Father Albert Lacombe was a very dedicated missionary with a great sense of adventure who brought the Christian message to Western Canada for over 65 years.
Albert Lacombe was born to a farm family in Saint Sulpice, Quebec, where he spent most of his youth. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and in 1849 was ordained as a priest. In 1856 he became a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He went on his first mission to the Red River settlement, working there with Bishop Alexandre Taché, omi. In 1852, his sense of adventure lead him to make the thousand mile journey to Fort Edmonton where he spent the winter learning the Cree language with the Cree and Métis populations. Lacombe’s caring ways soon won him a place in the hearts of the native populations.
He resided at the mission at Lac Ste. Anne from 1853. Lacombe later travelled to the area of Lesser Slave Lake, where he tried to convince the natives to abandon their nomadic lifestyle for a more settled way of life. After achieving little success, Lacombe returned to the area around Ft. Edmonton.
|Credit the Missionary Oblates, Grandin Collection at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, #OB3155|
In 1859 he established St. Joachim Church in Ft. Edmonton which would be the first school in the province. In 1861, with the help of some Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, he established a new mission along the Sturgeon River, which was named St. Albert after his patron saint. The next year he was responsible for the construction of a bridge in St. Albert, the first bridge west of the Red River settlement.
Soon Lacombe grew restless, and accepted the mission to travel around Alberta to convert the Plains Indians. During the next fifteen years, Lacombe preached to natives around Alberta and set up several missions, including Fort Macleod and St. Paul des Métis which later became St. Paul. His honest manner won him the friendship of many influential native leaders such as Crowfoot, and he worked to encourage peace between the Cree and Blackfoot peoples. The Blackfeet people named him “Good Heart.” Lacombe was responsible for writing numerous works in native languages, including a Cree dictionary and book of grammar.
In 1872, Lacombe returned to Manitoba and took over St. Mary’s parish in Winnipeg. In 1879, he became the Vicar of the Canadian Pacific Railway workers at St. Boniface, Manitoba.
He came back to Calgary, becoming the first parish priest and in 1883 Lacombe used his strong communication skills to negotiate the settlement of a conflict between the Blackfoot and Canadian Pacific Railway, who wanted to build a rail line across the reserve. Lacombe successfully negotiated on behalf of the railway, and it was allowed to pass through the Blackfoot land. According to railway legend, the Company, forever indebted to the caring and dedicated priest, installed Father Lacombe as president – for one hour – as a symbol of their profound appreciation.
Lacombe also assisted with negotiations when the North-West Rebellion erupted in 1885. Due to his strong relationship with Chief Crowfoot, peace was maintained, and the Blackfoot warriors were not involved in the conflict.
In 1904, Lacombe went to live in Pincher Creek, in his “Hermitage” of Saint Michel. Lacombe’s focus shifted to education in his later years, and he was involved in the founding of several schools. In 1909 he achieved his “last great dream”. With the land donated by Patrick Burns, and the help of the Sisters of Providence, he built a care centre for seniors and orphans, the Lacombe Home in Midnapore near Calgary. This site is now the location of St. Mary’s University College.
From 1910 to 1916, Lacombe served as co-pastor in St Patrick’s Church. When he passed away in 1916, his body was placed in a crypt at the St. Albert parish and his heart remained in a glass reliquary at the convent in Midnapore and in 1992 buried at the cemetery nearby.
Father Lacombe is remembered as “The Man of the Good Heart”, a peace broker among the natives, and a missionary who worked tirelessly to bring his Christian message and improve the way of life for people across the Canadian prairies.
MacEwan, Grant, Fifty Mighty Men, Greystone Books, 1975