Why Fr. Lacombe?

When our Guild Council sat down to select a patron for our new Catholic men’s group, we had very specific criteria.  We were looking for someone who exhibited the Christian virtues required for the New Evangelization of our tired post-modern Canadian experience, as well as a man who inspired us by his authentic masculinity.  Once Father Albert Lacombe was proposed, we unanimously agreed that he fit each criterion perfectly.  Lacombe, who is Alberta’s most famous missionary, led a life of heroic virtue.  His life was fully committed to sharing the Gospel and bringing souls to Christ Our King.  As Christian men, we aspire, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to live as he lived, evangelizing as he evangelized and loving as he loved.

Before the railway, Alberta was primarily home to two distinct First Nations cultures: the Cree, who lived along the North Saskatchewan River; and the Blackfoot Confederacy, who lived along the South Saskatchewan.  Alberta’s first people were industrious and resilient.  Imagine one of their camps in transit as they followed the buffalo migration: men on horseback scouting ahead, on the flanks and to the rear; women carrying their infants on their backs; children running and playing alongside; and dogs dragging the heaviest teepee poles.   They survived our dry blistering summers and bitter cold winters with perseverance, generosity, stewardship and fortitude.  However, like all men, their hearts were restless.  Man seeks and needs God; the Blackfoot and Cree of the Prairies were no different.    It was to these first people of Alberta, that Lacombe was called.

In 1848, Father Lacombe recorded in his journal, “Sunday night, when the cathedral was filled, [Father Belcourt] went up into 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 – ‘Quem mittem’ (Whom shall I send?) and I said in reply, ‘Ecce ego, mitte me’ (Behold, I am here; send me).”

While Father Lacombe may be the most famous, he was not the first missionary in the province.  Since 1845, missionaries called the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) had been traversing Canada prairies, under the protection of Mary, Queen of Heaven, to bring the Good News to Alberta. Imitating their apostolic forebearers, they came to preach Christ and save souls by word and deed.  Father Lacombe arrived in Fort Edmonton from Quebec in 1852, at just twenty-five years of age, and set to work.  James MacGregor, one of Alberta’s finest historians and a Lacombe biography writes, “At any time along the trails of the West for the next sixty-five years one might meet Father Lacombe in his tattered robe.  …All the West was his parish, but particularly so were Edmonton and Calgary.  All the people were his charge, whites, [Metis], Crees, Piegans; but above all, he gave his life to the Blackfoot.”

At the beginning, Father Lacombe served the Cree and the Metis people along the North Saskatchewan River.  There he established a mission near Fort Edmonton, a Hudson Bay trading post of about 130 people, named St. Albert.  In 1869, Lt. Col. W. F. Butler, a proud Anglican Brit, met the missionaries at St. Albert.  “It is a curious contrast to find in this distant and strange land men of culture and high mental excellence devoting their lives to the task of civilizing the wild Indians of forest and prairie – going far in advance of the settler.  …If you asked who was this stranger who dwelt thus among wild men in these lone places, you were told he was the French missionary; and if you sought him in his lonely hut, you found ever the same surroundings, the same simple evidences of a faith which seemed more than human”.

Criss-crossing the prairies for more than half a century, this holy man would change our history.  Numerous prairie towns – such as St. Albert, St. Paul and Brosseau – begin their local history with the words, “First established by Father Lacombe in…”  The man was tireless.  His worldly successes were significant: he established the prairies’ first flour mill, developed a wagon trail from Winnipeg to Edmonton, published a Cree-French dictionary and even had a bridge, perhaps the provinces’ first, constructed.

Tragically, the 1870s saw a small pox epidemic spread across Alberta like prairie fire.  Thousands upon thousands of men, women and children perished as the disease ravaged the region.  Lacombe hurried into the thick of it to help.  For months Lacombe worked with an indomitable spirit to aid the sick and dying; writing to his Bishop: “Day and night I was constantly occupied, scarcely had time to say Mass.”  Undaunted, Lacombe describes the symptoms of this horrible disease, “The patient is at first very feverish, the skin becomes red and covered with pimples, these blotches in a few days form scabs filled with infectious matter.  Then the flesh begins to decompose and falls off in fragments.  Worms swim in the parts most affected.”  Yet despite the horrors, Lacombe stayed.  He had bodies to nurse and souls to save.

After nearly two decades serving and evangelizing the Metis and Cree people in Northern Alberta, Lacombe prayerfully decided it was time to venture into the Blackfoot territory.  From the Rocky Mountains to the grasslands of southern Alberta, the Blackfoot Confederacy reigned supreme.  For at least two hundred years these warriors dominated the area against the frequent Cree, Metis and Sioux encroachment.  It was to these mighty warriors that Father Lacombe was next called to serve.

Near modern-day Red Deer, he moved in with a welcoming Blackfoot tribe.  In the middle of a bitter cold December night, with the cold piercing through a teepee’s thin leather walls, Lacombe would face one of his greatest adventures. He was awakened by the distinct whistling sound of bullets.  His northern friends, the Cree, were attacking his new acquaintances, the Blackfoot, over a blood feud and he was caught right in the middle!  Calmly, he strode from his dwelling as it collapsed.  Lacombe writes, “I tied my shoes …kissed my cross, and gladly made a promise to God to sacrifice my life.”  Later, he vividly described the pandemonium: gunfire, war cries and the agony of the injured.  In the midst of all the chaos, Lacombe found a young woman dying of a bullet in her skull and, with her consent, he baptised her.  There in the snow, she died a Christian and another soul was saved for Heaven.  Over the next five hours of darkness, Lacombe assisted the Blackfoot and administered sacraments to the dying.

Finally, as the morning sun revealed the blood-soaked snow, Lacombe climbed to higher ground and waved his red-cross flag.  He was hoping to alert his Cree friends of his presence and stop the bloodshed.  In a way, his plan worked, just not as he’d anticipated.  An errant Cree bullet ricocheted off a rock and miraculously only grazed his head.  Crucifix still in hand, Lacombe collapsed to the ground.  Two Blackfoot men dragged him from the raging battle.  At that moment, the Cree clearly heard a shout from the Blackfoot’s camp, “Stop, you dogs!  You have shot your Blackrobe!”  Immediately, the Cree stopped shooting.  The battle was over.  Later, the Blackfoot estimated that over a thousand Cree warriors left the battle that winter morning after fearing they’d killed their beloved priest.  As for Father Lacombe, he was on his feet helping the Blackfoot within minutes; in a few days he was galloping home to Fort Edmonton for Christmas.

Another heroic story takes us back north to Fort Edmonton in the springtime.  Across the North Saskatchewan River, fur traders anxiously watched from behind the palisaded walls as a group of angry Blackfoot warriors menacingly bivouack in the melting snow.  As night fell, both sides were preparing for battle.  Fearing a morning massacre, a few Hudson’s Bay Company men went down river to St. Albert to retrieve the unperturbable priest.  By the time Lacombe arrived, bullets were flying from the Blackfoot camp while Edmonton readied her cannons.  Assessing the situation, Lacombe again decided that the best way to avoid violence would be to alert the attackers of his presence.  He left the fort and he shouted into the night.  Across the great prairie expanse his voice was calm and authoritative in the cool air.  He told them he was their Arsous-Kitsi-Parti (“The man with a good heart”) and he pleaded for peace.  No voice responded.  Not one Blackfoot warrior replied.  Assuming failure, he returned behind the walls.  To this day, few can believe the beautiful sight that greeted the tired people of Edmonton the following morning: an empty horizon.  At Lacombe’s request, the mighty warriors had silently departed with their horses and Northwest guns.  Fort Edmonton was safe.

There is much we could learn from saintly men like Father Albert Lacombe.  To be Catholic gentlemen, we must be prepared to risk our lives to bring Christ to the world.  Whether we are confronted with violence, huge distances, disease, unpopularity, despair or innumerable other obstacles, we must, like Lacombe, tie our shoes, kiss our cross and make a joyful sacrifice of our lives to God our Heavenly Father.

Father Albert Lacombe, pray for us.

Glenbow Archives: Father Lacombe en route to Calgary from the Blackfoot reserve in the fall of 1884.