By the spring of 1885, there was trouble brewing in the West. Louis Riel protested conditions to the Canadian Government on behalf of the Metis and some Cree bands in central Saskatchewan and started the North West Rebellion. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent soldiers on the CPR to put down the uprising and protect settler’s communities on the prairies.
The Blackfoot Confederacy had been approached by Riel to join in the fray and people in Calgary and surrounding areas were nervous. What would Crowfoot do?
Once again, Fr. Lacombe was called upon to take his place on the national stage and he made several visits to Crowfoot to ensure his loyalty and control over the heavily-armed young warriors.
One of the most important telegrams in Canadian history was sent to Ottawa by Lacombe. It simply read: “I have seen Crowfoot and all the Blackfoot. All quiet. Promised me to be loyal no matter how things turn out elsewhere.”
The Riel Rebellion was over by the summer of 1885 and one of the outcomes of the danger in Saskatchewan became a benefit for Calgary. Bishop Grandin transferred some Sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, the FCJs, away from the area near the rebellion. Fr. Lacombe had just finished building a brand new two-story Oblate rectory and chapel for the mission. He gladly turned it over to the Sisters for their convent and a school room. Once again Fr. Lacombe would be living in a tent on the prairie… but it was all for a good cause!
In December of 1885, the first school district in the North West Territories was erected… Lacombe Roman Catholic School District #1, with Mother Mary Greene fcj, as its first superintendent. Later the name would be changed to the Calgary Catholic School District.
In 1886, Prime Minister Macdonald invited Crowfoot and the other chiefs from southern Alberta, who had remained loyal during the Rebellion, to tour eastern Canada and receive honors. Fr. Lacombe accompanied them and was effectively their tour guide. On their visit to Ottawa, Crowfoot got up to make a speech and he acknowledged his friend: “This man, the Man of Good Heart, is our brother — not only our Father, as the white people call him — but our brother. He is one of our people. When we weep he is sad for us, when we laugh, he laughs with us. We love him. He is our brother.”
Crowfoot died in 1890, after being baptized by Fr. Doucet. Fr. Lacombe honored his friend, the Great Chief, by writing a biography of his life for newspaper publication. It was the end of an era.
The last 30 years of Fr. Lacombe’s life were not filled with the dramatic history-making events of his hey-day in the national spotlight, but his travel schedule and the list of his accomplishments is still impressive. From the age of 60 Fr. Lacombe tried to retire at least five or six times, but there was always something to do!
He had built himself a chapel-cabin at Pincher Creek, in southwest Alberta in 1885, dedicated to St. Michael, and called it his “hermitage,” a place he could go for solitude and use as a home base. He would return there repeatedly over the years until 1908… but he was never there for long.
In 1909, he was inspired to create what he called, “the most beautiful dream of my life!” It would be located in the Calgary area and called the Lacombe Home… for orphans and the elderly.
He approached Patrick Burns, one of the Big 4 founders of the Calgary Stampede. Burns owned the large Bow Valley Ranche and donated 200 acres of land on a bluff overlooking Fish Creek, close to Macleod Trail and the Midnapore CPR station. Lord Strathcona, of CPR fame, made a significant donation as did many of Lacombe’s old friends.
The Sisters of Providence agreed to administer and serve at the Home and it was opened in November, 1910. An aging Fr. Lacombe was its first resident.
At the dedication he said: “We are now ready to receive all those in need who will come and knock at our door. The elderly will find solace in their time of suffering. The little ones will find devoted mothers to care for them.”
The Lacombe Home was declared a Provincial Historic Site in 1979, but the building burned down in 1999. The area today is home to St. Mary’s University, the Sisters of Providence Convent, the Fr. Lacombe Care Centre, and the Providence Care Centre. The Fish Creek/Lacombe C-Train station honors the history of the area.
By 1913, Calgary and southern Alberta had become its own Diocese led by Bishop McNally. St. Mary’s was now a Cathedral and Fr. Lacombe made his last public appearance there in March of that year. He finished his remarks with these words:
“Many years ago, I stood here on this piece of ground and pictured myself the time when a great Cathedral would stand here.
I will not be with you very long now. I want to plead with you for the poor and the needy and the destitute. God bless you for your kindness to those needy ones at Midnapore. God bless you, people of Calgary, God bless you!”
Fr. Lacombe died on December 12, 1916 in his room at the Lacombe Home. After a funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, his casket was taken by a CPR “ceremonial train” up to Edmonton to lie in state at St. Joachim’s Church for a few days of public veneration… a parish he had founded 60 years earlier.
Later he was buried at St. Albert, crossing the Sturgeon River Bridge for the last time. His body lies in a crypt beneath the St. Albert Church beside those of Bishop Grandin and Fr. Leduc.
That’s in Treaty #6 Territory, traditional lands of the Cree. They called him… “the Noble Soul.”
But his “heart,” at his request, is still in southern Alberta, buried in a small cemetery behind the Sisters of Providence Convent overlooking Fish Creek Provincial Park.
That’s here, in Treaty #7 Territory, traditional lands of the Blackfoot. They called him: “The Man of Good Heart.”
By 1884, the CPR was bringing more settlers to the Calgary region. Unable to obtain homestead grants yet from the government, due to the lack of completed surveys, many newcomers were simply squatting on whatever piece of open land they could find. Fr. Lacombe was concerned about the proximity of settlers to his mission and the future of Our Lady of Peace. Without waiting for approval from Bishop Grandin he took passage on a CPR construction train and made his way cross-country to Ottawa. Visiting the office of the Minister of the Interior, David MacPherson, Fr. Lacombe announced he was there to obtain a homestead grant for the property around the mission. MacPherson, unmoved, told the priest that he would put in a request to the department in due time.
Local historian David Mittel-stadt, commenting on the creation of one of Calgary’s earliest communities, records Lacombe’s legendary response:
“Non, monsieur, I cannot go until I receive that settlement of our land. I came hundreds of miles to you just for this. I will wait here with your permission. I am used to camping on the prairie… I will just camp here until I get my papers.”
Well, with the prospect of having Fr. Lacombe sleeping on the floor by his office door, MacPherson lost no time in arranging the land grant!
In fact, Fr. Lacombe registered two homesteads, one for himself and one for his colleague, Fr. Leduc, in order to double the size of the property he was claiming for the Oblates and the Diocese of St. Albert.
The location of St. Mary’s Cathedral is well known to Calgarians, and it is surrounded by St. Mary’s High School, St. Mary’s Hall, the original St. Mary’s Hall, St. Monica School, the Sacred Heart Convent of the FCJ Sisters, Our Lady of Lourdes School, and, further south, the old Holy Cross Hospital site. This is the community of Mission, appropriately named, and it included St. Mary’s Cemetery on the hill across the river. It is all part of the original Lacombe-Leduc homestead area.
Fr. Lacombe had the Mission Bridge built over the Elbow River and he contracted the grading of the Mission Road, as a shortcut to and from Macleod Trail. It still is a useful shortcut!
Many Calgarians enjoy the 4th Street Lilac Festival every Spring. All the buildings, condos, and houses on the east side of 4th Street SW, south of 17th Avenue, are on sub-divided lots that Fr. Lacombe sold. Yes, he was a real estate magnate! But, honouring his vow of poverty, all proceeds were directed towards the needs of the Church, of course. Today historical signage indicates the original street names: 17th Avenue was Notre Dame Road; 18th Avenue (St. Joseph Street); 19th Avenue (St. Mary’s); 20th Avenue (Oblate); 21st Avenue (Lacombe); 22nd Avenue (Doucet); 23rd Avenue (Rouleau) - for the two French Canadian brothers who settled there; 24th Avenue (Grandin), 25th Avenue (Scollen), and 26th Avenue (Legal).
In that same year, 1884, Fr. Lacombe arranged for the construction of the St. Joseph Industrial School south of Calgary at Dunbow. With Canadian Government funding and policies in place, the Residential School was run by the Oblates and Grey Nuns. It was “meant” to serve the children of the Blackfoot Confederacy by teaching them skills to cope with the inevitable changes to their traditional lifestyle. Fr. Lacombe was the Principal and primary recruiter for the school in its first year of operation and Crowfoot approved of the plan.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Mission Council receives about 30 appeals every year from different parts of the world. Some applicants need very urgent and immediate help. However, because of the lack of funds we can only help a few projects out of the 30 appeals. It’s very difficult to let others down every year, and it breaks my heart.
I hope that many faithful will participate in this mission to help people in need. We chose eight projects last year and I am happy to present some photos of our diocesan missions. We are unable to include photos for one project (Rescuing young girls from human trafficking in Nepal) due to confidentiality.
I take an opportunity to give a sincere thank to all the donors whose generosity made this mission possible.
God bless you,
Sr. Rita Kim FMM
View the mission council report here: http://www.calgarydiocese.ca/resources/mission-council-2016-report.html
Father Lacombe was assigned as ‘Chaplain’ to the Canadian Pacific Railway work camps east of Winnipeg in 1880 by Archbishop Taché and for two years his ‘Sacred Heart Mission’ followed the progress of the construction as it moved west.
William C. Van Horne, Chief Engineer of the CPR, describes his introduction to Fr. Lacombe: “Near the Lake of the Woods one morning in 1882 I saw a priest standing on a flat rock, his crucifix in his right hand and his broad hat in the other, silhouetted against the rising sun… It was a scene never to be forgotten and the noble and saintly countenance of the priest brought it to me that it must be Fr. Lacombe of whom I had heard so much; and it was.”
Fr. Lacombe was already a legend to the CPR owners but he was equally in awe of them and the project they were undertaking. He was also keenly aware of the monumental impact the railway would have on the North West.
In his book, simply titled, Father Lacombe, author James MacGregor records the priest’s words: “I would look long in silence at that road coming on — like a band of wild geese in the sky — cutting its way through the prairies; opening up the great country we thought would be ours for years. Like a vision I could see it driving my poor Indians before it, and spreading out behind it the farms, the towns and the cities you see today.”
An entry in Fr. Lacombe’s journal about this time gives us an indication of his state of mind: “My God, send me back again to my old Indian missions… I am longing for that!” His prayers would soon be answered. Although he was not a fan of the rowdy conduct of the work crews, they obviously liked him… when he left, they chipped in to buy him a ‘horse and wagon’ outfit to take him back to St. Albert!
In 1882, Fr. Lacombe’s hopes were finally realized and Bishop Grandin of St. Albert appointed him Superior of the Southern Missions, based in Calgary.
His first priority was to make plans for the expansion of buildings at “Our Lady of Peace,” soon to be known as St. Mary’s, and to visit each reserve to assess its needs. It wasn’t long, however, before he was involved in more critical events of national importance.
By 1883, construction of the CPR had passed Medicine Hat and it was on its way to Calgary. The ‘right of way’ was infringing on the Blackfoot Reserve boundaries. Crowfoot and his fellow chiefs were threatening to resist any trespassing on their land… violence was possible.
When the government hesitated to act, Fr. Lacombe came to the rescue, taking advantage of his friendly relationship with Crowfoot. Without getting government approval first, he brought gifts and food out to the reserve and negotiated a land swap so that the tribe would be satisfied. The Canadian government happily complied with Fr. Lacombe’s compromise to keep the peace, and the directors of the CPR were grateful as well that construction would continue unimpeded.
When railway construction finally reached Calgary, Fr. Lacombe was invited to a luncheon with all the CPR executives in their dining car. To honour his contribution to the ongoing construction of the railway, President George Stephen resigned his leadership of the company and Fr. Lacombe was voted as honorary President of the CPR for one hour! He took immediate advantage of his situation and assigned himself two free passes on the trains, free freight for the Oblate Missions, and free use of the telegraph wires, for life!
International Mission 2016 Report
Mission Council chose 7 projects to help people in need in five different countries
- Darjeeling Jesuit Province for direct involvement in evangelization
- Save Trust for mining children in Magara, Guntur
- Vellore Diocese - for carpentry tools for the vocational training of young boys
- Multipurpose Social Service Society of the Cuddapah Diocese - for vocational skill training in tailoring and embroidery
- Eritrea: To finish off the Church in Hamedey
- Democratic Republic of Congo: For furniture in the chapel of Notre-Dame University of Kayasi
- Sri Lanka: Happy Life for drug prevention and awareness program, and practical leadership skills in Mirigama
- Nepal: Aid to rescue young women from prostitution through Servants Anonymous in Calgary