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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
As a symbol of his love for the plains of Alberta’s Blackfoot country, the heart of Father Albert Lacombe was once buried at Midnapore. (It is now buried with his body in St. Albert.) This touching gesture was a tribute to a man who devoted most of his life to the service of the province’s Métis and Aboriginal Peoples. Born in St. Sulpice, Québec in 1827, the renowned Oblate priest spent most of his 80 years travelling the plains of the Canadian West, building settlements and missions, seeking converts to the Roman Catholic faith and helping to maintain order and peace in a volatile territory.
Like countless French-Canadian farm boys from the St. Lawrence basin, the young Albert Lacombe was captivated by the adventures of the fur trade voyageurs and of the Oblate missionaries on the western frontier. During his studies, he exhibited a restlessness and ambition that was noted by his superiors and mentors. In 1849, as he neared the end of his theological studies, Bishop Ignace Bourget informed Lacombe that following his ordination he would be sent to the western missions. His first stop would be Pembina, then St. Boniface.
Two years at the Red River settlement began Father Lacombe’s preparation for the life he was to lead on the western plains. His vivid recollections of participating in the Métis buffalo hunt and of his first contacts with the Cree and the Blackfoot upon his arrival at Fort Edmonton in 1852 demonstrate the impact these early years would have on the young priest. In 1853 he was posted at the Lac St. Anne mission, established by Father Thibault. While there he set to learning Cree (he would eventually publish a Cree dictionary) and finishing the studies which would permit him to be admitted to the Oblate religious order.
Despite his best efforts and those of the newly arrived Grey Nuns, Father Lacombe could not convince the local Métis and Aboriginal People to embrace an agricultural existence at Lac St. Anne. In 1861, a more suitable spot was chosen on the Sturgeon River, and the St. Albert mission was founded to better accommodate the Métis population. Only four years later, he would depart from St. Albert to travel with the Cree and Blackfoot across the prairies. Over the years, Lacombe befriended influential leaders from all of the communities that held a stake in the West. He was affectionately welcomed into Cree and Blackfoot camps alike, and often succeeded in preventing outbreaks of violence between the two enemy nations. His status in the community increased even further when he tended to the sick and dying during the small pox outbreak of 1870 to 1872.
In the decade to follow, Father Lacombe left behind his prairie missions to travel to France and Europe. His intent was to seek funds for the establishment of a new mission near the Bow River for the Blackfoot. However, his reputation preceded him wherever he went, and upon his return he was called elsewhere, including the St. Mary’s parish in Winnipeg and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) construction camps that were spreading west across the prairies.
When he returned to Alberta in 1882 after a 10 year absence, he discovered his worst fears had been realized. The buffalo had disappeared from the plains, and the Métis and Aboriginal People faced starvation and destitution. As he had predicted decades earlier, contact with whiskey traders and settlers had resulted in devastating repercussions. While he continued to minister to the Aboriginal People of Alberta, for the remainder of his years Father Lacombe’s attentions would be occupied primarily by the increasing number of settlers arriving by train to take advantage of the prairie’s bounty. His death in 1916 was mourned across the province and in 1929, a bronze statue was erected in St. Albert in his memory.
For more information about missionary activities in Alberta and the Oblates, visit the For the Life of the World: The Missionary Oblates website.
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