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Oblate Research Project

By David J. Goa

In the summer of 1996, I got a call from Fr. Andy Boyer, O.M.I., Director of Planning and Communication, Grandin Province of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, asking me to come and discuss two letters they had received. These pertained to museums they had built - the Girouxville Museum in the Peace River country, built in 1968, the life work of Fr. Clement Desrochers, and the Northern Lights Museum in Fort Smith, North West Territory, built in 1973, the work of Fr. Francis Ebner and Brother Henri Sareault. Several senior administrators of the Oblates joined us for lunch. The briefing was straightforward. The Oblates had supported the development of two museums by members of their community.  The priests, who were the first directors of these museums, had a keen interest in the history and culture of the Oblates and the First Peoples and Francophone communities in which they lived and worked. They regularly received gifts of artifacts and story and wished to care for them and make them available to the public.

A second reason flowed from changes in Western Canada following World War II.  New technology began to transform agriculture and transportation, and government became interested in extending the reach of public institutions into areas that had previously been entirely served by religious organizations. From the late 19th century, Roman Catholic religious communities of women and men had established schools, hospitals and orphanages across the prairies and the North. From the 1950s on, these faith-based institutions were challenged from various quarters and most were either taken over by civil authorities or disbanded. The initial regard for cultural memory and living tradition that had animated the founding directors of both museums had slowly moved to a concern to preserve a remnant of the heritage of the people who had lived in these places and made a life together.

Oblate priests and brothers had established and documented collections in both regions and had done so with skill seldom seen in our professional museums. Many of these men had lived their whole lives in these communities and become good friends, and their strongest supporters amidst the struggles of history. The Oblate Province had built both facilities and, after a number of years and for various reasons, was persuaded to turn over the buildings to the local authority, and turn the institutions into civil instead of religiously-based ones. They retained ownership of the collections, however, and that was the cause of our meeting together.

Two letters from the boards and curators who then ran these museums requested that the collections be transferred to the civil authority immediately. They made the case that it was not possible for them to access public funding without ownership of the collections, and that, without such funding, they were unable to do their work properly. While I could understand their needs, I believed that the collections should not be alienated from the Oblate community and the key priests and brothers who were the bearers of the memory of the communities they served. The collections, separated from those who created them, would be stripped of the subject, context and relationships that gave them life. This was particularly difficult for me since we gathered on a day when the newspapers were full of stories accusing the missionaries of everything from physical and sexual to cultural abuse. Lawyers, politicians, local leaders, anthropologists, historians and government officials all were seizing the opportunity to place on the shoulders of the missionaries the responsibility for European settlement of the West, cultural genocide, the full suite of hurt and harm that has shaped the life of the First Peoples of Canada. The ones who had been most diligent, most committed and lived with these enormous personal and cultural struggles were now singled out as the culprits so that our civil institutions, public figures, professionals and academics could take pride in their distance from the trauma of a cultural change that moved peoples from a traditional way of life into the post-industrial age in a mere century.

As we discussed the letters and what these two institutions and their collections meant to the Oblates and, through their eyes, to the local people, several challenges emerged. I argued that our first responsibility was for the national patrimony these collections represented and that the Oblates ought to consider establishing a single collection drawing together the historically and culturally significant pieces in these two collections, plus a collection they housed at Vital Grandin Centre in St. Albert. I argued for its national significance, suggesting that it would be one of two collections in the country (the other being the Hudson’s Bay Company collection in Winnipeg) that could, if handled properly, give us a rich glimpse into ways of life and forms of meaning that had vanished.

To do this properly, we would need to work with each of these institutions to identify a body of first-tier artifacts based on historical and cultural significance, and either the documentary materials associated with them or our ability to enhance the documentary record linking each piece to story and narrative of significance. The Oblates could then retain ownership of this key body of material and consider transferring ownership of the remaining artifacts to the local authority. If the newly configured Oblate Collection was under the care of the Provincial Museum of Alberta, we could manage loans of appropriate artifacts to each of these institutions as well as work with them to produce a higher-level of exhibition telling important local stories and exploring aspects of cultural tradition.

But this would only be worth doing, I argued, if we established a parallel research and documentation project that would primarily engage Oblate priests and brothers. Since the historical literature on the Oblates in Western Canada had been entirely based on government and church records, we had a deeply-skewed view of the Oblate chapter in Western Canadian history. Institutional records do not tell the human story. They largely reflect legal preoccupations, relations between church and state, and the like. The Oblates had funded historians who then used these institutional records in ways that have massified the missionary experience and contribution. That is why the missionary has been viewed solely as the culprit in the history of western Canadian colonialism and settlement. I thought it time to place in the public record another body of knowledge based on serious and through conversations.

The Oblates took very little time to decide to move on these two initiatives. They provided funding and joined in developing our approaches. The research project was initiated in 1997 and explored the following range of themes in conversation with some 50 Oblates who had worked and lived in various communities in the North and on the prairies. We discussed their childhood formations; the evangelical vision that led them to the Oblates and a life of service; the shape their lives took in the communities where they lived, including their relationship to the local culture, and what I came to call the civil vision of Catholicism during the mission period. We also talked about the trauma and struggle of cultural transformation, how they saw this unfold, and how they sought to both understand it and do healing work in its midst.

Along the way, we also enriched the documentary record associated with artifacts in lovely ways. Story upon story unfolded and both my colleagues who worked with me on this, David Ridley and Henriette Kelker, made many friendships that have endured to the end. Most of those men we were privileged to engage in deep conversations have fallen silent and lie in the Oblate cemetery on the hill overlooking St. Albert. These men are among the most remarkable who have lived in Western Canada. Each one experienced this place in ways unimaginable to most of us. Our work with them has provided sources that one day may lift the home-blindness that haunts our common life, a home-blindness that the Heritage Community Foundation calls museums to recognize and address. It is our privileged work together.

Author Information

David J. Goa retired in 2002 from the Provincial Museum of Alberta where he had been curator of Folk Life for 30 years and build the program for the study of culture. He is currently the Director of the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life, University of Alberta, Augustana Campus.


For the Life of the World: The Missionary Oblates

For the Life of the World

This was a comprehensive research project undertaken at the Provincial Museum of Alberta (now the Royal Alberta Museum: Click here to visit, www.royalalbertamuseum.ca) under the leadership of David Goa, Curator of Folk and Religious Life. The project titled “For the Life of the World: The Missionary Oblates” resulted in a number research papers.

The following are reprinted with the permission of the Royal Alberta Museum:

Berger, Benjamin Lyle. “The Home of the Muse: Oblates and the Northern Life Museum.”

Berger, Benjamin Lyle. “Francis’ Ebner’s Oblate Charism: Life, Community, and Faith.”

Henriette Kelker, “A Mother’s Heart…Eugene de Mazenod’s Gift to the Oblate Congregation”

Henriette Kelker, “Patronage and Pilgrimage: Walking Under the Wing of Mary”
[also published in Western Oblates Studies 5, 2000]

Henriette Kelker, “Une Génération Spontanéé: Father Clement Desrochers, o.m.i.: Animateur”

David Ridley, “Church, Justice, and the Works of Mercy: The Missionary Oblates and Ministry for Justice”

For the Life of the World,
Charisma & the service of the Missionary Oblates


The Missionary Oblates

This section of the Oblates in the West Website showcases an exhibit curated by David J. Goa as part of the Oblate Research Project that he developed in partnership with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Grandin Province, from 1996, when he was curator of Folk Life at the Provincial Museum of Alberta (now the Royal Alberta Museum).

The exhibit, like the Research Project, explores, in the words of Goa, “the childhood formations; the evangelical vision that led them to the Oblates and a life of service; the shape their lives took in the communities where they lived, including their relationship to the local culture, and what I came to call the civil vision of Catholicism during the mission period.” Artifacts and images in the exhibit are part of the collections of the Oblates, Grandin Province.

For the Life of the World - The Missionary Oblates

Click here to visit, www.albertasource.ca/oblate

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            For more on Missionary Oblates in Western Canada, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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