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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
Provincial Archives of Alberta


By the turn of the century, however, a number of factors dramatically altered the missionary activity of bath Oblates and Anglicans. Numerous Klondike gold seekers, a growing number of free-traders and the beginnings of agricultural settlement in the prairie regions of the Peace River Country presented different challenges to the clerics. The Beaver population continued to diminish and finally, in the summer of 1899, a treaty was signed and this resulted in the presence of government officials and police. Reserve life and treaty payments would alter the existence of the Native population and the role of the missionary would become more confirmed and more focused.
Was there a victor in the competition for souls in the Peace River Country prior to 1900? The 1901 census provides the following statistics for Roman Catholic and Anglican adherents in the polling divisions of Fort Vermilion, Peace River, Dunvegan, Spirit River, Grande Prairie and Sturgeon Lake.





Fort Vermilion




Peace River








Spirit River



2 Presbyterian
1 Methodist

Grande Prairie




Sturgeon Lake



1 Free church





In absolute quantitative terms the Catholic Church had the largest number of adherents. In interpreting these figures one must bear m mind that in the Catholic tradition baptism was but the first step on the path to conversion and Christianization. For its part, the Anglican Church usually insisted on catechism and basic instruction before adult baptism. Bishop Bompas stated at his first diocesan synod: "let us not accept any as Christian converts in connection with our mission but such as we believe to have been the subjects of a real change of heart by the grace of Christ and His holy spirit.”46
Oblates, on the other hand, would invariably baptize if the individual consented and promised to take confession, attend religious services and receive instruction afterward. Consequently, the number of baptisms was higher for Catholics than for Anglicans. Be that as it may, Natives in the Peace River Country demonstrated a definite preference at this time for Roman Catholicism as opposed to Anglicanism, even though one cynical traveler in 1893 noted that many Indians were "Protestant in the winter when times are hard and Catholic when there is nothing to be gained.”47

There are several reasons to explain this preference for Catholicism. By placing a greater emphasis on the other-worldly aspects of Christianity and the frailty of the human condition, the Oblates no doubt presented a message more readily recognized by Natives. The greater use of imagery, incantation, rosaries, candies and the like, or, what the 1888 Diocesan Synod of Athabasca described as "painted images, gorgeous vestments, arrogant claims and pomp.', also evoked a greater religious sentiment among Natives.48 The role of the Oblate as an intercessor on behalf of the faithful was much more appealing to Natives than the stress which the stalwarts of the CMS placed upon self-reliance especially when one considers the complexities of Christian theology. Oblate missionaries tended to remain at fixed locations for longer periods of time and this resulted in enhanced knowledge of and familiarity with the local population. Finally, the number of missionaries in the field was important and the Oblates outnumbered Anglicans about three or four to one during this period.

Although there were more Roman Catholics than Anglicans among the Native population of the Peace River Country this attachment is deceptive. Few, if any, of the Indian neophytes at this time embraced Catholicism sufficiently to take up missionary work among their people, nor does it appear that they were encouraged to do so by the Oblates except to act as translators. Another weakness of the Oblate as well as that of the Anglican efforts was that, only Émile Grouard and A.C. Garrioch appear to have mastered the Beaver language. For his part, Tissier knew it imperfectly at best.

By the turn of the century, however, all of these considerations were academic because the 1901 census enumerated only five who identified Beaver as their mother tongue compared with 352 Cree, 115 English, 91 French and nine others.49 Clearly, the Beaver nation had disappeared. Many of its members perished through disease and salvation, others moved westward into the foothills or intermarried or identified with the Cree. Both the Oblates and Anglicans continued to serve in this region and when Indian Commissioner David Laird proclaimed the terms of Treaty 8 at Lesser Slave Lake in 1899, he was flanked by Father Lacombe on one hand and Reverend Holmes on the other.

Laird might have done well to initiate a treaty between Holmes and Lacombe but this would not be necessary because in the settlement period each denomination had more than enough work to occupy itself. Furthermore, Catholic and Anglican would be joined by other denominations who felt called to the missionary frontier. In spite of spiritual differences, individuals like Holmes and Lacombe and most of their colleagues were outwardly courteous towards each other. In the tradition of the age of free enterprise, Bompas affirmed that "fair and honorable competition may be very allowable in matters of trade and religion." Although it was not strictly enforced at all times, it was CMS policy not to baptize Indians who previously had been baptized in the Catholic faith.50

In the period under consideration, there are numerous instances of generosity and kindness demonstrated between members of the two competing denominations. They frequently travelled together, and, in 1884, Reverend Garrioch was even invited to dine with Father Desmarais at Lesser Slave Lake, although not in the same room.51 Sometime earlier, Father Grouard had dispatched Father Husson to assist Garrioch with his haying at Dunvegan. While Catholic and Anglican missionaries were engaged in a competition for souls they were not conducting a war against one another. In the twentieth century this denominational competition was lessened by the growing needs of a flood of new, energetic, inspired and highly demanding parishioners.


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