by an act of Parliament in 1909. French-Canadians managed to settle in a block on the homesteads there. Recruited by the Oblates, French-speaking immigrants began to arrive in St. Vincent around 1906, looking to cultivate the great open spaces of Canada’s western frontier. Six years later on March 13, 1912 the community’s life as a Roman Catholic parish officially began, and the colony was titled Saint-Vincent-de-Denisville.
Like most Franco-Albertan settlements of the late 19th and early 20th century, St. Vincent nurtured close ties with the Roman Catholic Church. The colony obtained their first parish priest in 1907 when Father Eugene Bonny was appointed by Bishop Grandin. This same year parishioners decided to build a church using 10 acres of land obtained by Father Simonin in 1906.
In 1909 a hailstorm devastated the harvest at St-Paul-des-Métis. Many homesteaders relocated their livestock to pasture land around St. Vincent, which had earlier been used by to keep the colony's herd. This same year, the St-Paul-des-Métis colony was opened to outside settlement, and many more homesteaders were drawn to the area, praised greatly by the Oblates for its fertile farmland.
The year 1918 proved to be difficult for the residents of St. Vincent. The entire region was icted by a deadly outbreak of the Spanish Flu, and the railroad that was hoped would run through St. Vincent bypassed the town. In addition, under the direction of Father Ouellette, the parish had begun the construction of a new church. Unfortunately, fire destroyed the building just prior to its completion, however the parish was compensated by the insurance company on the grounds that the fire was accidental. In 1925, the parish began construction of a third church, but it was not sufficient to meet the needs of the community. Shortly after, in 1929, the Sisters of Assumption arrived to offer religious and French-language instruction. During this period, a number of small businessmen and services opened in St. Vincent. A new two-classroom school was also erected to accommodate the growing number of students. Despite these signs of growth, however, St. Vincent did not reach village status, and the loss of the railway had driven out many of the merchants who had opened shop in the hamlet.
The Great Depression in the 1930s tested the resolve of the entire province. Many farmers, already on the brink of poverty, struggled for survival as crops failed and prices plummeted. Still, community bonds that were forged by religious and cultural affiliations held St. Vincent together. The arrival of Father Charles Chalifoux as parish priest in 1933 also revitalized the community. Tapping into the creative energy of his flock, he and his parishioners finished constructing and decorating the new church, which was built to replace the small building erected in 1925.
As the missionary oblates promotion of the French fact in Western Canada began to lose ground, organizations such as the Association canadienne-française de l'Alberta (ACFA) were created to continue supporting Franco-Albertans. While many other small Francophone towns and villages have been completely overwhelmed by the English-speaking newcomers, St. Vincent has held on to its French roots. In 1956, the hamlet celebrated its 50th anniversary and today serves as a reminder that the first pioneers to break ground in Alberta were French.
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