Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Hobbema district traversed by the Battle River was the stamping grounds for herds of buffalo. Aboriginals such as the Cree travelled across the prairies in search of enemies and the bison that furnished them with food, clothing and teepee coverings. In 1974, Fort Augustus was constructed and their employees consisted of French Canadians and the Métis. Around 1840, a few Cree hunters travelled to the Red River at Saint Boniface. They became intrigued at the sight of Catholic priests in black robes. Many of the Aboriginals narrated their encounters to relatives and friends. The most interested person was a Métis by the name of Piché (Pichet/Picher) who had adopted the ways of the Cree band to which his wife, Magdeline Opitaskewis belonged. He wanted his two sons to meet a bishop by the name of Provencher to instill religious truth and principles about the Christian way of life. He also wanted a priest to be sent in the area to do this.
Father Thibault was sent on April 20, 1842, on a missionary adventure. This man and his religious explanations interested the Aboriginals. On October 20, he arrived in Saint Boniface. Because of the rapid turnover and insufficient number of priests, members of a religious congregation called The Oblates of Mary Immaculate decided to devote its time and energy at the Red River and constructed several forts from which they spread out from to reach the nomadic tribes. The proximity of Fort Edmonton to the trail near Hobbema was an efficient way for the missionaries to meet Aboriginals easily and often. Until 1881 Missionary Priests stationed at Lac St. Anne or at St. Albert visited these Aboriginals from time to time.
The priests visited the sick and presided over religious services. Events later became troubling for the Aboriginals, when they became affected by chicken pox and by the disappearance of the buffalo herds. As a result of the dwindling of the bison herds at the turn of the 20th century, famine and poverty spread throughout the prairie bands. To compact matters, European settlers began arriving in substantial numbers and many Aboriginal people were driven away from their traditional hunting grounds. By the mid-1870s, the frustrations of many Aboriginal people resulted in the uprising at Red River in 1869-70. These events prompted civil authorities to persuade the Aboriginals to enter into treaties with the federal government: the era of reserves had begun.
The name Hobbema came from the Dutch artist, Meindert Hobbema, whose paintings were admired by Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Van Horne chose the name when the Calgary-Edmonton line was laid. There is a folklore legend that the site of Hobbema was chosen as a result of a dream by a band chief named Ermineskin. He dreamt that a priest was pointing a crucifix in the direction of Hobbema. Hobbema was a Cree Aboriginal reserve and was established in 1876 under the terms of Treaty 6. The Hobbema region became home to four reserves: Ermineskin, Bull, Samson and Montana. These reservations were then taken over by Christian missionaries under the authority of the federal government. Residential schools (boarding schools) were established to help ease the transition for the Aboriginal peoples into a more European way of life.
On April 20, 1881, Bishop Vital Grandin laid the foundation for a permanent mission for the Battle River Crees at Bear Hill (Hobbema). He later abandoned the mission due to a lack of food supplies and joined with the Métis settlement at Battle River. As a result, Father Gabillon and Father Scollen were to take over for Bishop Grandin and establish a solid mission in 1884. The Mission was named Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. The missionaries faced many obstacles including surveying the reserves, harsh weather conditions and the resistance of many Aboriginals to their religious teachings.
The Hobbema mission faced a life-or-death situation with the 1885 Louis Riel Rebellion. Following the uprising, Father Scollen left the mission. Father Gabillon was left to minister to the Aboriginal people at Hobbema until 1895. In 1887, a new school was constructed on the reserve and in 1894 the Hobbema School welcomed Sister Saint Stanislas as Superior, Sister Saint Arsene as assistant and Sister Saint-Coeur-de Marie as teacher. These women arrived at the request of the Bishop of Saint Albert who wanted to create a durable educational institution that could teach the English language to the Aboriginals. The women were sent by the Mother General from the headquarters of the Sisters of Assumption in Nicolet, Quebec. During spring, a two-storey convent and church were built. It was inaugurated at Midnight Mass 1894. In November 1894, the school received 18 dozen copybooks, 18 readers, 36 slates and one arithmetic textbook.
On September 30, 1895, Father Gabillon consented to leave his mission in order to help out Bishop Pascal of Prince Albert due to the shortage of priests. The Sisters then decided to realize their dreams and created a boarding school in 1900 by appealing to the public. The education the Aboriginal children received consisted of religion, English, and practical training for life on the Reserves; land cultivation and cattle raising for boys and home economics for girls. Many of the children were between the ages of 6-13 and came from Hobbema, Enoch, Alexander and other reserves.
The school at Hobbema experienced steady growth. Father Dauphin, who possessed a strong knowledge of the Cree language, brought his love for the Catholic Church to most people living on the Ermineskin Reserve. As a result, Hobbema provided pleasant scenery for people travelling over the Edmonton-Calgary railway. As soon as Father Dauphin achieved his goal, he left Hobbema in January, 1914. Father Moulin took his place and dedicated his entire missionary life to the Aboriginals of Hobbema. For 24 years of his life he was Director and Principal of the mission and of the school.
In 1917, Father Moulin acquired a syllabic Cree printing press and published Kitchitwaw, a religious periodical that reached various communities in and outside of Alberta. The magazine continued to be published after the death of Father Moulin in 1937, the final issue being printed in 1949. In 1918, the Spanish flu struck the Aboriginal people on reserves throughout the western prairies. At the time, folklore legend claimed that no "true Catholics" were killed.
The infrastructure and civil society at Hobbema developed gradually. The railroad allowed for many European settlers to arrive into the area. Agriculture was pursued and telephone communication was established between houses and businesses. In 1919, waterworks and sewers, a central heating system and electricity were installed at the mission. These developments made the institution more attractive.
Seven principals followed in the 12 years after Father Moulin left the school. Hobbema published The Moccasin News, a publication consisting of information for former students and parents interested in what their children and kin were doing in and around the institution. The number of children attending the school at that time varied between 160 and 170. On November 1, 1950 in St. Peter's Piazza in Rome, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Dogma of the Assumption of Our Lady into Heaven. The Director of the school, Father Latour, the missionaries and the Aboriginals in Hobbema consecrated themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. On May 2-3, 1951, Hobbema hosted the Statue of Our Lady of the Cape.
The most important religious event was the construction and inauguration of a hexagonally shaped church, it was unique in the way it architecturally followed the contours of a teepee. On December 18, 1960, it became a parish in the full canonical sense. Father Armand Paradis, O.M.I. was installed as its first parish priest. On August 24, 1950, representatives from all Alberta tribes met with the goal of obtaining amendments to the Indian Act. This was judged as insufficient by the Catholics and they proceeded to establish the Indian Catholic League, a pressure group seeking guarantees towards Aboriginal rights within the walls of the schools and the confines of the reserves. It was one of the first centres to back up the movement.