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Western Oblate Studies 3

Western Oblate Studies 3Anglican and Oblate: The Quest for Souls in the Peace River Country 1867-1900

David W. Leonard
Archivist
Provincial Archives of Alberta

 

I do not think there is any hope in saving their lives in this world, as well as their souls for the next, except through the ameliorating influence of Christianity, brought to bear on them by means of a mission established in their midst.1

In January 1868, a small party of men made their way by dog sled from Fort Chipewyan to the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Vermilion. Upon arriving, their leader, the Reverend William C. Bompas, noted the pitiable condition of the resident Beaver Indians, and observed:

The party was exploring the region to ascertain the possibilities for a new Church of England diocese which wou1d encompass as much of the vast territory north of Fort Edmonton as possible. With this visit, the competition for spiritual predominance in the North West between Anglican and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate would reach new heights. After learning of Bompas' excursion, Father Christophe Tissier remarked from his mission at Dunvegan some 200 miles away, that he would he like "glace à'côté du feu de charité d' amitié de M. Bompas.”2

Bompas was not the first Protestant clergyman to visit the Peace River Country. In 1842, the Methodist missionary James Evans passed through the region on his way to Fort Chipewyan but his visit had not been for missionary purposes. In the intervening years, however, the region was visited by secular Catholic priests, Jean-Baptiste Thibault, Joseph Bourassa and Albert Lacombe and by the Oblate Henri Faraud. In 1867, Christophe Tissier established Saint Charles Mission at Dunvegan, the first permanent mission m the region.

During this period, Anglican missionary activity in the North West was concentrated in the far North. As early as 1858, theReverend James Hunter traveled to Fort Simpson to ascertain the opportunity for missionary work among the Dene. The following year, Reverend W.W. Kirby was appointed in permanent charge of the Mackenzie River District with residence in Fort Simpson. Soon after, Reverend Robert McDonald assumed a similar calling along the Yukon River. These individuals represented the Church Missionary Society (CMS), an evangelical association in England which combined the tenets of Anglicanism With the responsibilities associated with what later became known as the white man's burden.3 Although it was not the official policy of the CMS, it was felt that missionary activity should be concentrated in locations where no other Christian denominations had established themselves.4 At this very point in time, however, the Oblates were also building missions in the far North: Saint Joseph's at Fort Resolution (1852), Sacré-Coeur at Fort Simpson (1858), Notre-Dame de la Providence at Fort Providence (1858), Sainte Thérèse at Fort Norman (1859), Notre-Dame de Bonne Espérance at Fort Good Hope (1859), and Saint Raphaël at Fort des Liards in 1860. Although they were outnumbered, the Anglican missionaries provided enough of a denominational threat to provoke the Oblates into even greater activity in the region. The resulting spirit of competition was to carry over into the Peace River Country in the decades that followed.

In 1864, the Bishop of Rupert's Land visited the CMS in London and appealed for someone to volunteer to relieve the ailing Robert MacDonald at Fort Yukon. William Bompas, a 30 year old curate from South Lincolnshire, was in the audience and immediately offered himself for the work. Bompas was accepted by the new Bishop of Rupert's Land, Robert Machray, who thereupon ordained him into the priesthood. Upon arriving in the north, Bompas learned that MacDonald had not only recovered, but was intent on remaining at Fort Yukon. With Kirby at Fort Simpson and MacDonald in the Yukon and the Oblates establishing themselves almost everywhere, it was decided that Bompas should serve as an itinerant missionary rather than at a fixed mission. Therefore, during the early 1860s, he proceeded throughout the region, bringing the tenets of the Anglican faith to its Loucheux, Dogrib and Slave inhabitants.

In 1867, Bompas headed south to Fort Rae, Fort Resolution and finally Fort Chipewyan. From Fort Rae Bompas traveled in the company of the Oblate Zéphirin Gascon and recorded that he unsuccessfully "endeavored to bring about a dispassionate consideration of the differences between Protestantism and Romanism" with the Catholic missionary.5 Despite the fact that the Oblates had been established at Fort Chipewyan for 15 years, Bompas, nonetheless, confided to the secretary of the CMS that "an Anglican mission work here would form a sort of connecting link with that at Fort Simpson.'.6 He was convinced, furthermore, that the small but evident Anglican population at Fort Chipewyan needed attention.

From Fort Chipewyan, Bompas proceeded to Fort Vermilion but proceeded no further because the larger population along the Mackenzie River and in the Arctic warranted his prior attention. Nevertheless, he retuned to Fort Vermilion in the fail of 1870 and remained there for the winter. The following spring, he traveled the Peace River ail the way to the Rocky Mountain Portage, beyond Fort Saint John. This was the first time an Anglican clergyman had been through this country in 29 years, and the Oblates in the region were well aware of the repercussions of Bompas' presence. Louis Le Dousal informed Bishop Henri Faraud:

"U est temps de se mettre sérieusement à l'oeuvre, parce que les protestants menacent de s'établir partout, ils ont déjà un bel établissement au Vermilion, ils ont également bâti à Dunvegan et Bompas parle de construire encore à la Rivière Bataille et à la Rivière du Coeur."7

Why the apprehension? Was there not room in the vast North West for a handful of Anglicans to present their brand of Christianity to the otherwise lost Aboriginal population? According to Anglicans, their faith was closer to the "true faith" than any other denomination which identified itself as Protestant. Even Tissier affirmed that Bompas "voulait être catholique tout en restant protestant”8 Furthermore, if the Anglicans were theologically in error, would their work not at least direct the innocent Indians in the right direction for possible salvation by Catholics at a later date?

Be that as it may, several factors made the rivalry between Catholic and Anglican especially bitter once Bompas declared his intention to establish an Anglican presence in the Peace River Country. To begin with, although formally under the influence of the Hudson's Bay Company, this region was beyond Rupert's Land where the Company's original charter had given it proprietary rights and a monopoly on trade. The Company surrendered these privileges in 1870 when Canada acquired the North West and Rupert's Land. Now that it was part of Canada, the Oblates regarded this region with added interest and argued that their presence was rendered more mandatory in the absence of law and order.

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