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.
After 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.
A 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.