Katherine Hughes.

Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

. (page 13 of 28)
Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 13 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

mother Province we should be somewhat abandoned by her.
The Reverend Fathers of the Council reassured me on this
point : I am convinced that they will all now regard your op-
erations favourably.

"I shall ask one other service of you. It concerns the ex-
treme need for schools. It is the important work, the only
real means of civilising our Indians. . . ."

He here details a plan of raising money through a
charitable association.

"This project blessed by the Bishops and by our Holy
Father, would also be blessed of God and would be one of the
most powerful means while conserving the savage tribes, of
civilising them this taking hold of the rising generations in
our schools. With the permission of the Ordinary try also


to find some good missionary priests and some young men
to come to our aid by entering our Order. Finally, pray
much for us ; if God be with us we must succeed.

"I am not giving you a celebret. This letter will prove
to those who have the patience to read it that you are not in-
terdicted nor suspended, and that you have the confidence of
your Superior and Bishop.

"Go then, my very dear Father ; God is with you. Do not
regard God's work in the diocese of St. Albert as my charge
exclusively; it is also yours. More, it is the work of the
Lord, and we are his instruments.

"Bon voyage! dear Father. I embrace you and bless you
affectionately. "Your devoted brother,

"Bishop of St. Albert."

This letter, written with difficulty in the Bishop's
tent on the banks of the Beaver, was both a shock
and stimulus to Father Lacombe, totally absorbed as
he was in planning the spiritual conquest of the Black-
feet. He took it as a disciplined soldier, however,
for here verily were his marching orders.

He was by no means enchanted with the prospect.
To his spirited and at the same time sensitive temper-
ament the role of a mendicant naturally did not ap-
peal. His own knowledge of the needs of the diocese
and his sense of obedience left him no choice however.
Bishop Tache had collected $6,000 in Quebec in 1861,
when his diocese was in such extreme need after the
fire; why could he not do as well for St. Albert? he
asked himself. . . . And if he succeeded, of what
moment were his personal humiliations?


He went down to St. Paul de Cris early in May,
closed that mission and set out for the east.

He made the long journey across the prairies on
horseback, arriving at St. Boniface for the conferring
of the pallium on Archbishop Tache. St. Jean Bap-
tiste's Day was included in the celebration, which took
the form of a tourney of speech-making. Father La-
combe delivered his oration in Cree.

He found the past two years had brought many
changes along the Red River. On the bank opposite
the twin-towered cathedral of his friend, the frontier
town of Winnipeg had grown up about old Fort

Mariaggi, the epic-caterer of the frontier, had al-
ready opened the first of his chain of western cafes.
An empty hall in the sprawling town had actually
been turned into a theatre while newcomers were
being pressed to buy town lots for $50 each! Win-
nipeg, in very fact, was a lusty infant creeping to-
ward its disastrous boom period.

At St. Boniface he turned his back on the west
and entered upon a new life of service in which he was
to traverse continents as before he traversed the

It was a life in which he would learn that the cold
splendour of European courts could shelter more
heart-hunger than the smoky lodges of his Indians;
and that the Gros-Bonnets, the Big Chiefs of the
white men, were no more formidable on acquaintance
than his old friends, Natous and Sweet-Grass.


'Pursue the West but long enough, 'tis Eastr

WHEN Father Lacombe returned to Montreal,
fresh from the life of the plains, he surveyed the
changing east with some awe and a great deal of

Behind him he had left the "tall young Adam of
the west," struggling along its Red River fringe to
a consciousness of its own possibilities but for the
rest a wilderness overrun by insouciant Indians,
Metis and fur-traders.

Before him in the east he saw a new Canada rising
out of the grave of Old World feudalism: a superb
figure that, reaching out to closer union with the
spectacular young giant of the west, would soon
stand forth as a nation.

The score of years that had elapsed since he went
away had been fruitful of changes in the gray streets
of Montreal, but in himself the alteration was even
more striking. He had travelled a long way from
the timid young Levite who wept as he said good-
bye to the gentle Bourget in 1852.

To easterners his strenuous personality and his
stories were alike unique and pleasing. Wherever
he went he was welcomed royally. It was a strangely
cold heart into which this "spoiled child of Provi-
dence" could not creep.



His first duty was to call upon Archbishop (later
Cardinal) Taschereau of Quebec, to lay before him
the needs of St. Albert diocese, and to urge the estab-
lishment of an Association to assist its schools. This
plan did not seem practicable to the Archbishop at
the time, but he recommended Father Lacombe and
his cause very warmly to all the clergy under his

"Ah, he was kind to me that Cardinal the first
time I pass on Quebec to beg," Father Lacombe re-
calls. "He had an appearance very severe, you know,
and a face like ice. But behind that I found his
heart was very warm. 5 '

Father Lacombe hated the role of beggar. Each
time he ascended a pulpit or made an address for this
purpose the free spirit of the "little Indian" revolted.
He had lived so long in a primitive land, where a man
yielded almost without the asking what another's need
claimed, that he found this work particularly humili-

In addition he dreaded those great audiences of
critical palefaces, as he fancied them to be. His
method of nerving himself then, and even years later,
when this feeling arose in him was unusual but char-

"Why am I afraid?" he would demand of himself
sternly. "I come here to speak the word of God,
to cany on His work. . . . Ha, I am stu-pide,
stu-pide, but . . . ! these people are more stu-
pides even than I ! Now I will talk."


In a letter to a friend, written from the Arch-
bishop's Palace on Christmas Eve, 1872, Father
Lacombe anticipates his first public appearance in
the ancient Capital:

"You can imagine that at this moment I am not very much
at ease, haunted as I am by the thought of my exhibition to-
morrow morning under the vaulted roof of the old Cathedral.
My body groans in anticipation ; what will I do when I stand
before an audience to which I am so averse?

"But what petty pride! What miserable human respect!
Is it not sad to see so much self-love in an old Indian such a
blockhead as he is too !"

When the Congregation nuns had reproduced his
picture-catechism in colours he took it to the Des-
barats house, whose head had 500 copies gratuitously
printed for him. The Ladders, as he always called
them, were then straightway shipped back to the mis-
sions and were soon to be found in every corner of
the West, where an Oblate had penetrated.

He received considerable sums of money during
his season of begging and remitted all happily to his
Bishop ; but no benefactor, as previsioned by the lat-
ter, came up now on Father Lacombe's horizon to
assist him in publishing his Indian dictionary. 1

iThis was the first book printed in Cree, but not the first in other
Indian dialects of the West. The priests of the Hudson Bay dis-
trict had books in syllabic Indian printed by Palsgrave several years
earlier, while the Rev. Mr. Evans, the Wesleyan minister who invented
this syllabic method, had some books printed even earlier. Bishop
Tache, who originated the Chipewyan characters, had a book of prayers
and hymns in this tongue published by Palsgrave in 1857.


Finally an inspiration came to ask the Government's

"Surely this much aid is due the missionaries who
have been so strong a civilizing influence in the west,"
it was suggested. And the Government, fortunately
falling in with the idea, made a grant of $1,000 to-
ward the publication of the dictionary.

It was found necessary to defer the publication
of the book, as Archbishop Tache wrote now asking
Father Lacombe to employ all his energies in securing
new French settlers for the west.

After a brief campaign of begging and coloniza-
tion he expected his recall to the west. Instead, at
the close of the winter he sailed from Portland for
Europe, having been appointed the representative of
his Archbishop at the General Chapter of their Or-
der. His Grace was too ill at the time to leave St.

When he arrived in France Father Lacombe, like
all brother-missionaries who had preceded him, went
from city to city addressing large congregations upon
the needs of the western missions. Likewise he vis-
ited numerous seminaries, endeavouring to inspire
some of the students to volunteer for the western

A copy of his Ladder, which he presented to the
Superior-General, so pleased that dignatary that he
recommended the publication of 10,000 copies. But
during his stay in Paris M. Letaille, a benevolent old
man who was the head of the publishing-house of that


name, printed 16,000 copies for him at a nominal

Interesting glimpses of the impression made by
Europe upon the free-lance of the plains-missions are
to be had in his letters to Father Poulin, who was then
living in retirement at a Montreal hospice, failing
in health and threatened with blindness. It was char-
acteristic of the western priest's sympathetic nature
that his longest letters were to this shut-in friend.

From London, where he is learning metropolitan
modes of transport, he writes on April 16th:

"I have already commenced to plough London under the
earth and along the streets and over the streets and on the
Thames. . . ."

He speaks of visits to museums, to the Lords, the
Commons and Westminster. . v .

"What do you think of all that? I tell you, I do not
know what to think of it. It is doubtless very fine for you,
civilized men, who love these useless statues and walls gnawed
into by Time, with all the shapeless stone towers which lift
themselves into the air amidst numerous gables and turrets
and the more knobs and holes in them the finer they are con-
sidered !

"Yes, it is very beautiful certainly. But all that seems
nothing to me in exchange for our forests or our prairies or
even our poor chapels. You may put me down as profane or
savage, but would you have me think otherwise moi, a poor
missionary to those whom people in a sort of disdain call


Cartier, the invalid Canadian statesman, Count
Bassano and others entertained him here, but his visit
to Archbishop Manning was to him the most im-
pressive part of his stay in London.

He writes of Manning with enthusiasm:

"How this man pleased me ! What a worthy Bishop ! I
made him a present of one of my 'Ladders,' and he seemed
enchanted with this new plan of teaching the catechism."

Could the sympathetic Archbishop be other than
enchanted with the ingenious Ladder, which the mis-
sionary showed him gravely as his one tangible
achievement? He likely forgot to be amused at the
picturesque jumble of men and porpoises in the wa-
ters that conveyed the image of the Deluge, or with
the lurid rain of fire that is seen to drown Sodom.
He admired instead the wonderful ingenuity of his
mind so appropriately fitting the lesson to the

During their conversation Father Lacombe must
have made some reference to the unseeing sight-seers
in the once-Catholic temples of London or in some
other way introduced the subject of non-Catholics;
for many years after as he spoke to me of this visit
he recalled that the future Cardinal talked to him a
long time about their separated brethren urging him
to love them as warmly even as he did his own people
of the prairies, and to pray for them.

" 'For I was one of them once,' the Archbishop
said to me, 'and I know how they believe in their souls


they are right so there is no blame for them that
they do not see the Truth.'

"Of course, I have pray for them before, but "
added Father Lacombe with delightful naivete, "that
was the firs' time I truly understand the Protestant,
and I begin to love them not only a few like Mr.
Christie and Mr. Hardisty, my good friends, but all
of them: to pity them and pray for them, because I
love them."

As naive a comment as any he makes is contained
in his first letter from Paris, though it must be re-
membered that as yet the writer had met New World
English only when travelling:

"Before leaving England let me tell you, for your satis-
faction and mine, that I have been enchanted with the good
manners and politeness of the English of England. How
very different they are from our wooden English of Canada
and the United States. To your great surprise, doubtless,
I shall tell you that not once from Portland to Dover has any-
one given me the tiniest trouble nor shown me the least rude-
ness. This is a big avowal, is it not? for me, who find it so
difficult to be pleased with the manners of 'civilized' people."

Paris he styles satirically "the Metropolis of
fashions and good government." In the French
houses of the Oblates, where so much had already
been heard of the Indian ways and daring of their
"fameux P&re Lacombe" he was an object of curi-
osity at first. His Superior-General spent a whole
recreation near him one evening, he chronicles :


"... and at the end I believe he was convinced that
this Pere Lacombe, whom they said they had awaited with so
much impatience, was like other mortals and fed on the flesh
of animals not human bodies."

But the civility of his French cousins bores him

"I have begun to get lonely, having no one to argue with
me. It is shocking; they always agree with me . . ."

He concludes this letter with "un salut a la mode
Parisienne" At dinner with Louis Veuillot, the
noted journalist, where he met several people of dis-
tinction, the meal did not pass without an amusing
contretemps. He writes to Father Poulin :

"At the close of the dinner they brought bowls filled with
some liquid. I thought this was to drink and was on the
point of swallowing it, when I had the sensible thought to ask
my neighbour, the good Mdlle. Veuillot, what it signified.
She laughed and said, 'It is to wash the fingers, mon Pere.*

"Pugh! how they laughed, and I cried 'Vive nos sauvages!'
who do not need to wash themselves so often."

The itinerant missionary spoke in churches and
seminaries at Strasburg, Nancy, Vichy, Autun, Brest
and Metz, so lately ceded to the Prussians. After the
address in the Seminary here "the Superior came to
me, and said if the Prussians had heard me they would
have put me in a dungeon I" . . . A fresh adven-
ture to which the voyageur-heaTt of the missionary
would not have been averse!

Father Lacombe did not, however, meet with the


success of either Bishop Faraud or Bishop Grandin.
He could not speak of his mission-life from the view-
point of a Frenchman. Consequently while the ad-
dresses of this unusual missionary echoed like pages
from a medieval romance, the young French semina-
rian was not drawn to emulate him on the prairies.

Father Lacombe was somewhat discouraged. He
writes that he is continually travelling to new points,
w r orking "like a negro, when he is not on the trains";
that he meets with little success, and if the tide does
not soon turn he will become desperate. As a name-
less unrecognized Indian brave might do, he exclaims :

" . . .1 will become a Prussian, or I will declare my-
self a Jesuit and declaim against Bismarck, so that I may be
imprisoned, and then 1 shall make myself a name."

By June 9th at Nancy he feels that he is civilised
"almost to the degree of these proud Frenchmen";
but when he is asked to dine with the Bishop of Nancy
he lapses and describes the occasion in concise Metis
terms of the camp and trail: "We made grande
cliaudiere!" (We had a well-filled kettle of food: a

All through Brittany, which had sent so many mis-
sionaries to the west, he met with the most hearty
welcome. He found that the Canadian Zouaves
passing through Brittany on their way to Rome had
made a lasting impression. He met many like the
Bishop of Varennes, who said:

"Send for your baggage: you must stay with us.


For we Bretons love the Canadians. They are our

To a government official who enquired concerning
the Indian form of government Father Lacombe re-

"We have the true Republic. God is our Presi-
dent, and we hold no debates. There is to be had
only among us Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Vive le Republique samage!"

In Paris he witnessed the splendid reception ac-
corded the Shah of Persia. But the heart of the
plainsman is homesick; he is gorged with sight-see-
ing, with the man-made splendours of cities, and he
is tired of it all. He writes:

66 ... It is true that notwithstanding all the beauti-
ful things which I have seen in this France and England I
have looked on sights as fine in the beautiful valley of the
Saskatchewan or on the borders of some of our fine lakes.

"Say what you will, you can not take this belief from me.
I am writing you to-day from a nobleman's palace, but it is
not as precious as my poetique tent in the wilderness, where
I wrote on my knees my sermons in Cree and Blaekf eet."

This is the instinctive Indian in Father Lacombe
speaking now, as it frequently did throughout his life.
. . . Is it a reversion to type some strong strain
of one of his Indian ancestors?

Still another side of his character is charmingly
revealed in another communication to his friend. On
the receipt of the good news that instead of being


doomed to total blindness Father Poulin may now
hope to recover his eyesight, this letter wells up from
the emotional heart of the Canadian abroad:

"... What gave me most pleasure in your letter
was to know that in the next tnere would likely be a few lines
written by your own hand !

"Thanks, my God, a thousand thanks; and you, my good
Mother. . . . My friend is going to recover his sight!
I could weep with the joy and consolation of it. ... O,
my Lord, Thou art satisfied with his sacrifice and especially
with his heroic resignation. Thou hast said: 'It is enough.
I know you now. . . . Finish what you have under-
taken.' . . ."

And at the end of the letter he prints in large round
letters :



O. M. I."

Vichy did not enchant him.

"When people have bathed they soon end by having a fit
of blue devils, if they are not of the number who go to the
theatre and other pleasure-parties which they put in the way
of strangers to kill time. . . . For, voyez-vous, the
great school of Vichy does not suit me at all.

"It has for a principle, and it teaches this in huge letters -
one of which alone would fill one's vision that when at Vichy


to take the waters, in order that they may exert all their in-
fluence upon you, you must not occupy yourself with any-
thing serious, not even with much praying to God.

"We must simply float along the Boulevard, go on the
minute to the spring assigned to you ; look up and down the
fairy parterres and salute right and left the butterfly-ladies
in their afternoon toilettes, which give them truly the ap-
pearance of those insects 1 we call in Quebec 'les Demoiselles,'
and then voila! when you have looked up and down, con-
fused and disheartened at all these imbecilities then to tone
up your system mentally and physically again, you go and
throw yourself in the Bath . . . !"

By August Father Lacombe was openly pining for
the Northwest:

"I am thinking very much of our missions, and my imagi-
nation is continually with my dear friends, the Indians. This
loneliness takes my appetite from me and sometimes makes me

He is expecting a visit from the Superior-General,
and he decided to ask to be ordered back to Canada.
. , . "I am horribly lonesome," he declares.

In his next letter he relates an incident to amuse
his shut-in friend. His brethren in Paris tease him
about it, he says, but he assures Father Poulin gravely
that this has been the one disagreeable incident of all
his travels.

The story is that on one of his numerous railway

i Quebec countryfolk call butterflies les demoiselles the "young la-


journeys he one day entered a compartment without
noticing that it was reserved for women.

"Soon," he writes, "several women came in, but
none took the liberty of pointing out my mistake.
At the first station these women left, and I was alone.
Then at the next depot a fat little man, accompanied
by a lady, opened the door into my compartment.

"Perceiving me he made big eyes at me, and angrily
told his wife not to enter until I passed out. Then I
saw the mistake I had made and rose to leave the
carriage. But my scoundrel called out aloud to the
guard, before a large crowd:

" * Guard, come here, there is a Cure in the ladies'
compartment P

"I now saw that this admirable philosopher was
bent on making a little scandal. The guard arrived
just as I stepped out on the platform, and he very
politely asked me to enter another carriage. Already
quite agitated I said to him:

' 'M'sieu le Garde, I am a stranger, and I did not
know this compartment was reserved.'

"But my insolent fellow, not yet willing to leave
me alone, said roughly: 'You ought to have known

"You understand that I had contained myself now
for a long time. I did so no longer. Now before
the whole crowd I gave him something to think over:

" 'Sir,' I said, 'I want to tell you that you are an
insolent fellow. I can read in your face and speech
that there are many things which you ought to know.


You ought to know what courtesy is ; but you do not.
You are an unmannerly churl. Moreover in calling
me a Cure, you are also mistaken: for I am only a
poor missionary from America.

* 'I have not the honour to be a Cure. However,
if I knew your Bishop I would go and ask him to
kindly name me your Cure for some weeks and then,
to make you know, if that were possible, I should
scour you down, body and mind!'

ff Et puis, voila! the whistle announced the depar-
ture . . . ": and Father Lacombe hastened to
find another compartment.

But his indignation was appeased by the outburst.
The man who had defied Rowand, and worsted the
sorcerer White-head was not likely to cower before
a noisy little Frenchman of unclean mind. While
the plain western speech dealt out to the fellow was
probably beneficial.


ON his return to Montreal that autumn Father
Lacombe met Archbishop Tache there. The latter
had been called east to confer with the Government
concerning the amnesty for the agitators of 1869-
1870. More particularly they dealt with the likeli-
hood of Riel, the leader of the Metis government,
contesting the vacant seat of Provencher for the Fed-
eral house.

Riel and many of his friends desired this; and he
could easily be elected. But his presence in the
House of Commons would embarrass the Govern-
ment and endanger the peace of the Dominion at
least, of Ontario, which had become the storm-centre
after the Metis had come to terms.

Sir John Macdonald and Sir Hector Langevin
met the Archbishop in the former's office. They were
naturally anxious that the Archbishop should make
Riel drop out of the electoral contest. They knew
he could prevail on him, for like all the Metis of Mani-
toba Riel regarded Alexandre Tache as the warmest
friend of his race among the whites.

The Archbishop informed the two Ministers de-
cisively that he would not help them, because he had
already been too often deceived by them in regard to


the amnesty. He would agree to do what they asked
only on one condition that they now definitely grant
the amnesty instead of putting him off with fine prom-

Sir John, with one eye on Ontario's outburst of

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 13 of 28)