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Missionaries

The Father Lacombe Chapel in St. Albert, Alberta. The mid 1800s were a time of increasing interest in Alberta's lands on the part of European settlers. At least since the 1740s and 1750s, French fur traders had been trapping in the area and trading with the indigenous people, and by the end of the 18th Century the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company were vying for supremacy over the fur industry.

A number of religious missionary groups also took interest in Alberta at this time, although their interests concerned the people who lived and traded on the land, far more than the land itself. Their goal was to establish Christianity as the dominant religion among Alberta's indigenous through preaching as well as the creation of social institutions like schools and hospitals. Hines Creek and Victoria Settlement take their names from Anglican and Methodist missionaries, respectively. However, the most prominent religious group in the region, and the one that had the largest impact on Alberta's place names, was a French order called The Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Founded in France in 1816 as a reaction to growing secularism following the French Revolution, the Oblates were (and still are) a Roman Catholic order whose focus was education and aiding the poor. The first member of the Oblates to arrive in Alberta was Father Jean Baptiste Thibeau in 1842. Father Thibeau spent his time establishing a mission in what is now Lac Ste. Anne, and actually chose the name "St. Anne" because it was the patron saint of his home in Eastern Canada.

The Pysanka in Vegreville, Alberta. The place names that reflect Alberta's Oblate heritage tend to be commemorative. Petitot River, a west-flowing river 160 km north north-west of High Level, for example, was named after Father Emile Petitot, a talented Oblate artist and scholar. Vegreville is a town similarly named after another missionary of the order, Valentin Vegreville. Both Petitot and Vegreville were respected linguists who studied a variety of Aboriginal languages. As well as being spiritual leaders and caregivers, the Oblate order were also known as meticulous scholars of Aboriginal languages, and it is to their work that many of today's academic disciplines surrounding Native studies (including toponymy) owe their inception.

Another important Oblate in Alberta's toponymic history is Father Albert Lacombe. Father Lacombe not only leant his name to the township of Lacombe, 22 km north north-east of Red Deer, but, as the successor of Father Thibeau, was responsible for moving the mission at Lac Ste. Anne to the area we now know as St. Albert (which was also named in his honour). St. Albert soon became one of the largest settlements in Western Canada, and due to the Oblate presence in the area, had a larger French-speaking population than English.

The Cardston Alberta Temple in Cardston, Alberta. Though they technically were not considered missionaries, and were forced to settle in Alberta rather than chose it for religious purposes, Mormons also contributed noticeably to Alberta's place name history. Members of the strict religious movement, forced to flee their Utah homes because of laws restricting their marital practices (Mormon men could have numerous wives at one time), settled mainly in the southern region of the province. Cardston, for instance, is a town named after Charles Ora Card, one of the founding fathers of Alberta's Mormon community. Card became the town's first mayor, although prior to that he was a fugitive in Utah, wanted for violating the state's laws against polygamy.

Mormon, Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic settlers all contributed to Alberta's diverse heritage, and their legacies are still visible today in the places names that make up our maps.


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            For more on place names of Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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