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The Vicariate Apostolic of Athabaska - Mackenzie

Oblates traveled the far North in Alaska, the Yukon and the Districts of Athabasca and Mackenzie. The work of Oblates in these last two districts warranted the creation of the Vicariate of Athabaska-Mackenzie, in 1862. Bishop Henri Faraud was named the Apostolic Vicar for the area, but the Vicariate was largely administered by his subordinate, Mgr Isidore Clut.

The missions were characterized by isolation, scarce resources and harsh terrain. Resources were often provided by the provisioning centre that was established at the Lac-la-Biche Mission, which was not, technically, part of the Vicariate until 1869. Oblates ministered to many of the Dené tribes (Athapaskan family of languages), the Métis, as well as some Inuit. The difficulty of travel in this territory, and the high fees charged by the Hudson’s Bay Company transportation through Portage-la-Loche, prompted Bishop Taché to attempt a river route down the Athabasca River in 1856, something which was considered very dangerous. He was successful and, afterwards, Oblates pioneered shipping on the Athabasca, first with canoes and later with York Boats. By 1889, borrowing the Oblate’s expertise and the river runners from Lac-la-Biche, the Hudson’s Bay Company followed suit and prepared the Athabasca River for steamboat travel. Later, the Vicariate commissioned its own steamships, the St-Joseph (1893), traveling the Lake Athabasca and Athabasca River, and the St-Alphonse (1895), traveling the Athabasca and Mackenzie Rivers. These ships were captained by Frères Navigateurs, Oblate brothers who developed steamship building, mechanic and navigation skills to enable the travel of Catholic missionaries.

Oblates first entered the District of Athabasca in 1847, when Father Taché was sent to Fort Chipewyan at Lake Athabasca, to begin the conversion of Aboriginal Peoples in the North. The most important missions in the district were Nativity, near Fort Chipewyan, and St-Charles at Fort Dunvegan on the Peace River.

Fort Chipewyan, 700 kilometres from l’Île-à-la-Crosse, was frequented by many Chipewyan (Dené) Peoples, as well as a few Cree and Métis. Father Taché traveled among Aboriginal communities from Fort Chipewyan to Lake Athabasca and Great Slave Lake. The Nativity residence and mission were formally established near the Fort in 1850, when Father Henri Faraud permanently settled at the post. Nativity was a thriving mission that had a residence, chapel, farm and a school. By the end of 1864, the Mission served approximately 800 Catholic Aboriginal Peoples. Oblates from Nativity also visited the missions Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs at Fond-du-Lac, St-Henri at Fort Vermillion and St- Isidore on the Athabasca River.

R.P. Albert Lacombe, OMI, Nov. 1911. (OB3146 - Oblate Collection at the PAA)In the Peace River area, Oblates were headquartered at Fort Dunvegan, an important trading post for the Beaver Tribe of the Dené family. Father Bourassa, a Diocesan missionary from the Lac-Ste-Anne Mission, visited the Fort from 1845 to 1848. Father Lacombe also traveled there in 1855 and Mgr Faraud, in 1859. The Missions were abandoned for a time, but Mgr Faraud decided to retake the Peace River area for Catholic Church, to challenge the influence of Protestant missionaries. Four missionary posts in the area were set up – St-Henri at Fort Vermillion, St. Jean-Pierre at Fort St. Jean, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges at Portage des Montagnes Rocheuses, and, finally, St-Charles at Fort Dunvegan. St-Charles, which became an Oblate residence in 1873, was ministered to by Father Christophe Tissier until 1883.

East of Peace River, Oblates also had missions at Lesser Slave Lake including St-Bernard (now Grouard), which had a resident priest in 1872, Father René Rémas. The Mission for Métis and Cree families grew rapidly and, by 1894, it had a boarding school run by the Sisters of Providence. Subsequently, missions were founded at Wabasca (St-Martin), in 1897, and Sturgeon Lake (St. François-Xavier, later renamed Calais), in 1900.

In the Mackenzie District, Oblates ministered over territories even more vast than in Athabasca. Oblates first entered the District in 1852, when Mgr Faraud traveled to Fort Resolution on the shores of the Great Slave Lake. He traveled along the Lake competing with Anglican missionaries for the conversion of the Aboriginal Peoples in the area. St-Joseph Mission at Fort Resolution was established by Mgr Faraud in 1856. It became one of the most successful missions in the district, and the mother mission of the southern part of the Mackenzie District that included missions at Fort Simpson, Fort Räe, Fort Liard and Hay River.

Fort Simpson became the location of an annual Oblate mission beginning in 1858, when Father Grollier first visited the area, but the Fort was largely dominated by Anglican missionaries. St. Michael’s Mission at Fort Räe was also founded by Father Grollier, in 1859. It became a residence in 1873. Fort Liard was first the location of the Anglican Mission, but Oblates began visiting the Slavey Aboriginal Peoples there in 1860, with the arrival of Father Gascon. Ste-Anne at Hay River was another mission among the Slavey, inaugurated by Father Gascon in 1869.

Farther North along the Mackenzie River, Providence Mission was set up by Mgr Grandin at Rapide in 1861. The next year, Father Gascon and Brother Boisramé began to build a house-chapel at the Mission. In 1867, the Sisters took charge of an orphanage and a school at Providence. This Mission among the Slavey had a slow start due to the strong Protestant influence in the area. Oblates from Providence also visited several other missions nearby, including Sacré-Coeur at Fort Simpson, St-Raphaël at Fort Liard, St-Paul at Fort Nelson, and Saint-Anges at Fort Halkett.

R.P. Émile Petitot, OMI. (OB7965 - Oblate Collection at the PAA)Oblates traveled even further North in the Mackenzie District, reaching Fort Good Hope in 1860. Mgr Taché sent Father Grollier to the area to establish contact with the Inuit, and to minister among the Aboriginal Peoples trading at the Fort, particularly the Peaux-de-Lièvres or “Hareskin.” Anglican missionary William Kirkby arrived at the same time, also to convert the Aboriginals in the area. Grollier established the Notre-Dame-de-Bonne-Espérance Mission at Fort Good Hope; he died from illness at the Mission in 1864. From Fort Good Hope, several Oblates traveled the far North. Father Émile Petitot ministered to the Peaux-de-Lièvres at Fort Norman and Great Bear Lake between 1864 and 1863, while Father Séguin went from Fort Good Hope to Fort McPherson, working among the Inuit of the Yukon area. Some of the missions under the umbrella of Fort Good Hope were Saint-Nom-de-Marie at Fort Anderson, Ste-Thérèse at Fort Norman, La-Maison-Lapierre at St-Barnabé, and St-Jean at Fort Yukon.

By 1898, the Vicariate of Athabaska-Mackenzie had 62 Oblates in 18 missions, and several schools run by the Sisters of Providence and the Grey Nuns. Three years later, the Vicariate was split into two vicariates – the Vicariate Apostolic of Athabaska and the Vicariate Apostolic of Mackenzie.

References

Champagne, Claude. Les débuts de la mission dans le Nord-Ouest canadien: Mission et église chez Mgr Vital Grandin, o.m.i. (1829-1902). Ottawa: Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1983.

Champagne, Joseph-Étienne, OMI. Les Missions Catholiques dans l’Ouest Canadien (1818-1875). Scolasticat Saint-Joseph, Ottawa: Éditions des Études Oblates, 1949.

Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.

Levasseur, Donat, (O.M.I.) Histoire des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée: Essai de synthèse. Vol. I: 1815-1898. Montréal: Maison Provinciale, 1983.

Levasseur, Donat, OMI. Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée dans l’Ouest et le Nord du Canada, 1845-1967. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.


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