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Then falling on his knees beside Father Lacombe,
he asked his friend to make the Sign of the Cross on

The priest took the hand of Sweet-Grass, made the
mystic Sign on the chief, and said solemnly:

"In the Name of the Father and of the Son
and of the Holy Ghost, I receive you, brave chief
of the Crees."

Father Lacombe then gave some hours daily to the
instruction of Sweet-Grass and the band of followers
he was bringing into the Fold.

One evening when night-prayer was finished and
Father Lacombe sat outside his tent, smoking and
chatting in Cree with the older men, their causerie
was broken by Sweet-Grass enquiring abruptly of
Father Lacombe:


"Are you going to baptise me soon?"

"The whole camp knows I have made you ready
for that."

"But perhaps you would not do it, if you knew
what a man I am and what evil I once did."

For answer Father Lacombe slipped his crucifix
from his belt and looking on it said:

"He became Man and died on the cross for your
salvation: He came to the world to save sinners. If
you are sorry for your sins He will pardon you all
to the greatest and the waters of Baptism shall wash
away all the sins of your past life."

Sweet-Grass shook his head regretfully.

"Hah! . . ."

That Indian exclamation can breathe alike the
deepest regret or the keenest triumph.

"I will tell you about one time of my past life; you
will judge, and some of the old men here will know
that I speak the truth."

No one spoke, and for a long time the evening
silence filled with the peace that had come again to
the afflicted camp was broken only by the low and
pleasant voice of Sweet-Grass.

He told of his despised youth as a captive among
the Crees. Friendless, neglected and taunted with
his small stature the warriors would have nothing to
do with him. He-Who-Has-No-Name, they called
him until one night he slipped from camp, went far
and alone on foot into the south country, and
returned with one Blackfoot scalp and forty-two


ponies. Then amid shouts of triumph he held aloft
a tuft of sweet-grass dipped in the blood of the dead
Blackfoot-Councillor. An old man cried out "Sweet-
Grass! Sweet-Grass!" and the whole camp took
up the name.


So he had won a name; he became a brave, a great
chief; but his soul was haunted yet by the thought
of the aged Councillor.

Father Lacombe heard his story. It was not told
with bravado, but with regret. His lonely childhood
had developed in Sweet-Grass a sensitiveness and fine-
ness of thought unusual in the Indian.

The wanton murder of an unoffending old man
when in the act of worshipping the Great Spirit in
His symbol the Sun had weighed on the mind of
Sweet-Grass for years. He loathed the crime; the
thought of it had held him back from a Religion
of Love which taught "Thou shalt not kill!" He
feared the missionaries would reject him when they
knew all.

Now with his story told he found no judge, but
a disciple of the all-comprehending Christ, the Man
of Sorrows, who had said:

"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone!"

A few days later Sweet-Grass was baptised, receiv-
ing the Christian name of Abraham, and his marriage
was blessed by Father Lacombe.

Two years later the latter took Sweet-Grass with
him to Saint Boniface and in the Cathedral there this


esteemed chief was confirmed by the chief of the
Backrobes in the West.

In November, 1870, Father Lacombe with Father
Scollen went by dog-train from St. Albert to Rocky
Mountain House and spent the winter there collect-
ing and revising notes he had made for his Cree dic-
tionary and grammar. In his many goings and com-
ings, by the firelight in Indian tepees or log missions,
he had contrived with persistent labour to make
voluminous notes on the Cree language. They were
not always of the most accurate, but they were the
best he could obtain.

He now put these in shape, as Bishop Grandin
wanted to have them printed. At the Bishop's
request also he undertook to write a score of sermons
in Cree, embodying the whole Christian doctrine.

Early in December his work was agreeably inter-
rupted by the visit of a "young Irishman, 1 an officer
in the British Army a pleasant, fine-looking man,"
Father Lacombe recalls, "who passed several days
with me. I enjoyed his company, and on the eighth
of December he served my Mass at Rocky Mountain

Butler's impression of Father Lacombe is clearly
conveyed in his recent work "The Light of the
West" where he says :

i This was Captain Butler the late General Sir William Butler, hon-
oured veteran of many campaigns in Africa and India. His book,
"The Great Lone Land," a classic of Western literature, was published
as a result of this trip, which he was making as a Commissioner of the
Canadian Government to report on the conditions of the Territories.


"In the winter of 1870 I met at Rocky Mountain
House a post of the Hudson's Bay Company
Pere Lacombe. He had lived with the Blackfeet
and the Cree Indians for many years, and I enjoyed
more than I can say listening to his stories of adven-
ture with these wild men of the plains. The thing
that left most lasting impression on my mind was
his intense love and devotion to these poor wandering
and warring people his entire sympathy for them.

"He had literally lived with them, sharing their
food and their fortunes and the everlasting dangers
of their lives. He watched and tended their sick,
buried their dead and healed the wounded in their
battles. No other man but Father Lacombe could
pass from one hostile camp to another suspected
nowhere, welcomed everywhere; carrying, as it were,
the 'truce of God' with him wherever he went."

While Father Lacombe at Rocky Mountain House
had withdrawn himself from his picturesque mission
ambulante and was studiously at work upon his book,
cataclysmic events were shaking the nations of the
Old World. Marvellous as it may seem these were
conspiring to take the unknown Oblate missionary
away from the plains and the tepees. They were
going to place him in a field whose limits should out-
run all Canada.

Perhaps Bishop Grandin in his sentinel outlook
upon the needs of his diocese was the one instrument
directly shaping Father Lacombe's course; but the
causes were more remote. These western missions


had up to now been maintained by the gifts of friends
in France and by the alms of the Council of the
Propagation of the Faith the funds of this chari-
table society being mainly contributed by the French

But France was now upset by the losses of the
Franco-Prussian war, and Pope Pius IX was the
subject of most persistent and disastrous attacks.
The administrative forces of the Church, confronted
with such problems at the very centre, had little time
or means for these remote missions of the west. The
future looked almost as dark as in 1849, when the
Superior-General of the Oblates decided to recall his
men from the west, until the touching plea of young
Alexandre Tache caused him to change his mind.

To add to their distress, the western missionaries
experienced an unpleasantness that is one of the inev-
itable results of the world's pitiful division of creeds.
Some of the non-Catholic traders and a couple of
other missionaries took advantage perhaps, naturally
of the others' weakness to tell the Indians that the
Chief of the Blackrobes was now a prisoner; that
their religion had been humbled and they would them-
selves be recalled.

This spread among the Indians, and some un-
friendly spirits among them taunted the poor priests
repeatedly. But they were not without sympathy
among their friends: and Father Lacombe recalls
with tender amusement the martial proclamation of
Sweet-Grass that if the Pope's captors sent traders


among them his warriors would not give them their
furs: they would fight the rascals!

The missionaries' condition this year is referred
to with feeling in a letter l written by Father La-
combe at St. Albert on May 20, 1871, to a member
of the Oblate Order in Montreal.

He is appealing to the Canadian House to secure
aid for the missions, since nothing can be expected
from France. He repeats the taunts they have lately
had flung at them on the Saskatchewan, and adds:

"For my part, and I can say the same for my
brethren of Saskatchewan and the north, we will die
of hardships and privations before we will abandon
our Christians and our poor catechumens. Already
for a long time I have led the life of the Indians, and
the greater part of each year I have been at their
mercy; this will not then be anything new for me.
Provided I have what is necessary to offer the Holy
Sacrifice I do not ask anything else."

He announces in this letter his intention to spend
the entire summer on the prairies with the Crees and

The latter, he states, are in an alarming condition,
being demoralised by American whiskey-traders who
are bringing in liquor from Fort Benton.

"Since last autumn," he writes, "the process of
demoralisation has, alas! made very considerable
progress: the disorders of all kinds which have taken

place among the savages and these miserable traders


i Annals of Oblates.


of rum are frightful. We have done our best to
inform the American Government of these unhappy
infringements of its laws; while on the other side the
Government of the Red River has made a very severe
law prohibiting intoxicating liquors throughout these
territories. But while we await the coming of some
impressive force 1 to compel the fulfilment of this wise
law, we suffer unceasingly."

He goes on to cite an instance of which word was.
brought during the winter to Mountain House.

"While more than two hundred lodges of the
Piegans and Bloods were drinking with the Americans
on the Belly River last October a war-party of Crees
composed of two hundred and fifty men fell upon
them through the night; but the Piegans, although
taken unprepared, did not let themselves be beaten.
The Crees were almost all killed by those whom they
had ventured to attack . . ."a result which was
perhaps due to the repeating rifles supplied to the
southern tribes by the Americans.

Father Lacombe left for the prairies very soon
after the writing of this letter, for he was anxious
to reach and bring into the Christian fold all those
bands on the plains that were still pagan. With him
he took his famous half-breed, Alexis Cardinal, who
had continued to be the most faithful of servitors

* The representations of Father Lacombe and others resulted a few
years later in the organization of the now-famous force of Mounted


and religious to the degree of eccentricity. Alexis'
oddities would not permit of Father Lacombe receiv-
ing him into the Order as a lay-brother. He
regarded himself as a missionary, however, and wore
a semi-clerical gown of black stroud, made by a half-
breed woman on his own instructions.

Without accident and without hardship from
hunger these two in 1871 ranged far and wide over
the plains lying south of Edmonton along the Red
Deer River, the Battle River and well into the coun-
try of the Blackfeet.

In some of the Cree camps visited were already
many Christians, and in each the missionary spent
about two weeks while he instructed the people and
fulfilled his ministry generally. He baptized several
children and some adults who had been catechumens
and were already prepared.

In a few cases he performed the marriage cere-
mony, blessing the unions of "men of reputation"
upon whom he felt he could rely to keep their word
to reject polygamous practices. Several warriors
who were willing to accept Christianity had rebelled
at a form of marriage which required them to bind
themselves to one woman for life.

"If we marry, and find we cannot agree, we may
want to leave each other. Then what will we do?"
they argued.

That was to the Indian the one great drawback
in this strange and pleasant Christian religion: its


Men-of -Prayer not only objected to a brave having
two or three wives in whom he sometimes took even
more pride as a man of means than in his band of
horses; but they insisted that taking one woman
he should cleave to that one through good and bad
seasons and good and bad tempers.

Truly there were more things in this Christian
philosophy than ever chief or warrior among them
had ever dreamt of before!

One such protest Father Lacombe recalls in detail.
A man of middle-age, who had embraced the Chris-
tian religion, continued to live with Margaret, a
Christian Cree and the mother of his children; but
he refused to bind himself to her by any such solemn
promise as the marriage ceremony required. This
was all the more strange because he had a high
regard for Margaret and had never taken any other

The woman had for some time been anxious to be
married according to Christian rites; the man held
back. Finally Father Lacombe told William if he
did not make up his mind during that visit to the
camp, he would not permit him to enter the House
of Prayer. William thereupon consented to be mar-
ried next day.

Next morning, when Father Lacombe threw open
the skin doors of his tent to invite the people to Mass,
he found William and Margaret with two witnesses
sitting there stoically waiting. The four rose and
stood before him on the prairie. Father Lacombe


again spoke briefly upon the duties of marriage.
When finally he declared they should cherish each
other till death parted them, the man was visibly

"At last," says Father Lacombe, "I said 'Wil-
liam, do you take this woman, Margaret, to be your
wife forever?' and oh, that sound so terrible! . . .
you cannot know how ... in the ears of the
Indian man. He say quickly to me,

" 'Stop, Father, that's all fine for you to say those
words, for you will not have the trouble with her.
That's all fine . . . that you push me so for
marry her: but if she give me so much trouble all
these years when she know I can put her away any
time what will she do when she knows I cannot put
her away?'

"I told him that she would be a good Christian
wife, as she had just promised, and will give him no
trouble. . . . But he talk on ... and as I
wait I get cross myself and I say sternly to her
'Well, Margaret, you go leave him. You must
separate then. You leave him to make his own
moccasins, to cook his meals, to pound his pemmican.
Yes, Margaret, you go!'

"William softened as I know he would at that
thought of separation, for Margaret was a smart,
good woman, and he say quickly again:

' 'No, I do not want that. I have said I will marry
her, and I will. But I want to speak my mind first
about what trouble she may make for me.' "


So the ceremony went on. And Father Lacombe
was always happy to know later that William and
Margaret lived together as contented as before, until
death took one away.


FATHER LACOMBE spent part of the summer of
1871 with the Blackfeet Indians in the heart of their
own country. The camps were pleasantly pitched,
and buffalo were abundant in the valley. The time
was favourable for teaching Christianity.

Unaware that Bishop Grandin was then planning
a new course for him, he was working out in his own
mind a distinct campaign for himself: just as ten
years earlier he planned the establishment of St.
Albert and St. Paul de Cris.

These missions were now in touch with civilization;
he could leave them to the younger priests; for him-
self with his partial knowledge of the Blackfoot
tongue and warm friendship for the race he would
select the mission of converting the Blackfeet.

Up to this time he had been their only missionary,
and his ministry had been necessarily interrupted.
Now he felt he must devote himself entirely to them.
The very difficulties of the work appealed to his high
spirit. He already saw in his dreams a prosperous
Blackfoot mission on the Bow River. He would con-
secrate it to Our Lady of Peace as a token of the
pledge his Blackfeet must give him to cease warring
upon their old enemies, the Crees.

In a campaign of instruction that summer, Father



Lacombe found that his Blackfeet were not docile
and appreciative as his Cree neophytes had been.
One afternoon along the Bow, when he had tired of
the Indians' camp and company, he walked away
by the river to read the day's office in his breviary,
and to pray there in quietness.

After a time of this pleasant retirement he looked
up to see two men standing near.

"What do you want?" he asked, with a touch of

"We watch you pray. Are you praying for us?"

"Yes; for all your people."

Then they sat with him, questioning him about the
Creator, the world, its age, how the world was peo-
pled and a number of questions that had not wor-
ried his Cree friends at all. These warriors were
more interested apparently in history than in doc-
trine, and he felt that unlike most savage tribes they
were to be won through their reason and not through
their hearts alone.

At last he felt he had got a foothold, and he turned
to his task with fresh enthusiasm. He spent the
afternoon answering their questions and explaining
difficult points to them. As he defined the Trinity
he drew a circle in the sand with a triangle set in
it, making of this a symbol of Eternity, without
beginning or end, and of the divine Person revealed
to Humanity in three phases.

Father Lacombe continued drawing pictures in the


sand and the interest and understanding of his war-
riors developed more rapidly than he ever hoped it

"That night I went back to my tent," he says,
"and a new plan was with me all the time. I dreamt
of that. The next morning I took a parchment of
buffalo-skin and with a dead coal I made all those
signs again on the skin, with many more. I nailed
it on a pole in the middle of the camp and called the
people about me. Every day after that while I
stayed among them I made my instructions there,
and the Indians learned so fast I was happy.

"At St. Albert, where I spent a part of that winter
with the Bishop, I made with ink and paper a longer
history 1 with these pictures. It started at the Cre-
ation, and went down through Bible history to the
coming of Christ; then through the history of the
Church and all Life on our pilgrimage to Heaven.
The echelle the Ladder the other priests called it
for its shape, and they laughed at my plan. But they
liked it too.

"When I went to Montreal the next year the Sis-
ters of the Congregation made a fine copy for me in
colours, and I had many thousand copies of it printed
in France."

i This Ladder (a Bible and Church history in pictures) of Father
Lacombe was shown a few years later to Pope Pius IX, and its in-
genious plan so appealed to him that he ordered several thousand copies
made, that they might be available for Mission-work among the savage
tribes in different parts of the world.


This summer, marked by the invention of his pic-
ture-catechism, was destined to be the last of Father
Lacombe's mission ambulante on the plains.

Up to this time the Saskatchewan Valley had
smiled to Heaven in the virginal freshness that moved
Franchere to rhapsody a century and a half earlier.

The seventies ushered in the beginning of the end
of the wilderness. Outside forces were moving to its
wakening. Well-based rumour had it that the rail-
way to the Pacific would pass through the Saskatche-
wan valley. Canada was in honour bound to keep
its Confederation-promise and give British Columbia
this railway connection with the east; and to all who
knew the west it was apparent that the logical route
lay through the fertile Saskatchewan belt and across
the easy grades of the Pine River Pass.

The Hudson's Bay Company every man of the
ancient corporation, from stately directors at Fen-
church Street to the traders in the outposts looked
on with dismay. A railway to be built into the heart
of their best fur-country! Appaling! . . .
the fur-trade would vanish in its wake. The calam-
ity must be averted as the diplomatic and powerful
company knew well how to avert any peril to its

Bishop Grandin likewise heard the rumour with
anxiety, but with no desire to postpone what he con-
sidered both inevitable and just. His anxiety was
due to the conviction that this railway would bring
a great tide of immigration, the consequence of which


would be serious for the Indians if they were left
unprepared to meet it.

The Bishop had made a comprehensive study of his
diocese. He was now thoroughly acquainted with
the conditions and dispositions of his Indians. As
a result he had determined to provide both Indians
and Metis with schools : and these must be adequately
equipped schools in which the white man's civilization
might be inculcated in the children.

In this way he became the originator of the existing
system of Canadian Indian Schools.

On April 2, 1872, the Bishop received Papal Bulls
erecting a separate diocese of St. Albert, and de-
fining the ecclesiastical province of St. Boniface which
was to become a metropolitan see. Now that he had
attained to the undivided responsibilities of a large
diocese he felt impelled to take up with Father La-
combe this pressing question of Indian schools.

For some reason he chose to impart his plans to
his associate by letter rather than in person. Per-
haps he felt that he could do it more easily so, since
it was a hard task he was about to impose and he re-
gretted the necessity for it. He knew that Father
Lacombe had his heart set upon Christianizing the
Blackfeet, but that project must remain in abeyance
for the greater need.

Father Lacombe was the only man for the new
work. Of the fifteen missionary priests then in St.
Albert diocese he alone was of Canadian birth, and it
was to Canada this new appeal had to be made.


France was doing, or had done, her part: the Church
in Canada should now face her responsibilities.

The Bishop's letter here translated from the orig-
inal French, sums up the needs of the diocese and is
in itself a notable document:

"My reverend and dear Father Lacombe,

"I am spending Sunday here on the left bank of the beauti-
ful Beaver. Last night after being in the water up to our
knees for two hours fording the smaller stream, we arrived
here too late to undertake another crossing.

As a member of our Order you are my ad-
viser and my first counsellor

"So I nominate you by these presents my Vicar-General.
It is not an honorary title that I desire to give you. It is a
charge I impose on you, the difficulties of which will soon
confront you; but with the grace of God you will surmount

"At the present moment you know as well as I, what we
can do with the resources which we have at our disposal. We
can, it is true, live in a poor way, but we cannot inaugurate
anything. You are begging me to establish the mission of
Our Lady of Peace among the Blackfeet; also another
among the Crees. And how many other places there are
where our missionaries are on the rack and appealing for

"It is necessary then to procure resources in some way;
our zeal will be paralyzed for lack of means to carry on the
work. Notwithstanding the number of missions which we
ought to establish, we are reduced to employing several


Fathers simply as school-teachers; is it not a desperate state
of affairs?

"It is necessary, mon cher, for you to abandon your
Indians for this year : I shall myself so far as I am able, go
in your stead to dispense the bread of the Divine Word.

"And you, where are you to go ? Go I pray you, into your
own country holding out your hands to your friends and

"It pains me to impose this onerous mission on you. It
is, I know, an imposition on Canada, which has already shown
so much interest in us; but it seems to me that we cannot
stand on our dignity when it is as now a question of life or
death if we would avoid seeing the young Church of St.
Albert diocese die at its birth.

"When, in the last Council of Quebec, there was question
of asking Rome to erect the ecclesiastical province of St.
Boniface, I opposed it, fearing that once separated from the

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Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 12 of 28)