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.
When was the last time you picked up some spiritual reading? I mean picked up a book? Do we still have the luxury of time for deep, thoughtful reading? And is there still a place for physical books when we spend so much of our time online? The Church has a clear idea about what spiritual reading is. Distinct in its subject matter and purpose, it is a seeking out of wisdom from trusted spiritual ancestors. Confined to the following sources we read with the purpose of growing in holiness:
- Teachings of the Church
- History of the Church
- Lives and thoughts of saintly people
- Reflections on any of the above
Is holiness unfashionable now? We are required to seek it, and the practice of spiritual reading is a proven method for absorbing spiritual advice from the greatest practitioners of our faith. Here is what we are striving for: “When I read holy books then the spirit and body are illumined and I become the temple of God and the harp of the Holy Spirit, played by divine powers through them I am corrected and through them I receive a kind of divine change and I am made into a different person” [St. Gregory the Theologian]. As St. Ambrose says of God, “we address him when we pray; we hear him when we read.”
The Catholic Pastoral Centre Library contains many treasures for spiritual reading. To engage with such books gladdens the heart and strengthens our faith. As part of the Catholic Pastoral Centre Open House on September 13, you have an opportunity to find some new guides among the books we will be offering at our Feed Your Faith Book Sale. The Library has downsized a little, although we are still very much in business with a strong and current collection of books, magazines and DVDs. We can now make available, for a small donation, many great books that are either duplicates or perhaps not best fitted for our collection. These include historical items and one or two from previous bishops’ collections. There are treasures to suit all tastes. Come and browse the tables and for a donation to our Feed the Hungry program feed your faith, or the spiritual life of a friend or family member!
Has “spiritual reading” become an old fashioned luxury without merit in the modern world? No, it is a requirement for us to seek God in whatever way we can. We need the strength and inspiration available to us through past and present spiritual masters through the written word.
And can we find these resources digitally? The Internet has enabled the spread of wonderful spiritual literature and that is to be praised. But is there a downside to the flickering digital screen. The sheer physicality of a book helps us remember and absorb the text from the geography of the page. Studies suggest that we learn better from a printed page and that reading is easier on the eye. We can pass on books and share them more easily, and digest their lessons best. They can become life companions.
Drop by for the Book Sale and Open House at the Catholic Pastoral Centre on September 13!
When Don Brophy, long-time editor at Paulist Books, wrote a book introducing one hundred Catholic gems of literature, his aim was to show what a rich heritage our Church has. The challenge to explore these books was intriguing. As a life-long Catholic and as archivist and librarian for the Diocese, I could not resist the idea of attempting to read his entire list with a view to broadening my Catholic education. What insights would I find? How might the experience affect my spiritual life?
A list of 100 books is daunting even to a librarian and so this is the first of an occasional series that will reflect on some of these books, their place in history and their value for us now. I encourage you to read along and discover for yourself the spiritual riches within each. Check our Diocesan social media links for more details.
BOOK #1 • Sayings of the Desert Fathers
The Desert Fathers and Mothers were hermits and cenobites (those who live alone but in community) who lived radically simple and austere lives around the fourth century in Egypt. No longer persecuted and unlikely to be martyred for their faith after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, these men and women chose a new form of “death” as they sought God in the harsh purity of the desert where with silence and solitude as guides they looked inward, letting go of the familiar and pure-heartedly followed Christ. Often it was simple Coptic peasants who were attracted to this permanent state of retreat and their teachings spread through oral tradition, sermons, rules, and spiritual sayings or apophthegmata. Most of the sayings are short, surprising teachings. Some are perplexing or challenging but all seek to fostering humility by shaking the false self of the ego and creating space to encounter God.
As academic Belden Lane puts it: “When you become silent enough and empty enough, pouring out your needs to God in that desert place, you are able for the first time to hear what you had never heard before, and that’s a single word whispered by Jesus: love. It’s one of those words that you can’t hear until you are utterly silent and utterly empty.”1
The collected sayings of the Desert Fathers have much to teach us in the present day. We need emptiness, silence, and solitude more than ever in a culture that seeks to fill us with distractions, noise, and deception. Thomas Merton, the monk and mystic, who did much to popularize the Desert Fathers urges us that like them “ … we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God” [Wisdom of the Desert, p. 24].
For me the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers seem startlingly contemporary. And the landscape of Alberta can be desert-like. Even the cities have a look of mournful desolation at times despite all their activity. But the Desert Fathers’ unbending single-minded search for God is what we are all engaged in if we truly want to meet Christ and be happy in this life and the next.
Abba Poemen said, “If three men meet, of whom the first fully preserves inner peace, and the second gives thanks to God in illness, and the third serves with a pure mind, these three are doing the same work.”