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Missionaries


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Reverend Jean Baptiste Thibault

The story of French settlement in Alberta is also the story of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada. Since the arrival of the first Oblate missionaries in Canada in 1841, the ambitious goal of the Catholic clergy was to recreate the Roman Catholic Church in the new world. In their relentless mission to bring Christianity to the traders, Métis and Aboriginal People, French Catholic missionaries ensured that French culture endured in the West long after English came to dominate.

Father Albert Lacombe with Blackfoot Men

It was in 1842 that the first permanent missionary, Father Jean Baptiste Thibault, arrived in the region. He established a permanent mission at Fort Edmonton and formed the first Roman Catholic Mission at Lac St. Anne the following year. It was a charismatic young priest named Father Albert Lacombe, however, who would firmly entrench the French missionary presence in Alberta. Thibault's replacement at Lac St. Anne, Lacombe arrived in the Edmonton area in 1852. Recognizing the unique spiritual and cultural needs of the Métis people he established the St. Albert mission in 1861. From this locale, he hoped the Métis would be able to find a balance between their nomadic lifestyle and the demands of agricultural settlement. Until his death in 1916 Lacombe was recognized as a leading figure in the French-Canadian community, in particular for his creative missionary work with the Métis, and the nomadic Cree and Blackfoot nations.

Mission, St. Albert, Alberta,1877

While some missionaries saw great value in living and travelling with the nomadic Aboriginal People of the region, most steered Aboriginal People towards a settled agricultural life believing it was necessary to instill Christian values and traditions. The result was the creation of numerous agricultural settlements and parishes throughout the region. Father Lacombe was behind the establishment of one such model farm community, Saint-Paul-des-Cris. He was forced to close the mission in 1874, however, when the Aboriginal population he had hoped would settle the area did not display or develop an interest for agriculture and he was unable to secure the funds to maintain the site. It must be noted that the smallpox epidemics of 1870 decimated the participating local population. A later attempt to establish another mission for the Métis-St-Paul-des-Métis established in 1896-would also fail by 1905, and was opened to settlers in 1909.

French missionary activity in the province slowed to a trickle after WWI. Some historians argue this was due to the loss of power by the French clergy in the Roman Catholic Church and a return migration by Franco-Albertans to Québec or France after the war. The increasing power of the English-speaking arm of the Roman Catholic Church also had a great effect on the Oblate presence in the French parishes, but the Oblate missionaries, specialists in the Aboriginal languages, continued tend to the isolated communities.

Sources:

Smith, Donald B. "A History of French-speaking Albertans." In Peoples of Alberta, Portraits of Cultural Diversity, eds. Howard and Tamara Palmer, 83-108. Saskatoon: Saskatchewan.


 
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