ROAMING THE PRAIRES, Fr. Lacombe loved the simplicity of life, the beauty of the wilderness and the exhilaration of the Buffalo hunt. In his journal he notes: “Hey, I am in my element. My cart, my 3 horses, my good Alexis (handyman and hunter), and our Blackfoot cook (Suzanne), with whom I am studying the Blackfoot language, my tent, my chapel-case, my catechisms and objects of piety – behold: my church and my rectory!”
Fr. Lacombe was a dedicated teacher of the Faith. He became proficient in both Cree and Blackfoot and contributed to the creation, development and eventual publication of a Cree dictionary and a Blackfoot glossary. His greatest teaching innovation, though, is the “Catholic Ladder.”
In his book, Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and Métis, author Raymond Huel, Professor of History at the University of Lethbridge, states:
“The (Oblate) missionaries also demonstrated great ingenuity and flexibility in the development of instructional aids. Albert Lacombe transformed the Catholic Ladder into ‘a small masterpiece of pedagogy.’ While preaching to the Blackfoot in 1865, Lacombe supplemented his instruction with drawings made in the sand. Noticing that the visual presentation appealed to his audience, he later suspended a buffalo robe between two poles and used it to draw figures and symbols to present Biblical history. Upon returning to St. Albert, Lacombe used ink and paper to prepare more elaborate versions.”
Later, on his way to Europe to raise funds, recruit clergy and invite immigrants for Oblate Bishop Vital Grandin’s new St. Albert Diocese, he met with the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal, and they published a definitive colored edition. Fr. Lacombe shared his illustrated Catholic Ladder with his fellow missionaries and eventually it was approved by the Pope and used all over the world.
In 1870, a smallpox epidemic devastated Métis, Cree and Blackfoot communities, and Fr. Lacombe responded by visiting village after village, comforting the sick and burying the dead. He wrote to Bishop Taché, “Day and night I am constantly occupied, scarcely having time to say Mass!” Then an influx of illegal American whiskey traders in southern Alberta exploited the Blackfoot with their brand of firewater, prompting Fr. Lacombe to communicate with Ottawa. In 1871 he wrote: “While we await … an impressive (police) force to compel the fulfillment of law, we suffer unceasingly!” By 1872, Lacombe was planning a permanent mission, for himself, in Blackfoot Territory somewhere in the Bow Valley region.
It was not to be, though, as Lacombe was called away to the East on assignments for the Oblates that would keep him from southern Alberta for 10 years!
In that same year, 1872, Alexis Cardinal, Lacombe’s Métis handyman, built a small chapel-cabin for him by the Elbow River in the Springbank region, in anticipation of the Blackfoot mission.
In Lacombe’s absence, Bishop Grandin sent brother Oblates, Fr. Constantine Scollen, and later, Fr. Leon Doucet, who established Notre Dame de la Paix [Our Lady of Peace] at the site of Cardinal’s chapel-cabin in 1873. The mission was re-located to the meeting of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, where the North West Mounted Police built Fort Calgary, in 1875.
Fr. Lacombe was expected to return as an interpreter and advocate for the Blackfoot when they signed Treaty #7 at Blackfoot Crossing, in 1877, but he fell ill while travelling and couldn’t make it. Fr. Scollen replaced him.
When the Buffalo all but disappeared from the Canadian plains in 1879, First Nations bands moved onto their Reserves and the West was opened up for a trans-continental railway and the arrival of settlers to populate the prairies.
December 12, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Fr. Albert Lacombe omi. The omi indicates he was a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and it is also the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Oblates by St. Eugene de Mazenod in Marseilles, France in 1816.
In commemoration of these milestones, a series of stories from Fr. Lacombe’s fascinating career, focusing primarily on his relationship with Calgary and southern Alberta, will be published in the upcoming editions of The Carillon.
The Black Robe Voyageur
Albert Lacombe was born on February 28, 1827 in St. Sulpice, Lower Canada, a village east of Montreal, in today’s Quebec. He was ⅛th Native American and raised in a French Canadian Catholic culture within a British colony. Born 40 years before Confederation, Fr. Lacombe’s life was immersed in the interaction of the three great founding “peoples” of Canada… Native, French and English.
As a young man he was inspired by the example of his parish priest and enthralled by the stories of voyageurs returning from the Fur Trade in the far North West. He would either be a priest or a voyageur… all or nothing… as it turned out, he became both!
Author Katherine Hughes titled her book, Father Lacombe: The Black–Robed Voyageur. It is a biography that captures the essence of his life as a missionary.
In 1848, not long before his ordination, Albert Lacombe recorded this in his journal: “Sunday night, when the Cathedral was filled, Fr. Belcourt went up to the pulpit and painted in an eloquent way the life and work of his missions. I was struck to the heart. An interior voice called to me, ‘Whom shall I send?’ and I said in reply, ‘Behold, I am here, send me!’”
Fr. George Belcourt, a visiting priest from the North West, was a missionary to the mixed–blood Metis on the Western Plains who were already Catholic. Lacombe was intrigued with the missionary way of life and he had an urge to travel.
So, after he was ordained in 1849, at the young age of 22, Fr. Lacombe journeyed to North Dakota for a two-year apprenticeship in the missionary life with Fr. Belcourt, ministering to the Métis Buffalo Hunters.
Travelling there was an adventure in itself, though. Fr. Lacombe had anticipated some of the hardships of being a missionary, like the physical challenges of surviving away from the comforts of civilization. But what a shock it was for him to face the intolerance of the wider world when he was harassed while travelling through the United States to the Pembina Mission. His sheltered life came to an end when he faced ridicule from fellow travellers for wearing a full–length black cassock, some suggesting it was a dress!
What was his response? Despite contrary advice from friends and colleagues, he proudly and stubbornly would wear the long “black-robe” in public, indicating his priesthood, for the rest of his life.
Back in Montreal by 1851, Fr. Lacombe later met Oblate Bishop Alexandre Taché from St. Boniface (Winnipeg) and asked to join the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, tasked with bringing the Faith to the wilderness of the far North West.
Working at the Catholic Pastoral Centre, Jane and I are constantly aware of the many varieties of Catholic spirituality included under the umbrella of the Universal Church. From traditional to liberal, some who are drawn to the beauty of the Latin Mass, others moved by Charismatic Renewal, and those who appreciate the energy and openness of spirit of post-Second Vatican Council theology and liturgy. Many varieties, yes, but only one body, one Church centred in Our Lord. Whichever spirituality moves us we all draw our strength from the Gospel message which at its heart is one of simplicity and clarity.
Looking through our many boxes of books we consigned to the open house library book sale last month only emphasized a sense of diversity. It also gave us great pleasure to rediscover titles that we had previously overlooked. One book in particular caught our attention, Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1981, 2003].
Fr. Dubay, who was a Marist priest, teacher, and retreat master died in 2010. In this book Dubay captures the clarity and forcefulness of the Gospel message while speaking equally to all spiritual sensibilities. While deeply rooted in Catholic traditional language and culture–he adds many anecdotes about how the apostles and saints lived frugality and simplicity– he also is blunt about the imperative to share what we have. He points out the problem:
We hear that we are pilgrims, strangers, and nomads on earth [1 Pet 2:11; Heb 11:13-16], and we respond with a ready “yes.” The Master states plainly that we have no security in anything finite [Lk 12:15], and again we say, “Amen.” But when it comes to our routine choices and decisions, most of us act as though we are by no means strangers and nomads here below. We assume that we belong here, that this is our fatherland, that our security is enhanced by a higher salary, a paid-up mortgage, and adequate coverage of insurance.
Dubay asks why Jesus insists that material poverty, which seems only negative, has crucial value for us. He notes two factors. Firstly, material poverty can give us the experience of radical readiness for the kingdom by developing a thirst for and a love of truth and goodness and a sensitivity to the beauty, attractiveness and authenticity of the revealed Word. Through grace this can tip over into responsiveness. Secondly, the materially poor receive little prestige in the minds of others. We judge each other on externals – what we have, what the eye sees. Where we receive little of this empty prestige we are freed from a false view of ourselves and our place in the universe. Humility allows inward clarity and so readiness for God to dwell with us.
Dubay wrote the first edition of this book in the early 1980s and in it he reacts to images and stories of the times – famine and destitution in the Third and Fourth Worlds, now more commonly called the Global South. He points out the gross inequalities that have only increased since then. Where material poverty has a vitally important aspect, destitution does not. It is in our sharing that we love our neighbour and prove our centre of gravity to be in God. There is no other way. Isn’t the presence of vast and growing inequality in the world an indictment of those of us who could do something about it?
There is much to meditate on in this short book. Simplicity, sustainability, and minimalism are trendy ideas currently. But for Catholics we have a Gospel call to live frugally for our own spiritual good as well as for the good of the world. Highly recommended.
“… my tent, my chapel case, my catechisms and objects of piety – behold, my church and presbytery.”
~ Fr. Albert Lacombe
Despite Fr. Lacombe’s love for his nomadic missionary life the Church has consistently sunk roots into the landscape that it encounters. Pioneer Blessings in the Foothills tells the story of its development in the Okotoks and Black Diamond area. Intertwining passages of narrative history and imaginative reconstruction, local author and parishioner, Shannon Frank has done a great service to the parishes of St. James and St. Michael’s, the Diocese, and to local historians of southern Alberta in telling the story of the Catholic community with sensitivity and insight.
After describing the origins of Catholic life in the area through the eyes of Fr. Albert Lacombe, the story turns to the beginnings of the town of Okotoks, with snapshots at its time of incorporation in 1905, and of John Lineham the “father” of Okotoks. Then we once again inhabit the minds of the early missionaries – this time Fr. Leon Doucet, and Fr. Joseph Lestanc, first parish priest in Okotoks and Black Diamond. Further chapters explore the lives of other priests who have served, the buildings, the parish community and its growth.
The particular charisms of the community are identified; its ecumenical history and spirit and a deep love of the Rosary, inspired by the visit of Father Patrick Peyton and his Rosary Crusade, which was a huge event in the Diocese in 1949.
All our parishes have their own beautiful story. It is such a blessing when these can be revealed with such sensitivity and care. For enquiries about purchasing a copy of the book please contact the Catholic Pastoral Centre Library.
To unify us all, the Diocesan Centennial Committee has created a motto and logo for this momentous occasion.
The gold cross with white interior and golden star-burst symbolizes the glory and purity of our faith within Jesus Christ.
The red Bishop's mitre is taken from the existing logo for our diocese. The specific shade of red was chosen to fit a variety of Christian references as well as the official colours of the Canadian flag.
The banner provides key information in the logo—the year of the founding of the Diocese through to the centennial, 2012. The ribbon shape incorporates the celebratory dates and its deep graduated tones denote the transience of this particular time and the continuation of the Diocese into the future.
The sky is a feature in southern Alberta and refers to Alberta's official shade of blue. It is also a colour specifically referencing the Virgin Mary, the Diocesan Patroness.
The green, snow capped, mountains denote the plains, foothills, and forested mountains of Alberta referencing both the official Alberta shade of green and the attendant Christian colour iconography of nature and hope.
The red shield denotes the shelter the Church provides and relates specifically to the shape of our diocesan logo. The colour is part of the contiguity: each reference in this logo to the Diocese has the same red colour.
Lastly the golden wheat heads, three on either side, carry a host of references, from the agricultural heritage of Alberta, the humble beginnings of our pioneer ancestors, and symbolizing the host—the bread with which we celebrate the Eucharist. The number of wheat heads was chosen to refer to both the Trinity (three on either side) and six: the number of days in which God created the world.