Finding romance in the archives

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Stories of romance are as old as tales of Adam and Eve. We love to love romance and in St. Albert romance novels are among the most popular at the library. Yet trying to find a good local romance among the city’s archives isn’t as easy as you might think.

“The definition of a true romance is that it has a happy ending,” said librarian Heather Dolman from St. Albert Public Library.

Life was so hard for St. Albert’s early Metis settlers that finding romance was tricky. By skimming through The Black Robe’s Vision, St. Albert’s family-history stories written by Arlene Borgstede, two stories seemed to stand out as being about true love; the stories about Christine and Leon Harnois in the 1870s and later in the 1890s about Oscar and Annie Terrault.

Christine Lacombe, the sister of Father Albert Lacombe, was an adventurous woman. She was reportedly a tiny person. She came west shortly after her brother and taught school in Lac La Biche before coming to St. Albert in 1865 to join Albert.

Father Lacombe was not at the Mission when Leon Harnois asked Christine to be his wife in 1876 but the history book reports that the priest was not in favour of the marriage. Harnois was a coureur-de-bois and for a time had been a miner in the California gold rush. He lived in Montana and there he earned his living by building a hanging platform for thieves and murderers. The Harnois family account admits that Leon Harnois had a “tough reputation.”

But there was petite Christine – the sister of the settlement’s founder and Harnois wooed her. He courted her. How bold. How daring and dashing he must have seemed to the little school teacher.

A priest at the Mission wrote to Father Lacombe and told him about the proposed marriage. Father Lacombe reportedly wrote to his sister and begged her not to go ahead with the marriage until he could get home to St. Albert and talk to her.

The letter did not arrive on time and on June 13, 1876 Leon Harnois married Christine Lacombe. On their wedding day, both the bride and the groom were 28 years old. Christine and Leon went on to have two families together. Tragically, the five children of their first family died within one week of each other during the diphtheria outbreak in 1885. They had three more children, including Antonio, born May 24, 1889. The Black Robe’s Vision says that Leon went out to work in his fields that day and came home at noon to see the new baby safely tucked in his crib. Lunch was on the table.

“A remarkable woman was Christine,” reports The Black Robe’s Vision.

Lost ring

The Terrault family history also speaks to the true love of the pioneer. The story that remains is about the first and lasting love of Oscar Terrault, who married his childhood sweetheart. Terrault came to St. Albert in the fall of 1897. He built a house for the woman he loved and one year later sent for Annie Petenaude. Petenaude’s mother helped Annie pack her trunk and her trousseau, including a wedding ring. The young woman was sent west with a chaperone, priest Father J.B. Morin, who had orders to marry the couple immediately upon her arrival in St. Albert. When the couple went to exchange their vows, the ring was missing. Father Morin took charge and without further ado, a cigar band took the place of a golden ring.

Borgstede says the stories of almost every founding family must be considered in the light of love, especially when viewed from the perspective of the women, who despite everything, vowed to stand by their men.

“I often wonder about those women who made that trip (from Quebec to St. Albert),” Borgstede said.

In the 1860s, the women would first travel to Fort Garry and then head on west on squeaking, two-wheeled Red River carts. The journey from Manitoba to St. Albert took 16 weeks and the settlers would have suffered through extreme heat and cold and storms. They would have travelled in fear of attacks by Indians. Yet they came.

“Those who made that trip … I think they really loved their guy,” Borgstede said.

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About Author

Susan Jones has been a freelance writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2009, following a 20-year career at the St. Albert Gazette. Susan writes about homes, gardens, community events and people.