An excellent book about a very talented Canadian missionary Fr. Albert Lacombe, OMI. It was first published in 1911 by Katherine Hughes Canadian journalist and author. She was approached by Fr. Lacombe to help him write his memoirs after 60+ years of ministering to the Cree, Métis and Blackfeet First Nations people in Alberta. I highly enjoyed reading about his first hand encounters with these peoples during years of tumultuous change and development in north western and all Canada.
Born in Saint-Sulpice, Lower Canada in 1827 it was soon evident that he had a strong interest in religion. After ordination as a secular priest he was sent to Pembina, ND in 1849 where he accompanied the Métis on the plains during there semi-annual buffalo hunts. After a short return to the east he was sent to Lac Ste Anne (Alta) where he joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) religious order. Working with Bishop Alexander Taché of Red River (Man), they selected a new site for a mission near Fort Edmonton where the Cree and Blackfeet came to trade and named it St. Albert. Pere Lacombe established this mission successfully for the Metis who were Roman Catholics being the descendents from french, english and native parents.
In 1865 at his request, Taché permitted him to establish an itinerant ministry to the Cree and Blackfoot. He established Saint-Paul-des-Cris on the North Saskatchewan River. From there he went on to camp with the Blackfeet who were the mortal enemies of the Cree and the fiercest of all the Plains Indians. The Cree were somewhat receptive to Pere Lacombe’s Christian teachings and some agreed to be baptized into the faith. Not so the Blackfeet. Along with their allies, the Piegan and Blood tribes, they had a culture that did not permit a warrior to humble himself. Nevertheless Pere Lacombe gained their respect and became great friends with their Chief Crowfoot.
He developed a famous catechesis ladder with pictures that showed the path to heaven and the path to hell. He would use this to instruct native youth while helping to develop Cree and Blackfoot language dictionaries as well as nursing them when sick. He was assisted in this by the interpreter and controversial “lay priest” Jean L’Heureux. At one point Lacombe was caught in a battle between the Cree and Blackfoot. While trying to stop it he was grazed by a bullet and nursed back to health by L’Heureux.
One in the most memorable stories in the book for me was when he was travelling back to a mission in the dead of winter on foot. They had but a few days of food remaining when they came upon a small group of starving Cree. Pere Lacombe invited them to join and they continued together. He immediately gave away the last food he had to the starving natives as they continued to plod forward together. They were all near death one morning. Pere Lacombe urged everyone to walk for one more day. At the end of that day, they finally spotted a light from the encampment and staggered into safety at last. This is the supreme Christian example of giving away what you yourself need as an act of charity to help someone else. This was what Pere Lacombe was like as a man. Please watch this short CBC video for some further testimony.
In 2018 Marie and I took a Great Plains road trip and snapped this photo of Fort Whoop-Up in Lethbridge, AB. Ironically it was closed for the season. Pere Lacombe and the Methodist missionary Rev George MacDougall pleaded with Ottawa to halt the illegal whiskey trade there by Americans in the 1870s. It was destroying the Blackfeet and other tribes. In 1873 the North West Mounted Police force was established and put an end to this devastation for good.
In what I would call Part II of his life, he was called back to the Archdiocese of St. Boniface in 1874 to assist Bishop Taché in fundraising efforts for the western missions. For the next 40 years he criss-crossed Canada, parts of the U.S., Europe, journeyed to the Holy Land and became first hand friends with Prime Ministers, Governors-General, business men like William Van Horne CPR President, and international and church leaders including Popes and Emperors. He served as a peacemaker in the 1885 North West Rebellion by convincing the Blackfeet to not join in with the 2nd Métis rebellion under Louis Riel. He enabled a peace agreement with the Blackfeet to permit the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway across their reservation land. He built a colony for the Métis who were the worst of persecuted peoples even to this day. He established a home for orphans and the aged in Calgary when he was in his eighties. He was a master fundraiser and planner who never kept a penny of donations for his own use. It is reported that he would only eat one meal a day so every extra penny could go into the missions!
Yes he was instrumental in the founding of the Residential School system in Canada. But he admitted that there were problems. The educated youth who would return to the reservation were neither white nor Indian. He knew then that it was not an ultimate solution. I liken the role of a religious missionary in 19th century Canada to be like the cutting wheel of a vast mining machine (colonialization) that keeps pushing deeper into the coal face. Yes, he could be impatient at times and critical. But he always had the welfare of First Nations peoples in his heart. They called him “man of heart”. Finally slowing down a bit…, he moved to Hermitage St. Michel in Pincher Creek to write his memoirs but continued his fundraising trips unabated. It was in 1916 that he drew his last breath in Midnapore, now a suburb of Calgary.
He is the archetype of Oblate missionaries in Canada, always among the people. He was successful for three reasons. First, he got along with everyone he met, easily making friends and gaining trust. Two, he was an adventurer and planner who could never sit still. Third, he was both skilled and compassionate wanting to remain a priest rather than become a bishop with admin duties. In 1932 he was named a National Historic Person of Canada. The cities of Lacombe and St. Albert, Alberta have been named in his honour. Peacemaker, priest and pioneer, Pere Lacombe makes me proud to be an Oblate Associate and a Canadian.
Well done Pere Lacombe and Katherine Hughes for writing this highly fascinating, accurate and factual account of a great life. 5 out of 5 stars!