This story was originally published on Nov. 15, 2008. It has been updated with hyperlinks, formatting, plus a clarification published Nov. 28, 2008.
The city’s history book, The Black Robe’s Vision, says the community was named after St. Albert the Great, the patron saint of scientists. The statue in Founder’s Court is also of Albert the Great.
But Ray Pinco of the St. Albert Historical Society says it couldn’t have been him. Albertus Magnus, or St. Albert the Great, didn’t become a saint until 1931, 70 years after the founding of St. Albert — a fact many people pointed out when the Black Robe’s Vision was published in 1985.
“Almost as soon as it was published, we realized, ‘Oh goodness, we made an error.’ “
As for the statue, Coun. Carol Watamaniuk says the city’s Art in Public Places planning committee asked artist Al Henderson to make it in 2001. The group wanted a statue related to St. Albert and lifelong learning and their research (which included The Black Robe’s Vision) suggested Albert the Great.
So if Albert the Great isn’t the city’s namesake, who is?
There are at least 11 saints called Albert in Catholicism, but documentary evidence strongly favours one of them: Albert of Louvain, cardinal-bishop of Liège.
The story of how St. Albert was named is well known, says Pinco, and was first established in Father Lacombe: the Man of Good Heart — the authorized biography of city founder Albert Lacombe published in French in 1916.
On Jan. 14, 1861, Lacombe and Bishop Alexandre-Antoine Taché stood in the snow on top of what is now Mission Hill. Taché turned to Lacombe and said, in French, “My Father, this site is charming. I choose it for the founding of a mission which you will name Saint Albert, in honour of your patron saint.”
This account begs a question: who was Lacombe’s patron saint?
Official documents found by Éloi DeGrâce and Diane Lamoureux, archivists for the Edmonton Catholic Archdioceses and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Lacombe’s order), respectively, suggest it was Albert of Louvain.
DeGrâce opens a large black-leather covered ledger. This contains the maps and certificates drawn up at the creation of most of the Edmonton-area parishes, he says, including St. Albert. The index — a handwritten sheet of faded foolscap — lists the name and namesake of each parish. Written next to “St. Albert” on it is “cardinal-archbishop of Liège.”
Three letters written by Lacombe in 1895, 1912 and 1913 suggest that Lacombe and the St. Albert Parish celebrated the feast of St. Albert, patron saint of the diocese, on or around Nov. 21, DeGrâce says. The feast of Albert of Louvain is on Nov. 21.
A fourth letter from Cardinal Deschamps, the archbishop of Malines, to an unknown bishop on behalf of Vital-Justin Grandin, then bishop of St. Albert, dated Nov. 9, 1878, also points towards Albert of Louvain, Lamoureux says.
The archbishop writes in French that Grandin “ardently desires a relic of the patron saint of his diocese, of St. Albert, (the) cardinal-bishop of Liège, originally from Louvain where his father, the Duke of Brabant, resided.”
There is one letter that suggests Lacombe’s patron saint was Albert the Great. The introduction to The Man of Good Heart features a letter from Lacombe dated June 13, 1914, in which he entrusts the book to the protection of “my blessed patron, Albert the Great.”
This is the only statement DeGrâce and Lamoureux found that says Albert the Great was Lacombe’s patron saint. Lamoureux notes this book and many of Lacombe’s letters from this time period were actually written by the Sisters of Providence at the Lacombe Home due to the man’s great age, meaning this phrase could have been a mistake or misinterpretation of his remarks. Both were still looking for the original copy of this letter as of press time.
Murder most foul?
So who was Saint Albert of Louvain?
Historian Raymond Schmandt wrote the most detailed English account of the saint’s life in 1967.
Born in Louvain (now a part of France) in 1166, Albert was dedicated to the church from a young age and elected bishop of Liège (now part of Belgium) at the incredibly young age of 25. This landed him right in the middle of a power struggle between the Church and Emperor Henry VI for control of the Holy Roman Empire, Schmandt writes — one he would not survive.
Bishops were important political figures, at the time, and the emperor would often interfere with bishop elections to make sure his supporters got into office.
Albert won his election 40 votes to five, but his opponent, another Albert (and uncle to the emperor’s wife) contested it. The matter went before the emperor, who, likely in exchange for a bribe, gave the election to one of his friends, Lothar of Hochstaden.
Albert of Louvain appealed the result to Pope Celestine III, who sided with him and asked the archbishop in Cologne (next to Liège) to promote him. That archbishop refused, in no small part due to the fact the emperor’s troops were destroying the homes of anyone in Liège who didn’t acknowledge Lothar as their bishop, so Celestine let the archbishop of nearby Reims do it instead. With rumours flying that the emperor was out to kill him, Albert decided to live there in exile.
On or around Nov. 24, 1192, Albert went out for a ride with a bodyguard and seven German knights, who claimed to be on the run from the emperor. Near dusk, one of the knights gave a signal. Four of the knights drew steel and killed Albert’s bodyguard. The other three fell upon Albert with their swords.
“The first blow crashed into his skull,” Schmandt writes, “and he slipped to the ground without a word.”
The men slashed his body to be sure he was dead, stole his horse and fled east.
Historians agree this was an assassination, Schmandt writes, but disagree on who ordered it. The public variously accused Lothar, his backer (the count of Hochstaden) or the emperor of ordering the murder, but there was no direct evidence linking any of them to the crime.
“The question in 1192 and today remains: who was ultimately responsible?”
Pinco, DeGrâce and Lamoureux say they are convinced that Albert of Louvain was St. Albert’s namesake. While Albert the Great was blessed (one step below sainthood) during Lacombe’s life, DeGrâce and Lamoureux doubted Lacombe and other church officials would have been calling him a saint or naming St. Albert after him in 1861. Nor would it explain why Albert of Louvain was referenced as the city’s namesake in all those other documents.
But they point out something important: even if St. Albert was named after Albert of Louvain, the city can still appoint Albert the Great as its patron saint if it likes.
Watamaniuk was one of many people who said St. Albert the Great was an appropriate — if not necessarily historically accurate — choice for the city’s saint.
“I think we should just end the dispute once and for all,” she says, half-seriously, by creating a park with statues of all the St. Alberts.
“One of them has got to be the right one, right?”
The other Alberts
Butler’s Lives of the Saints is considered by most to be the authoritative guide to saints. It lists six saints named Albert, including Albert of Louvain. The Saints Index at Catholic.org lists those plus four more. They are:
- St. Albert the Great (1206-1280)
- St. Albert of Jerusalem (1150-1214)
- St. Albert Chmielowski (1845-1916)
- St. Albert of Trapani (c. 1307)
- St. Albert of Genoa (c. 1239)
- St. Albert of Montecorvino (c. 1127)
- St. Albert of Como (c. 1092)
- St. Albert of Magdeburg (c. 960)
- St. Albert of Cashel (c. 800s)
- St. Albert of Gambron (c. 800)