Saint of the Week: Albert Lacombe

Since I spent June 28 – July 10 in Alberta, I feel that it is only fitting for the first weekly saint since my return to be Albertan.

Technically, though, Albert Lacombe (1827-1916) was not Albertan but Quebecois.  However, in 1827, the only people being born in what was to become Alberta were Metis or First Nations.  Lacombe was educated at the College de l’Assomption and the bishop’s palace in Montreal.  During his studies, he learned about the need for western missionaries from George-Antoine Bellecourt who was visiting from the Red River mission.  In 1849 he went West for the first time.

1851-1852 saw him engaged in parish ministry, but his heart was in the West with the First Nations and Metis peoples.  Thus, 1852 saw return to Rupert’s Land, and 1855 was the year of his novitiate in the Oblate Order.  From 1853 to 1860 he was using Lac Ste-Anne as a hub for missions, visiting Jasper House, Fort Edmonton, Lac la Biche, Lesser Slave Lake, and Fort Dunvegan.  In 1861, Bishop Tache moved Lacombe to a new location just north of Fort Edmonton, a place he named St. Albert in honour of Lacombe’s patron saint.

In 1865, Lacombe requested to be relieved of his duties so he could begin an itinerant mission among the Cree and the Blackfoot.  During this period of mission, he established Saint-Paul-des-Cris which was the first Roman Catholic mission amongst the native peoples of Alberta.  He encountered many dangers during this itinerant ministry, as one can expect, given not only the climate and wildlife but also the epidemics that were moving across the West at the time.  On one occasion, he was almost killed by disease.

In 1869, he learned the Blackfoot language during a three week stay at a Blackfoot settlement near Rocky Mountain House (my hometown!).  This would also have been the year that the Dominion of Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company.  In 1871, he was part of the North-West Territories’ health committee to deal with the smallpox epidemic.  This began many years of Lacombe engaging in various different public roles.  He spent time in the St. Boniface area (the original Canadien settlement at Winnipeg) involved with schemes to encourage French settlement of the West.  He went at least twice to the General Chapter of the Oblates in Europe.  He lobbied for the rights of French Canadians involved in the Red River uprising.

He was blessed with a return to his Indian missions in 1882.  He was in active ministry until 1890, when he tried to retire as a hermit in Pincher Creek.  However, since he had spent the better part of a decade trying to help native Canadians understand the desires of white Canadians and vice versa, including bringing the petitions of Chief Crowfoot to the Canadian Pacific Railway, he was not to be left alone.

In 1894, he found himself in St. Boniface again, this time representing the rights of the French Canadians, seeking to restore the educational privileges recently removed.  This task involved him with politicians in Ottawa and lasted until 1896.  This sort of endless moving about was the sort of thing he was to spend the rest of his life doing.  He did a lot, seeking to bring people of differing perspectives together so that a fair solution to a problem could be found, whether the problem was between Cree and Blackfoot, or First Nations and white Canadians, or English and French Canadians, or Eastern and Western Rite Catholics.

He was also involved in the study of native languages such as Cree, Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan, Ojibwa — especially Cree, for which he worked on a Cree New Testament and various Cree hymns.  Although a man of his time in many ways, his desire to see the Gospel proclaimed among the nations as well as to bring reconciliation amongst different peoples is a beacon of light in a history often very dark and gloomy.