A walk through history
Father Lacombe Chapel guides take you through oldest building, and more
By: Scott Hayes
| Posted: Saturday, Aug 11, 2012 06:00 am
Father Lacombe Chapel
Located at the top of Mission Hill on St. Vital Avenue in between the Bishop's Palace and the St. Albert Catholic Parish.
Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from mid-May till Labour Day every year.
Admission by donation.
Call 780-459-7663 or visit www.history.alberta.ca/fatherlacombe for more information.
The oldest building in the province sits casually and quietly at the top of Mission Hill, like a wallflower happy to let the St. Albert Parish next door take all of the attention.
Many people pass by the Father Lacombe Chapel and never think twice about it, but it’s filled with history. The city’s history. Our history.
In those early days, this was the St. Albert Mission, the focal point of the entire settlement.
In his chapbook simply titled St. Albert, Oblate Émile Tardif describes the chapel’s construction by Father Albert Lacombe and a group of Métis labourers in early spring of 1861.
“April 19th – A log cabin is begun that will become the first church of the new Mission, it is 30 x 25 feet and will serve as chapel, residence for Father Lacombe. It was built where the statue of Father Lacombe now stands.”
It was small and sturdy but it served its purpose. It actually served many purposes, at various times functioning in roles as diverse as a chicken coop, a museum and a cathedral.
Now it is a deconsecrated relic of a time long ago. In 1977 it was designated as a provincial historic resource, one of only 20 in the entire province, essentially turning the walk-in artifact into a well preserved publicly accessible building serving as a time-travel device.
Once you walk through the door, you immediately feel transported. Inside, you can turn around to see the spectacular panoramic view of the city facing south, and realize exactly what it was that Father Lacombe and Bishop Vital Grandin saw on that frosty January day 151 years ago that made them decide to make it the place to establish a new mission.
It is a sensation not to be missed.
What’s past is prologue
For only four months of each year, from mid-May to Labour Day, the province’s historical interpreters offer guided tours through the building and other significant points of interest nearby.
Sarah Shaughnessy and Jane Campbell are two of these on-site guides. They both remark on how there are too many stories to share, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. Every one of them fills in a little bit of the larger picture of how important St. Albert really is.
“If you don’t know about it, you think St. Albert is just a suburb or you think it’s just an offshoot of Edmonton. It’s so much more than that, especially when you know about the chapel because this is the start of it,” explained Jane Campbell.
“It’s almost like the start of Alberta’s culture beyond the fur trade. It was really the first time that it was an actual town and it wasn’t something just based off of commerce: it was based off of people wanting to be together.
The tour includes the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, the Roman Catholic cemetery and the crypt in the back of the parish itself where Bishop Grandin, Father Leduc and Father Lacombe all have their final resting places. Visitors explore through history, even going further into the past beyond 1861 and farther afield than just the top of the hill.
You can learn about how St. Albert played a major role in the development of the province – even the entire western frontier – before the country even existed.
Although not every story can be told, there are some that just have to be shared.
The truth is not always easy, but can be fun
The Father Lacombe Chapel does have a long and storied history, some of which is still being discovered to this day.
Shaughnessy said that there is a long-held belief that the building was constructed out of three spruce trees from the south bank of the river. The truth of this is not important, but it does demonstrate the fluid nature of oral culture.
“For a long time, that just got passed down through interpreters; we just took it as fact. It was written right into a puppet show,” she explained.
“Where’s the source saying that? That doesn’t really make sense to me but that could be true,” Campbell added.
“We’re working on a program right now actually that explores how oral histories suddenly can just take off like that. For a long time, the lore of how this was founded was that Father Lacombe and Bishop Taché – in January – were canoeing on the river,” she and Shaughnessy laughed, remarking on the improbability of any paddling in the middle of winter.
Shaughnessy continued, “It’s just one of the variants of the founding stories. That can’t be true.”
“It’s really neat. The moral is the same: that it was a simple building. It’s just something that comes in and out of our knowledge. We all have our own personal facts or interests that we add to the tour. I always like talking about the modifications to the chapel.”
The chapel of changes
“I think it’s really interesting how they changed it to fit the new needs,” Shaughnessy said. “They were such a practical group of people.”
She isn’t referring just to how the building’s purpose was adapted to various uses. The structure itself was adapted too. To elaborate, she pointed out that the ceiling of the building was raised at one point by adding extra beams to heighten the walls. The former cross beam connections are still visible, having been filled in with the butt ends of other beams, like Lego pieces fitting into a perfect square hole.
Originally it was built on the ground. Before Bishop Grandin returned several years later, a wood floor was put in to make it more suitable for his eminency to appear before a congregation.
“It was raised quite a bit. They put in this wood floor for [Grandin] but then there was the problem that he had his mitre,” she explained, referring to the high and mighty religious headwear. “His mitre was going to smack the cross beams so he had to duck … which is pretty inappropriate. They had to raise the roof. It also explains the low-ness of our windows because they’re really low.”
She went on that the windows themselves likely were only covered with deerskin. Glass was a rare commodity and had to be ordered in from Winnipeg. When they finally arrived, each pane was packed in a container of molasses in order to keep it intact.
“It’s just funny to think about how expensive it would be to get windows out here! You’d have to pay for a bunch of vats of molasses, as well as glass. It’s stuff like that I think is really neat just to learn about.”
The little white school of logs
Shaughnessy admitted that, despite her interest in history, the chapel’s significance had eluded her for most of her life.
“I grew up here in St. Albert. I actually didn’t know a lot about St. Albert’s history until I started working here. It’s really given me an appreciation for it.”
She added that the knowledge that she has gained has given her a new sense of pride of her hometown. She used to say that she was from Edmonton.
“Well, no I’m not. I’m from St. Albert. It’s a really distinct community. It’s cool to come from here.”
This has only made her an even more enthusiastic teacher.
“I actually really enjoy talking to the visitors and telling them what I know about this site and the founding of the mission. It’s just really gratifying. People are interested. It’s a fun job, really! There’s no downside to it.”
Many school and daycare groups come through each year, leading the interpreters to develop more appropriate educational programming. Shaughnessy and Campbell see this as a sign that the future will be even more immersed in the past.
“The upcoming generation … I think they’ll know a lot more about it because we get so many groups,” Shaughnessy said.
Shari Strachan is the program manager with the Musée Héritage Museum, the organization responsible for the programming at the chapel. She said that attendance has steadily increased over time, with 2011 being a banner year for obvious reasons. The kids, she emphasized, love the building and they love what they learn.
“When they come to the site and play the old games or do an old craft or do something hands-on, we find they’re very, very excited about it. It’s like they’re putting on thinking caps and they begin to think as if it was 50 or 100 years ago, and what it was like to live on that hill. Their brains just take off.”
“We’re so far removed from that in many ways, with our instant information in our hands that we carry everywhere,” she continued. “To feel it and touch it and see it and try it hands-on is something kids really appreciate.”
Mission Hill Day
Families and community members in general can also take part in a fun special event. Every year, the site hosts Mission Hill Day, which this year falls on Sunday. It offers visitors little glimpses into the past while getting more and more people familiar with the Father Lacombe Chapel.
There will be crafts, games and treats, all under the direction of the costumed interpreters. Admission prices are by donation, but the experience is always rewarding, no matter how much you pay.
“It’s really fun,” Campbell added. “We just love to show kids what they could have done if they didn’t have the Internet or video games. These things are equally as fun.”