From the very first landing of European Christian explorers, the “saving” of the Indians by conversion to Christianity was a matter of prime concern. The French and Spanish made Christianization and “civilization” a regular part of the government scheme. Priests, therefore, accompanied each group of colonists. “In English colonization, on the other hand the work was usually left to the zeal of the individual philanthropist or of voluntary organization.” (Handbook of Indians of Canada, Geographic Board of Canada).
The Hudson’s Bay Company was an English organization while the Nor’Westers were an assorted lot — mainly Scots. They sponsored no colonization schemes in the Peace River Country and showed themselves much more apt to take native wives and adapt to Indian ways then to try to change them. Even the devout traders, Thompson and Harmon, leave no records of proselytizing their native friends. Missionaries, therefore, came late to the Northwest.
The ancestors of our Cree and Saulteaux Indians were exposed to the teachings of the French priests who penetrated the prairie areas with LaVerendrye in the period 1731-1742. No known attempt was made to form permanent mission settlements. Nearly a hundred years passed before Oblate Father Provencher was appointed bishop of Rupert’s Land and the Northwest Territories in 1822. Between then and his death in 1853 he worked to organize the indescribably vast region from the base at St. Boniface near Winnipeg. Father George Belcourt worked out of St. Paul Mission on the Assiniboine River, ministering primarily to the Saulteaux.
Names of Oblate missionaries from 1845 – 1882 who directly or indirectly touched the Cree and Saulteaux ancestors of our native population are Father Albert Lacombe, Alexandra Tache, Jean Thibault, and Emile Petitot. To Father Lacombe goes the credit for the first “monumental grammar and dictionary of the Cree language”. To Father Petitot goes credit for the first Athapaskan dictionary.
Father Petitot is rated in the Handbook of the Indians of Canada as “by far the most noted of all the Oblate missionaries of the Great Northwest, acknowledged by competent Canadian Authority as ‘our greatest scientific writer on the Indians and Eskimos’”.
In 20 years, beginning in 1862, he covered the territory from Winnipeg to the Arctic Ocean, frequently making six-week journeys on snowshoes. Much of his work was in the Arctic as far as Alaska, but “compelled by illness (!) he made the journey of 1200 miles back to Lake Athabasca on foot, thence by canoe to Winnipeg.”
His writings were his greatest contribution, Traditions Indionnes (in French) being the most notable. To our area, his great Dene-Dindjie Dictionary, which enabled others to learn the basic Athapaskan languages, was of indirect value. The nearest to our Beavers was the Chipewyan tribe, the Beavers not being mentioned in the reference book. However, Slaves, Hares, and Dogribs are akin. Besides the language, he recorded many ethnological and philosophical works on these same tribes, as well as on the Cree and the Eskimos.
His works were published a hundred years after white men first came in contact with the Indians, so that the observations of Alexander Mackenzie, Harmon and David Thompson are fundamental, when expanded by the later ones of the great priest-scholar.
The pioneer missionary among northern Athapaskans may have been a Father Grollier who was martyred before 1846 at Fort Good Hope, down the Mackenzie River from Fort Chipewyan.
The story that a Father St. John was sent to “Rocky Mountain Fort” in 1802 was published locally in connection with an old building at the site of the more modern Fort St. John — near the present town of that name. As many local people dismiss the story, the writer attempted to verify it through the Archives of the Catholic Church but without success. Not because it was denied, but because it was necessary to go to Eastern Canada to look it up for oneself. We will deal with this a little later.
In what we call the Peace River Block today the Wesleyan Methodists Rev. R.T. Rundle and Rev. James Evans seem to have been the first Protestant missionaries. In the fall of 1841 Evans left Edmonton for Lesser Slave Lake, followed by Rev. Rundle in 1842. His was a terrible winter journey by dogsled. Rundle manned a mission there until 1844. One of these men may have been the one who first visited Fort St. John, because thirty years before Bishop Bompas ascended the river to Hudson’s Hope, some Protestant missionary people had preceded him, but none had been seen since at Fort St. John.
Without detracting from the courage, endurance and devotion of these worthy men, but only recognizing the characteristics of the sects they represented, one may surmise that the severe mien and austere services of those Protestants were not as likely to attract the Indians. Only after the government, under the Indian Act, entrusted to the Christian missionaries the education of the natives in Indian Residential Schools would the Protestants have much influence on the natives.
The Catholics, on the other hand, had several advantages, later shared to a certain extent by the Episcopalians or Anglicans. The Indians were used to rituals, chanting and colourful costumes. Besides, the Catholics later had an asset, all too seldom recognized — the nuns, who ministered to the sick, and touched the lives of the women, who were usually the first to respond. The Anglican clergy had wives who followed them into the wilderness, and performed in the same way.
Most of the Catholics came not from the Edmonton base but from St. Boniface near Winnipeg, advancing along the same route as the Nor’Westers over the Methye Portage. Nevertheless a Father Bourassa, who was stationed at Lac Ste. Ann near Edmonton, was the first priest to enter what we now call the Peace River Country. In 1845-47 he visited the natives at many points, including Lesser Slave Lake and Fort Vermilion.
Meanwhile in 1844 a Father Thibault had established a mission at Lac la Biche, almost at the doorstep of the Peace River Country. In 1846 Father Tache and Abbe Lafleche started a mission at Isle-a-la-Crosse, the portal to the famous Methye Portage over which all trade came to and from the Peace River Country. The next year, 1847, Father Tache reached the Chipewyans on Lake Athabasca, to be followed by Father Faraud who built La Nativity Mission there in 1847. When Father Tache was made Bishop of the whole vast Northwest and Rupert’s Land, embracing the whole of Western Canada, he did not forget this part of his northern parish. He sent Father Vigriville to Ile-a-la Crosse and Fort Chipewyan in 1852. He himself visited Fort Vermilion in 1860. By 1862 Father Faraud also became a Bishop, because Father Tache’s diocese was far too large to administer from St. Boniface near Winnipeg.
Bishop Faraud is said, in Land of Twelve Foot Davis, to be the first priest to visit Fort St. John in 1867, having left Father Tissier to build a mission at Dunvegan. These two might be the first priests to visit the Beaver Indians here.
Still there is the mystery of the name “Fort St. John”. When Mr. MacGregor wrote the above named book, the story of “The Old Fort” — burned by vandals in 1974 — had not been published. According to the history of the Church in Montreal, “a brigade coming West from Montreal expressly to set up a new trading post and church on the Peace River, left Montreal in 1802. The party included one Father St. John. It is thought that they did not make the trip the first year and possibly wintered at Fort Chipewyan, the largest and most popular wintering place at that time. In the spring of 1803 the party went on and set up the post on the Peace, building the Fort and the church in the summer of that year. These facts are borne out by the church records in Montreal”. [Peace River Block News, August 17, 1961.] A plan and sketches for a one-story church building accompanied the letter from Montreal. Old Fort St. John clearly showed that it had been such a one-storey building, torn down and reconstructed later with an added second storey, along with a chapel. The date, carved in Roman numerals on the door post, was 1813. In 1806, when the first Fort was constructed, it was called Rocky Mountain Fort, and in 1805 it was referred to by the trader at Dunvegan as “Rocky Mountain Fort”. Perhaps the old church was still known by the older name, and perhaps also, like other Peace Country Posts, it was moved when it was rebuilt. However it happened, it seems that a certain Father St. John was the first priest. These church records are very hard to get unless one visits the archives at Montreal. Even if one did so, he should know whether the individual belonged to the Jesuit, Oblate, or Redemptorist Order. The foregoing story about Father St. John is still disputed by some people and it does not appear in Peacemakers of the North Peace. Bishop Faraud, OMI, at present is locally recognized as the first to visit Fort St. John’s Beavers in 1867. As a Bishop, his first concern would be to inspect parishes already established, therefore one may ask, “Was there a church at Fort St. John in 1867? If so, was it called “St. John’s” after that first-comer in 1803? Or was it the rebuilt church of 1813?” If so, it may have been located at a Fort that nobody talks about these days. Fort l’Epinette, likely near the mouth of the present Pine River near Taylor. This is not the place to try to resolve the confusion about names and places. It is sufficient to establish the time of the first official visit of a Bishop to the B.C. Peace. The visit was by Bishop Faraud and the year was 1867.
Bishop Faraud was a remarkable man, priest, administrator of a huge area, and enterprising businessman. To facilitate the transport of goods to the many missions he was setting up, he instituted a transportation system, first in 1869 by means of four-ton scows. Then he began to cut roads for carts to the Athabasca. In 1887 the Hudson’s Bay used the missionaries’ road to haul machinery to build a steamer on the Athabasca. Bishop Faraud was years ahead of the commercial companies as the father (no pun intended) of Northern overland transportation.
By 1864 the diocese was already too heavy for Bishop Faraud. Another very enterprising priest, Father Clut, was named Co-adjutor (assistant) Bishop, but he was so far away down the Mackenzie that is was 1867 before the news caught up with him and brought him back to Fort Chipewyan to be ordained. It was not until 1890 that a recognized mission was built on the flat below present-day Fort St. John by Father Husson (who had been the first resident priest at Fort Vermilion).
This may have been and probably was the Old Fort ST. John burned down in 1973, or it may have been an older church, moved upriver from one of the Fort St. John’s or Fort l’Epinette. A building once consecrated to the Church tends to be cherished and restored where possible.
We are years ahead of our chronological story here. However, these old missionaries lived to such great ages that their works are bound to overlap in time.
To the most famous priest of all, Father Grouard, later Bishop, and still later Titular Archbishop, we simply cannot do justice in this summary. The reader can do no better than to read page 242 to 251 in MacGregor’s Land of Twelve Foot Davis. Greatly condensed, here is his biography from another source:
GROUARD, Emile Jean Baptiste Marie, Roman Catholic missionary: born Feb. 2, 1840, in Brulon, Sarthe, France. Died at Grouard, Alta., March 7, 1931. Educated in France and, after coming to Canada in 1860, at Laval University. Ordained in 1862, he joined the Oblate Order and in 1863 was sent as a missionary to Greater Slave Lake. He spent the rest of his life ministering to the Indians of the far Northwest. He introduced the first printing press into the Peace River district and published many hymnbooks, prayer books and catechisms in the languages of various Indian tribes. He was vicar apostolic of Athabasca, with the title of bishop of Ibora, 1890-1929. He became a titular archbishop in 1930. His reminiscences of 60 years of service in the Athabasca-Mackenzie region were published in 1923. Grouard, Alta., was named in his honour.
GROUARD, Alberta. A hamlet at the northwest extremity of Lesser Slave Lake, some 230 miles northwest of Edmonton. Known formerly as Lesser Slave Lake village, it was renamed in 1909 in honour of Bishop Grouard. In the days of the Klondike gold rush and until the arrival of the railroad in 1915, the community had been an active centre on the route to the Peace River area. It is still an active centre of Roman Catholic mission work with the Indians.
Bishop Grouard laboured mightily for the country from 1862 to 1931; a total of 69 years, bridging the time between the fur trade days and the advent of the settlers as the railway inched forward. Dawson Creek’s beginnings and the end of his life coincided.
The Indians were always his first concern. Among other accomplishments he became as much a master of the Beaver language as a white man could be who was not brought up with them from infancy. He caused the services of his church to be printed in Beaver Syllabics which are quite different from the Cree.
Locally he is best remembered for the construction of St. Charles’ Mission at Dunvegan, now restored by the Alberta Government. Gone, regrettably, is the famous original altar painting, done by the Bishop himself on a perfect piece of moose. The hide was brought in by a Metis, Jean Baptiste Castawich, (apparently of Iroquois-French descent.) The painting was a replica of one he had done for the church at Lac-la-Biche. After it had been rescued when the church was deserted, and taken to Peace River Town, that church in turn was destroyed by fire.
The Indians loved as well as respected him, giving him the name meaning “Man-who-prays, his-hair-on-chin-much-of-it”. All of them knew him, for he travelled over and over again from Fort Edmonton to farthest Alaska on every known kind of conveyance. He became famous all over Canada, and even in Europe, where he went to recruit more priests and to get help to minister to his beloved natives. He also told the poor of Europe of the opportunities in this new land. A Father Tissier was assigned to live at Dunvegan, at that time the fur-trade capital of the Peace. Father Tissier also had Fort Vermilion in his parish, a mere 300 miles away. Other famous priests came briefly, including Father Lacombe, to the church at Dunvegan which Father Grouard and Father Husson had built with their own hands.
There seemed to be no end to the kinds of enterprise he could do or cause to be done. Did a church need a statue? — he carved it. Did the now semi-starving natives need more provisions than the Hudson Bay could transport? — he would have a steamboat built. In 1903 he visited Fort St. John on his, the first steamer on our Peace, the St. Charles. Could the natives use the flour from grain already being grown? — he would have a mill, powered by a sixteen-foot windmill. It was the first in the country even if it didn’t produce flour until a lay Brother, Jeremie Lavoie of Fort Vermilion, came along to demonstrate that they had crossed one of the belts that drove the machinery. Bishop Grouard was more executive than engineer! Towards the end Bishop Foussard came to help him. They died within a year of each other.
Dunvegan’s St. Charles’ Mission had been closed since 1903, but Father Josse, a “scholar and musician” came back on June 11, 1961 at the age of 93. He was still a smooth-faced, active man and he came to see the Mission reopened and rededicated. He had been the last resident priest there.
Penetration into the Grande Prairie-Pouce Coupe country came by way of Sturgeon Lake, an old Indian settlement on a lake between Grande Prairie and Valleyview. Father Dupin first came from Grouard in 1884. Later Father Calais followed him and gave his name to the first settlement on the shore. Nearly twenty years later Father Louis Girard built a church and residence, and, in 1903, became the first resident priest. In 1910 Fathers Husson and LeFerriere, with the help of three lay Brothers — Dumas, Nicholas and Welsh — built St. Francis Xavier Residential School and Mission for the Indians. It was almost a small village in itself.
The buildings were substantial being constructed of squared-oval logs, afterwards neatly covered with spruce-lumber siding, and painted. Several were very large structures. The many windows and metal chimneys were modern for their day. Since such Missions were entrusted by the Federal Government with the education of the Indians, they received financial help from Ottawa. Nevertheless, the staff was obliged to raise a great deal of their own food on the Mission farm and supplement it by fish from the lake. To help in the work, Bishop Grouard recruited lay Brothers, most noted of whom was Brother Mathias from France. Mathias is described in David Williamson’s The Red, White Man, as a “stout powerful individual with a short temper and a lump about the size of a hen’s egg on his forehead… a taciturn man whose sandy hair glistened with sweat… with massive shoulders and slender hips… ready to meet any challenge… chief carpenter, works foreman and jack-of-all-trades… a bit of an amateur architect, general planner, and engineer… and (in 1914) Father Habay’s assistant during Holy Mass and other church rites.” There were many such devoted laymen in the service of the mission fields.
We cannot ignore the work of the nuns, the Sisters of Providence who arrives at St. Augustine on the Shaftesbury Flats near Peace River in 1898. Sometime after that but before 1914 Father Habay had succeeded Father Calais, and with the Sisters was operating the Mission as a residential school, orphanage, and hospital. Like the priests, many of the Sisters were from wealthy, even aristocratic, homes. Yet they came to the wilderness to share long years with the natives. Sister Margaret Mary, who had come to Sturgeon Lake as a novice in 1914, died in 1974. The same order of Sisters later operated the early hospitals in the Peace River Country, including Fort St. John’s and Dawson Creek’s, until 1973.
Father La Treste visited the Grande Prairie area in 1885, when a large camp of Indians was found, fishing on Bear Creek. (Later Grande Prairie’s water supply.) By 1889 a priest’s house and chapel were built for the Indians at Saskatoon Lake, where the Hudson’s Bay Company had a post, several miles from Grande Prairie. By 1908, since most of the Indians had moved to Flying Shot Lake southwest of Grande Prairie, the old Saskatoon Lake Mission was torn down and rebuilt at that new location by Father Alac, and the same Brother Mathias who masterminded Sturgeon Lake’s Mission. The church at Flying Shot or “Ka-nawa-ata-hiket” was the first in the Grande Prairie area. Father Josse took charge in 1911, when it was becoming a centre for settlers.
Two years before that, Pouce Coupe Prairie was still an Indian settlement except for Hector Tremblay’s farm. Memoirs of Hector Tremblay Junior , from a taped interview. Mr. Tremblay is the only one yet alive who could remember.
Interviewer: Can you remember your first Priest’s name?
H.T.: I think it was Father O’Tennent. I know we had a priest by the name of Father Josse. He used to come up from Spirit River. He was the one that baptized my sisters.
Interviewer: Did you have a Church then, or a Hall?
H.T.: No there was no church or anything like that. There were preachers and priests — they used to come through the district. I know they used to stop at our place and we had ministers and catholic priests who had home services at our little old place there…..I don’t know when they started building. They built the church up on my place on the hill. (Above Riley’s Crossing)… I think it was either 1914 or ’15. We all got together and hewed the logs, with Mr. Pat Knowles, Mr. Marion and Mr. Goshinger. There were quite a few people who helped put it up. We then had a steady priest”. (Resident?)
This shows that the first church on Pouce Coupe Prairie was not in the strict sense of the word a “missionary church”.
Father Josse’s reminiscences say:
“In the fall of 1909 when I was still in charge of the Spirit River mission, I made a visit to Pouce Coupe over the pack trail route. On the 17th of October 1909 the first Catholic service was held at Mr. Tremblay’s house at the confluence of the Dawson Creek and the Pouce Coupe River. In 1911 and 1912 I made my yearly visits to Pouce Coupe from Grande Prairie by way of Lake Saskatoon, Beaverlodge, Horse Lake, etc. There was no highway then, no bridges over the creeks, no corduroy on soft places and with the best of luck it took two and a half days to cover the distance.” [Campbell, Grande Prairie, Capitol of the Peace]
A church known as St. Emile is recorded in an old snapshot. The Tremblays gave a plot of land up on the hill where the road now breaks over to Riley’s Crossing. Whether that church or chapel was there and later burned or moved we have not at this point been able to ascertain. Mrs. Esme Tuck remembered a Catholic Church building being constructed in Pouce Coupe, but there was an interval when the “village” had been further North on Saskatoon Creek. We know that it sometimes used to take Father Josse four days to come from Grande Prairie to Pouce Coupe.
Father Josse was the last of the famous Catholic missionaries to the Indians. That is not to say that missionaries do not carry on today. We can mention, for example, Father C. Mariman, OMI, at Meander River on the Mackenzie Highway, who for forty self-denying years has served a poverty-stricken parish while he laboured to translate the Bible into the Beaver-Slavey dialect — a task he cannot finish because he cannot afford a typist.
Another is Father Jungbluth, the self-effacing priest, still devoting his life to his Indian parishioners at Moberly Lake, Chetwynd and, isolated Kelly Lake.
We have mentioned the pioneer Wesleyan (Methodist) missionaries Rundle and Evans. The Episcopalian (Anglican Church) first directed its efforts to the far North beyond the Peace River country. It was not until 1865 that Rev. Wm. C. Bompas came from England, and still later, began to work in the Peace River Country among the Dogribs, Chipewyans, Beavers and Slaveys. In view of his constant travels it is hard to understand how he could have written primers in every language and dialect he encountered but perhaps this accounts for the very scanty records he submitted about his own work.
We know that he was at Fort Chipewyan during the winter of 1867, and the following summer ascended the Peace to Fort Vermilion, where he met the Beavers, whom he described as “very pitiable and fast dying off”. He decided to establish a mission to serve them. Three thousand miles from a railroad, the fact that the country seemed rich enough to be largely self-sustaining in food, probably influenced his decision.
Rev. Bompas was a tireless traveler. In the spring of 1871 he went farther up the Peace — actually as far as Hudson’s Hope. He conducted the first known Anglican service at Fort St. John. On this trip he demonstrated the social services concern of the Church Missionary Society of London by vaccinating over five hundred Indians against the smallpox which was the epidemic.
In 1874 Rev. Bompas became Bishop of Athabasca Diocese, which took in the whole Mackenzie River system area. Ten years later the diocese was subdivided, Bishop Bompas taking the Mackenzie area, and Bishop Richard Young the Peace River area, with the headquarters or See at Athabasca town, the junction for all transportation routes at that time.
Bishop Bompas’ special genius lay in selecting the right men and women to “man” the various missions he started — for the Anglican missionaries were married. Such men committed not only their own lives but also their family’s to the dangers and loneliness of a totally “uncivilized” country which the fur traders could endure only with the help of native wives. Two of his choices — Rev. Malcolm Scott and Rev. J. Gough — actually became the first settlers at Fort Vermilion, and Shaftesbury respectively. They were the founders, along with the Lawrences, of the agricultural history, for both used their missions to instruct the native Indians and Metis in successful farming and to launch the first sawmills, flour mills, etc. Their descendants are still making a notable contribution.
Other clergymen whom he recruited were Rev. G. Holmes who built a Protestant mission across Lesser Slave Lake from the Catholic Mission. Many of the old fur traders desired Protestant education for their half-Indian children. More education and less religious dogma and ritual were featured at Anglican missions, where, it is said, a greater percentage of native children remained to a greater age, and higher grades.
The nearest Southern Peace Area Anglican missionary of note was Rev. A. C. Garrioch who succeeded the pioneers, Rev. T. Bunn and Rev. J. G. Brick at Dunvegan. As he had had experience by way of Sturgeon Lake, Fort Simpson and Fort Vermilion, he was well qualified to carry on the practical work. Besides, he made a study of the Beaver language and wrote several devotional works. His career is dealt with at length and in detail on pages 254 to 259 of J.G. MacGregor’s Land of Twelve Foot Davis.
The Rev. Hugh Speke is reputed to be the earliest Anglican Missionary to Pouce Coupe from Lake Saskatoon in 1913, just before the settlers began to arrive in large numbers.