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The Peoples, Their Places

Father Albert Lacombe


Catholic Missionary, Teacher, Translator and Treaty Maker

father albert lacombe

Born at St. Sulpice, just outside of Montréal, in 1827 to a farming family, Albert Lacombe spent the majority of his youth on the farm. His theological studies began at a very early age and during his schooling he was greatly influenced by some of his teachers whose tales of buffalo hunts, native warriors and the struggles of the first missionaries in the west sparked a curiosity and sense of adventure in the young Oblate.

father lacombeAfter being ordained in 1849 he served at the Red River Settlement for two years before he was sent to Fort Edmonton, where he was to experience for himself life on the western plains. After a brief period he moved north of Edmonton to Lac Ste. Anne where he set up a new mission to minister to the Métis and Cree in that area. During his time there, he studied the Cree language and used his trace of native ancestry to gain an affinity with the native populations in the area. His sense of adventure and duty allowed the industrious minister a chance to expand his parish as far north as Lesser Slave Lake. Yet by 1861 Father Lacombe had not succeeded in persuading the Indians at Lac Ste. Anne to give up the nomadic lifestyle in favour of a more European, agriculture-centred way of life on the prairies. As a result, he began searching for a new mission site, more suitable for farming and cultivation.

Concerned with establishing a Métis settlement, he selected a spot on the Sturgeon River that was later named after his patron saint, St. Albert. It was from this new mission site that Father Lacombe oversaw the construction of a grist mill and Alberta's first bridge. However, missions at Fort Edmonton and St. Albert were not enough to occupy his curious nature and, in 1865, he accepted a mission to roam the prairies in an attempt to evangelize the nomadic Cree and Blackfoot peoples. Over the next 15 years he travelled to virtually every corner of the province, preaching to as many Indian populations as he could, administering medical attention and philosophic guidance to tribes throughout the prairie. He succeeded in establishing missions at Brosseau and Fort Macleod, and setting up schools at Fort Edmonton and Dunbow.

In 1883, the Blackfoot threatened to block the CPR route across their reserve and Father Lacombe negotiated an end to the dispute with Chief Crowfoot on behalf of the railway. Having travelled widely, befriended many influential Indian leaders and their peoples and possessing an ability to communicate in Cree, Father Lacombe was instrumental in quelling the fears of the natives, and in helping the government to maintain peace on the prairies during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.  He was not only a missionary and a priest, but also a leader, who was to influence the course of events in western Canada. 

In his later years he continued to minister to the native populations whose social standards had been slowly eroded as a result of contact with European traders and settlers, and he established an Old Folks Home at Midnapore in 1909.

father lacombe in his libraryA friend and spiritual leader for many of Alberta's native community, Father Lacombe passed away in December 1916. Despite their ancient rivalry, the Cree and Blackfoot nations came together to share him in death. Father Lacombe's body was buried at St. Albert, in Cree country, while his heart was removed and interred at Midnapore, deep in Blackfoot territory, perhaps the most poignant demonstration of his affinity to the native communities in Alberta.