The builder of peace

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Lacombe's trials in the west still resonate today, say historians

When looking back over 150 years of St. Albert history, one name looms over it all: Father Albert Lacombe. As the founder of this community, he pops up again and again in The Black Robe’s Vision, and has left his mark all over town.

But unless you’re a historian, you might not realize that Lacombe’s works went far beyond St. Albert. He spent just four years here, and about 51 more roaming the nation, building communities and bringing peace wherever he went.

Lacombe was probably the most famous missionary ever to come out west, says retired University of Lethbridge historian Raymond Huel.

“His reputation is virtually legendary.”

This December is the 100th anniversary of his death. That makes this a fitting time to look at the legacy of the one many called The Man of the Good Heart.

Lacombe was born Feb. 28, 1827, in St. Sulpice, Lower Canada.

He grew up hearing tales of men who adventured out west such as his Uncle Joseph, who married a Cree woman, says Musée Héritage Museum curator Joanne White. Whereas others might seek to head west as a fur-trader or explorer, Lacombe, likely influenced by his Catholic upbringing, sought to go there as a priest.

In his memoirs, Lacombe writes that he wept tears of joy when his local priest offered to fund his passage into the priesthood.

“Who knows?” he recalled the man saying. “Some day, he may be a priest for the Indians.”

When continuing his education in Montreal, Lacombe heard a fiery talk from George-Antoine Bellecourt, a visiting missionary from Red River, Man., who urged students to head west and bring hope to its warring peoples.

“An interior voice called me: ‘Whom shall I send?’ And I answered immediately: ‘Here I am, send me!’” Lacombe writes in his memoirs.

Lacombe was uniquely suited to the harsh life of a missionary amongst Canada’s aboriginals.

First, as noted by historian James MacGregor in Father Lacombe, Lacombe was very tough to kill, surviving isolation, cold, heat, bugs, disease, bullets and, in 1857, a roaring forest fire, which he only escaped by diving into a river.

“The fact of death he often faced, but the fear of it never,” MacGregor writes.

Bolstering that courage was Lacombe’s strong religious faith. Like many clergymen of the time, Lacombe saw it as his divine mission to bring civilization and Christianity to the Indian tribes. He would come back from the field tanned, clothes shredded and smelling of smoke, he writes in his memoirs, yet happy and laden with merit from souls saved and sins prevented.

Lacombe had a profound love for aboriginals, especially the Métis, and writes in glowing terms about them in his memoirs. He felt a kinship with them, likely due to the fact that his great-grandmother had two children with an Ojibwe man. Lacombe’s love came through in his actions, earning him the respect of many aboriginal leaders, particularly Chief Crowfoot, MacGregor writes.

Lacombe was also very charismatic, and won many influential friends in his travels.

“He seems to have gotten along with everybody,” Huel notes, being equally at home having tea with the governor general or Crowfoot in his tent – no mean feat in an age where differences in language or religion were grounds for suspicion and enmity.

Lastly, his intellect. Lacombe had a great talent and desire for learning languages. He was fluent in English, French, Greek, Latin, Cree and Blackfoot, allowing him to communicate with the many peoples of the west.

Lacombe’s smarts helped him make several academic contributions to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, of which he was a member.

Lacombe was the first Oblate to hit upon the idea of an itinerant mission, Huel says. Instead of waiting by a trading post for the Cree and Blackfoot to come to him, as others did, he travelled with them on their hunts, giving him much more time to preach to them. Many missionaries would follow his example.

He also created a compact “Catholic ladder,” an illustrated summary of the Church’s teachings, that was of great help when it came to teaching new converts, Huel says. Hundreds of these were printed, and some missionaries were still using them as late as the 1950s.

Lacombe also wrote several dictionaries of aboriginal language, notes Father Camille Piché, an Oblate at the Vital Grandin Centre on Mission Hill. These texts were of tremendous help to missionaries, and are still used by researchers today.

“When you think of the amount of effort it takes to write a dictionary like that, it’s really, really incredible,” he says.

PichĂ©’s office is just a few paces away from one of Lacombe’s most enduring legacies: the Father Lacombe Chapel. Now the oldest building in Alberta, it was the first structure built in the new mission of St. Albert.

How it came to be is well documented in Black Robe’s Vision.

After about nine years of using Lac Ste Anne as a home base, Lacombe determined that it would not make for a prosperous parish. While it had lots of trees and fish, it was ill suited for farming, and too far from the growing Fort Edmonton.

Lacombe eventually picked what we now call Mission Hill, which he often passed by on his trips to Fort Edmonton, as the spot for a new parish.

When Lacombe brought Bishop Alexandre TachĂ© to the site on Jan. 14, 1861, and voiced his idea, TachĂ© enthusiastically agreed, planting a sapling in the snow and directing him to build a new mission there named after Saint Albert of Louvain, Lacombe’s namesake.

“Here, you will build a chapel,” TachĂ© said.

Over the next four years, Lacombe would lay the groundwork upon which today’s St. Albert now stands. First came the chapel, followed by farms and the division of land into riverlots. Next was the first cart brigade and permanent bridge over the Sturgeon, both of which would prove vital for the region’s economic success. He called in the Grey Nuns in 1863, who by 1864 were running the first Catholic school in the community. In 1864, he called a meeting to set up St. Albert’s first modern government, complete with an elected “Chef du Pays” and councillors.

Lacombe left St. Albert in 1865 to spend about seven years roaming amongst the Cree and Blackfoot, preaching to them and treating the sick and dying during outbreaks of disease such as scarlet fever.

This won him great respect and recognition amongst aboriginals, historians note. Huel says the Cree knew Lacombe as KamiyoatchakwÄ™t, or “the noble soul,” while the Blackfoot called him Aahsosskitsipahpiwa, or “the good heart.”

Lacombe would use that reputation to stop many conflicts.

In 1865, for example, while lodged with the Blackfoot near Camrose and the Battle River, Lacombe awoke to find his hosts in the midst of a pitched battle with Cree forces, MacGregor notes.

Bullets whizzing all around, Lacombe mounted a ridge, cross and flag in hand, and called out to the Cree in their language, identifying himself in an attempt to convince them to cease-fire.

A ricochet caught him in the shoulder and grazed his head, knocking him flat in the snow. The Blackfoot rallied, and one of their warriors shouted at the Cree, “Stop you dogs. Have you not done enough? You have shot your blackrobe!” The Cree, realizing what they had done, immediately broke off their attack, no doubt saving many lives.

In 1883, Lacombe defused an explosive situation near Blackfoot Crossing, MacGregor writes. Canadian Pacific was cutting through the newly established Blackfoot reserve while building its trans-Canada railway, sparking angry clashes between workers and the reserve’s residents.

Fearing more violence, Lacombe negotiated a settlement with Lt.-Gov. Edgar Dewdney and Crowfoot that allowed the rail line to pass through the reserve in exchange for new territory for the Blackfoot.

The resulting rail line to Calgary was essential to the community’s growth, says Patricia Cox, a historian with the Southern Alberta Pioneers and their Descendants.

“We certainly wouldn’t have Calgary today unless we had (Lacombe),” she says, and we might not have completed the trans-Canada railway.

Lacombe’s skills and charisma again came to the fore in 1885 when he convinced Crowfoot to keep the Blackfoot out of the North-West Rebellion, Cox says. This effectively kept southern Alberta out of that war, and made him a national hero.

Lacombe died Dec. 12, 1916, at the Lacombe Home – a home he built for seniors and orphans in what is now Calgary and what was the predecessor of today’s Father Lacombe Care Centre. Many Alberta leaders, including the lieutenant governor, attended his funeral, and Canadian Pacific had a special train convey him to St. Albert. He was buried on Dec. 16.

Piché says Lacombe is a revered role model for the Oblates today. His body lies in a place of honour in the St. Albert Catholic Parish crypt.

“He was a man larger than life.”

Today, a statue of him stands atop Mission Hill just two metres from where he and Taché agreed to create St. Albert, looking out upon his works.

Lacombe laid the foundation for a diverse, inclusive community with a rich French, Catholic and Métis heritage, White says.

“As a figure in Alberta history, he stands pretty tall.”

Links to the past

In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last Wednesday of each month from now until July 2017.

Got a suggestion for our next topic? Send it to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.