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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XLVI - The Catholic Church in Saskatchewan


Importance of the Work of Religious Pioneers—The First Missionary Chaplains to Enter the West—Catholics in the Selkirk Settlement—Vicar-General Provencher, 181S—Father Belcourt—Father Tubault in Saskatchewan, 1841—Father Dar-veau Martyred, 1844—Sisters of Charity Come West, 1844, and Oblate Fathers, 1845—Self-Sacrificing Devotion of Fathers Tache and Faraud—Father Tache Co-adjutor, 1851, and Successor, 1853, to Bishop Provencher—Early Indian Missions and Missionaries—Burning of St. Boniface, i860—Father Clut Coadjutor to Bishop Faraud—Heroism of Father Lacombe—Qu'Appelle Mission Established, 1865—Bishop Grandin's Seat Transferred to St. Albert, 1867—Catholic Clergy and the Troubles of 1870—Fathers Lestane, Hugonnard and Saint Germain—Brother Reynard Assassinated—Immigration of Catholic Metis and Indians—Reverend Father Maghan—Catholic Clergy and the Rebellion of '85—Creation of Diocese of Prince Albert, 1890—Death of Archbishop Tache, 1894—Recent Steady Growth—Sub-Division of Saskatchewan for Ecclesiastical Purposes; Statistics.

In Saskatchewan, as in so many other new colonies, the pioneers of civilization have, to a very large extent, been the missionaries of the Christian religion; and the story of subsequent progress is, likewise to a very large extent, the history of the Christian church. The writer, therefore, feels that no apology is called for in devoting considerable space to the record of the achievements of the Christian churches, whatever be their denomination. The records teem with examples of self-sacrifice and heroism such as must command the reverence of all right-thinking people.

One phase of ecclesiastical and missionary history will, however, be deliberately avoided. Missionaries and churchmen are but human and in too many instances the representatives of different denominations have wasted their energy and spoiled their temper in strife and mutual recriminations. Nothing can be less edifying than the all too frequent professional jealousies among men honestly devoted to the service of the same Master and to the common uplift of the people, of whatever race or color.

The census of 1911 showed the presence in Saskatchewan of about sixty Christian denominations. However, over sixty-eight per centum of the entire population was included among the Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists, and the necessary limits of the space at our disposal will render it necessary to speak at length only of those four major bodies. Next to them in numbers come the Lutherans, 56,147, the Greek Church, 24,795; the Mennonites, 14,400; and the Doukhobors, 8,470. The pagans were numbered at 2,129, an<l about 2,500 others disclaimed Christianity, or made no statement regarding their religion. The total population of the Province was stated to be 492,432.

The present chapter will be devoted to a brief review of the history of the Catholic Church in the West, with special reference to the vast domain included in the Province of Saskatchewan.

The first explorers of the prairies were chiefly French Catholics. When the famous Pierre Gaultier de Verennes, usually known as La Verendrye, with his sons and his nephew, Christopher Dufrost de la Jemmerave, undertook their epoch-marking western explorations, they, like most other French explorers, took with them as chaplains, missionaries of the Catholic faith. Father Charles Michel Mesaiger, S. J., accompanying La Verendrye, was the first priest to see the Lake of the Woods (1731). In a subsequent expedition (1735), he was replaced by Father Jean Pierre Aulneau de la Touche, S. J. He was to have spent a short time among the Assiniboins and Crees and then to have carried the gospel to the Mandans. However, this unfortunate priest, returning with a group of Le Verendrye's men on a mission to Michillimackinac, June 8, 1736, was with his companions, including La Verendrye's son, massacred by the Sioux 011 an island some twenty miles south of Fort St. Charles. He was succeeded by Father C. G. Coquart, but his sojourn in the West was also very brief. In 1750 Father Jean Baptiste de la Marinie came to Fort La Reine, but when he likewise left for the East in the following year the western field was left without a Catholic missionary, and so remained for over sixty-five years. During this interval, however, a very large proportion of the traders in the West were Catholics.

When Lord Selkirk undertook the establishment of his colony, he ignored mere difference of creed in selecting his colonists and appointing his subordinates. Many of the colonists were Irish Catholics for whom Selkirk secured as chaplain the Reverend Charles Bourke. He also remained but a few months and it was not until 1S18 that, through Bishop Plessis, Selkirk obtained the services of Reverend Joseph Xorbert Provencher and Reverend Joseph Nicolas Severe Dumouliu. who were joyfully welcomed at the Red River Col6ny. Vicar-General Provencher thus became the real founder of the church in the Middle West. In 1819 the Vicar-General visited by dog train the trading posts on the Qu'Appelle River, some three hundred miles from St. Boniface, and on the Souris River as well, baptizing forty children of Canadian Catholics. This heroic missionary habitually lived in extreme poverty. For months he had 110 bread and scarcely even flour enough for use in connection with the Sacrifice of the Mass. Much against his will, he was, in 1820, made Bishop of Juliopolis and co-adjutor to the Bishop of Quebec for the North West. "I have not become a priest in order to amass money," he wrote to his superior. "If need be I shall go to devote my youth to the welfare of Red River, but as a simple priest; speak, I shall obey you. As for the episcopate, it is another thing; never could I persuade myself that I was born for such a high rank. Rome has spoken; I am full of respect for the chair of Peter; but its voice is merely an echo of your own words. The Holy Father does not know me, and I am sure that if he did he would not admit me." Nevertheless, in spite of his own self-distrust, Provencher was consecrated by Bishop Plessis on May 12, 1822. At this time the Catholics of the Red River numbered approximately eight hundred. In 1823 St. Boniface College was founded with two scholars,—a French Canadian and a Halfbreed. For many long years the Bishop devoted himself to manifold enterprises for the good of the Church and the people of the West. He had a district but little smaller than Europe, and much of the time he had but a single priest to assist him, so it is not remarkable that at first not much aggressive missionary work could be accomplished. A co-worker who achieved considerable success, showed great enterprise and industry and acquired the good-will of all classes of the people was the Reverend Georges Antoine Belcourt. Among other missions founded by him was one at the junction of the English and Winnipeg Rivers.

In 1841 a French Halfbreed came to the Red River from Fort Edmonton to petition for a missionary. Accordingly, in the spring of the following year Reverend J. B. Thibault was sent out on a missionary journey of some twenty-two hundred miles across the prairies. on May 27 we find him at Fort Carlton. He returned to the Red River in October, 1842, having baptized a large number of children, admitted four persons to the first commission and blessed twenty marriages. The founding of St. Anne's Mission dates from this year. The hardships and dangers experienced by Father Thibault and other missionaries in these early days were of the severest character. Indeed, in 1844, the heroic priest, J. E. Darveau, met a martyr's death at the hands of Indian assassins at Duck Bay, on Lake Winnipegosis.

A religious order destined to perform invaluable services for Canada was founded in 1736 by Madame D,'ouville. a sister of La Vcrendrye's lieutenant and kinsman, La Jemmcraye. This was the Order of the Sisters

of Charity, popularly known as the Grey Nuns. Through the intercession of Bishop Provencher, four of these nuns, Sisters Valade, Lagrave, Coutlee and Lafrance, came West in 1844. The same Bishop also secured for the West the services of the Oblates of Alary Immaculate, an order which had been founded in France in 1816 by Mgr. de Mazenod, Bishop of Marseilles. The first Oblates reached Red River in 1845, one of them being Brother Alexandre Anton in Tache, then a mere boy. On seeing him, Provencher exclaimed, "I have asked for men and they send me a child!'' For the next seventeen years the priests in the West were almost exclusively members of the Oblate Order. In 1850 Bishop Provencher felt the necessity of a co-adjutor and the brilliant young Tache was chosen. At the time he was pursuing his missionary labors some fifteen hundred miles from St. Boniface. In the preceding year he and his associate, Father Faraud, had been given to understand that the lack of funds would necessitate the curtailment of their enterprises among the Indians. They thereupon presented to their superior the following letter:

"The news contained in your communication grieves us, but we arc not discouraged by it. We know that you have at heart the good of our mission, and we cannot bear the thought of abandoning our dear neophytes and our numerous catechumens. We hope that it will always be possible to get altar bread and wine for the Holv Sacrifice. Apart from this source of consolation and strength, we ask of you only one thing: permission to go on with our missions. The fish of the lake will suffice for our subsistence and the spoils of the wild beasts for our clothing. For mercy's sake do not recall us."

Such a prayer could not be denied and the spirit which marked it reveals the character of the man chosen by Bishop Provencher as his assistant and successor. He received the news of his elevation to the episcopate in January, 1851, as Bishop of Arath. and was named Vicar of the Oblate Missions in North Western America. With him on his return to St. Boniface in 1852 were the Reverend Rene Grollier and the Reverend Albert Lacombe. Bishop Tache proceeded at once to He a la Crosse, and he was still in the interior when, on May 19, Bishop Provencher was seized with apoplexy. He died on June 7, 1853, and the Bishop of Arath became the Bishop of St. Boniface.1 Bishop Tache was at this time scarcely thirty years of age.

The Indian missions in his episcopal domains that at this time possessed resident priests were St. Anne, forty-five miles west of Edmonton; St. Jean-Baptiste. at lie a la Crosse, and La Nativite. on Lake Athabasca. Each of these stations had also a number of outposts which the missionaries regularly visited. Among the missionary priests were Reverend M. M. Thibault, La Fleche; Lacombe, Faraud; Grollier, Tissot; Vegreville, Remas and Bourassa.

On the same night that he heard of Bishop Provencher's death, Tache set out for Lake Athabasca on an important missionary and episcopal tour. He was desirous of visiting and organizing all his mission posts before going back to St. Boniface. An interesting side light is cast upon his manner of life in a humorous description he has given of his episcopal palace at He a La Crosse: "It is twenty feet by twenty feet, and seven feet high, and smeared over with mud. This mud is not impermeable, so that rain, wind and other atmospheric elements have free access thereto. Two window sashes, comprising six panes, light the main apartment; two pieces of parchment serve for the remainder of the lighting system. In this palace, where everything seems small, everything is, on the contrary, stamped with the character of greatness. For instance, my secretary is a Bishop, my chamberlain is a Bishop, at times even my cook is a Bishop. These illustrious employees all have numerous defects; nevertheless, their attachment to my person renders them dear to me. When they seem tired of their respective offices I give them all an outing and, joining myself to them, I strive to divert them from their cares."

On November third we find the Bishop in his Cathedral at St. Boniface.

In the face of great discouragement, useful and heroic work of many sorts was being performed by the missionaries. For example, Fathers Maisonneuve and Tissot, at Lac la Biche, cleared and cultivated considerable land, erected numerous buildings and in 1856 opened up a wagon road to give readier access to the south country. Father Morice tells us that this road was the first work of its kind in the whole North and became an incentive to other parties to undertake similar conveniences of civilization. At Lake Athabasca, Fathers Grollier, Grandin and Faraud were devoting their evenings to books in the Indian tongue. In 1856 Bishop Tache nominated Father Grandin to the post of co-adjutor, though circumstances delayed his appointment until December, 1857. He himself did not learn of it until July, 1858.

The extreme superstition and credulity of the Indians has always been a source of much difficulty to Christian missionaries. For example, about this time a young Indian at La Crosse was convinced by a dream that he was the Son of God. This outburst of fanaticism resulted in many disorderly doings, but, through the influence of time and of Bishop Grandin, the false Messiah and his followers were ultimately restored to the fold of the Church.

On December 14, i860, the Cathedral and episcopal palace at St. Boniface with the Bishop's invaluable library were totally destroyed by fire. Disaster followed upon disaster. In 1861 floods covered the ruins of the Cathedral, and indeed the whole settlement of St. Boniface. The restoration of the Cathedral was undertaken as soon as possible and on All Saints' Day, 1862, Bishop Tache was able to open, for use as a church, the stone vestry of the new edifice.

In the Far North, Bishop Faraud was granted a co-adjutor in the person of the Reverend Father Clut. The beginning of his episcopal duties was marked by a terrible struggle in which he and his fellow missionaries fought a deadly epidemic of scarlet fever which had broken out among the Indians in the vicinity of Fort Simpson.

In 1856 Father Lacombe had entered the Oblate Order. Nine years later he was given the mission of following the nomadic tribes of the prairie and bearing the gospel to them. Many were his adventures among these barbarians. In the terrible smallpox epidemic of 1865 one thousand, two hundred Indians from among only the Blackfeet fell victims, and Father Lacombe performed prodigies in caring for the sick and in endeavoring to establish peace among the warring tribes. In December, 1S65, the Black-feet tribe with which he was living was attacked by the Crees. The bloody battle was brought to an end only when, after many hours, his hosts succeeded in making the Crees understand that Father Lacombe was of their number and had, indeed, been wounded. Such men as these were worthy followers of the Apostle to the Nations, "in deaths oft, ... in journeyings often, ... in perils of robbers, ... in perils by the heathen, . . . in perils in the wilderness, . . . in weariness and pain fulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness, besides the care of all the churches." (II Cor. 11 :23:2s.)

In 1865 Bishop Tache sent Father Ritchot to establish what was thenceforth known as the Qu'Appelle Mission (now Lebret), and two years later Father Decorby took up his residence at that place. Shortly before this, Bishop Grandin had been made Vicar of the Saskatchewan Missions. When, in 1867, this Bishop's residence and all the buildings connected with it at lie a la Crosse were destroyed by fire, Saint Albert became the seat of the new Vicar of Missions. Thus, by 186S, the Catholic Church had established between Lake Superior and the Rocky Mountains four episcopal sees, the incumbents being Bishops Tache, Grandin, Faraud and Clut. They were assisted by five secular priests, thirty-two Oblate missionaries and about twenty lay brothers, and the Grey Nuns were teaching, caring for orphans, the old and the infirm, in seven distinct establishments.

The part played by the Catholic Clergy in connection with the Red River troubles of 1869 and 1870 was a very difficult one and has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. A considerable number of the priests were immigrants from France and the remainder were French Canadians. It is not surprising, therefore, that they deeply sympathized with the Metis in their resentment of the high-handed manner in which the Government of the New Dominion undertook to annex the Territories hitherto controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company. It will be remembered that the same resentment was felt by the English speaking settlers and their clergy, though they were naturally more ready than were their fellow-colonists of French origin to entrust the future of their colony to the good will of the English and Protestant Canadian Premier and his colleagues. The French clergy, like the writer of this book, did not look upon the establishment of a provisional government by Riel and his associates as in any proper sense an act of rebellion. In the unfortunate excesses of which young Riel was guilty (he was then but twenty-five), the Catholic clergy had no share, in spite of the insinuations and accusations that have been hurled against them by men who should have known better. Indeed, Father Lestanc was among those through whose intercession the death sentence was not executed upon Boullon, and the same clergyman did what he could to save Scott. Of the services rendered by Father Thibault and other priests in the restoration of peace, we have already spoken in another chapter. It may be remarked that when Manitoba became one of the Provinces of Canada, the Catholic settlers were still in the majority.

In 1870 Reverend Father Lestanc was sent to Qu'Appelle and for four years he attended to the spiritual welfare of the many Halfbreeds living on the prairies. In 1874 Reverend Lestanc went to St. Albert and was replaced at Ou'Appelle by Reverend Father Hugonnard, who had as companion (1878) Fr. Saint-Germain, whose principal work was the care of the Half-breeds of Wood Mountain (now Willow-Bunch), and who said the first mass (18S3) in the place where stands the city of Regina.

In 1875 Brother Alexis Reynard was assassinated by Indians. Three years later Father Fafard, who was likewise destined for a martyr's death, established a mission house and school at Fort Pitt. About this time, and sorely against the wishes of Bishop Tache, there was a considerable emigration of Catholic Metis from Manitoba into what is now Saskatchewan. Moreover, several thousand Sioux had migrated into Canada and they, too, added to the task of the Church in the West. It is, of course, impossible to relate in detail how the spiritual needs of Indians and of Catholic immigrants were cared for. Mention must be made, however, of the coming of Father Lebret to Qu'Appelle in 1884 and the establishment of the well-known Indian Industrial School in that vicinity; Reverend Father Hugonnard being the first principal. This same year there came to Qu'Appelle Mission Father Maghan as first missionary among the Cree Indians. He was Superior of Qu'Appelle from 1886 to 1901 and afterwards became Provincial of the Oblates.

In 1882 and 1883 Bishop Grandin visited Ottawa in the interests of those whose unsettled grievances were to culminate in the rebellion of 1885. Prominent among the other clergy who also struggled, though in vain, to awake the authorities to justice and reason, was Father Andre. When the rising occurred Father Fafard and his brother Oblate, the Reverend R. P. Marchand, were, as we have seen, among the first victims. Father Paquette, of Batoche, communicated to the authorities the dangerous proceedings of Riel, and after the Frog Lake Massacre he was obliged to flee to He a la Crosse. At Green Lake he was instrumental in saving from pillage by the Indians the local store. Fathers Vegreville, Moulin, Fourmont and Touze, with the nuns of St. Laurent, were kept by the rebels at Batoche practically as prisoners at large. In the subsequent fighting it will be remembered that Father Moulin was wounded by a chance shot from a gatling gun. Fathers Cochin and Legoff were for a long time prisoners among the Indians, as was also Father Scollen. Seven Catholic churches, with the missionary establishments connected with them were utterly destroyed. Nevertheless, the Catholic clergy were most active in their efforts to mitigate the punishment that was meted out to the rebels.

In 1885 the advancing age and increasing labors of Bishop Tache induced him to ask for an Oblate co-adjutor, but his request was not granted. Three years later, however, he was released from his charge as Vicar of Missions.

The Diocese of Prince Albert was separated from the Diocese of St. Albert in 1890, and Bishop Pascal became the first vicar apostolic and soon after (1907) was appointed the first Bishop of the new diocese, situated between Manitoba and Alberta in the central northern portion of the Province of Saskatchewan.

Into the story of the school controversies, in which Archbishop Tache and his fellow prelates in Saskatchewan and elsewhere took so active a part for the next decade, I do not propose to enter. Doubtless the anxieties and disappointments which it entailed combined with disease and advancing years to ruin the venerable prelate's health. On June 22, 1894, the first Archbishop of St. Boniface, and the most distinguished and influential of western prelates, died in his seventy-first year. In his "Making of the Canadian West," the Reverend R. J. MacBeth, M.A., Presbyterian minister, speaks of the late prelate in the following terms:

"He was a man of gentle, lovable disposition and had unbounded influence over his own people. Essentially and by disposition a man of peace, he had great force of will and energy in following plans he considered

in the interests of the work over which he presided. By the 'irony of fate' he, the man of peace, lived through the stormy period of rebellions and educational discussions; but the old settlers who knew him best, Protestants: as well as Catholic, always held him in high esteem for his unblemished character and the simple saintliness of his personal life."

Archbishop Tache was succeeded by Father Louis Philippe Adelard Langevin, O.M.I., who was appointed Archbishop of Saint Boniface on January 8, 1895, and consecrated the following March.

In the limits of the space at our disposal it is quite impossible to attempt a record of the steady and normal growth of the Catholic Church in Saskatchewan in recent years. Missionary enterprise among the aborigines continues with unabated vigor, and though one by one the founders of the work have passed or are passing to their rest, many other devoted churchs.


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