Katherine Hughes.

Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

. (page 14 of 28)
Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 14 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

mingled loyalty and fanaticism and with the other
on the coming elections, hesitated. At last Tache
told him he would do nothing in the matter "until
Sir John had given him a written guarantee of what
he said."

Was ever a more suggestive alternative presented
to that charming old sinner of diplomacy, who could
indicate a promise with one eye and wink it off with
the other? This was a wall Sir John could not get
around: and he did not want to leap over it. ...
So he retired somewhere out in to the gray corridors
or stately chambers of the Gothic building.

As he went, we can imagine him smiling. For,
however annoyed or nonplussed for the moment, he
admired this Tache as one great and generous man
can always appreciate the strength and ability of his

His colleague was left behind to make more prom-
ises and win over the ruffled ecclesiastic. Langevin
consequently was magnificent in his assertions, cap-
ping them with the statement that if Sir John did
not take the steps promised that day toward securing
the amnesty he, Langevin, would "resign from the
Cabinet and take Quebec with him."

"I do not want your resignation: I want the am-


nesty!" was the Archbishop's only response. And
the interview ended in an unsatisfactory manner.

The Archbishop and Father Lacombe now returned
disheartened to St. Boniface, and the Macdonald
Government went forward to its overthrow.

The new Government reluctantly inherited the
white elephant of Kiel's political aspirations. They
also approached the Archbishop: he repeated his
claims to an amnesty for the Metis agitators as prom-
ised him in 1870. They were not for the same po-
litical reason as the Conservatives prepared to grant
this. Sir Aime Dorion now appealed to Father La-
combe. The latter, who was in Montreal at the time,
declined to interfere. He wrote the political friend
who approached him:

"I have been reflecting more and more upon what you said
to me yesterday, on behalf of Mr. Dorion, asking me to in-
tervene with Kiel to secure his pledge not to present himself
at the next general elections because his doing so would do a
great injury to the new government, making it lose twenty-
five constituencies in Upper Canada; and that on the other
hand his presenting himself as candidate and his re-election
for the County of Provencher would compromise still further
his cause and that of his compatriots.

"A stranger to all political revolutions and occupying my-
self only with my poor Indians of the Northwest I could
scarcely anticipate that men would cast their eyes upon me
for this mission. ... I have concluded that the wisest
part for me ... would be to abstain from interfering
in any way in these elections. . . .

"The affair would seem to me to be more easily arranged


by some one of yourselves with the member for Provencher,
and I could facilitate the interview if you desire it. In mak-
ing this advance you have more chance of succeeding than
I, although I fear that Kiel will only answer you as he did
me recently:

" 'What candidate is there in the entire Confederation who,
if elected by acclamation in his constituency would consent
to sacrifice himself to forward the interests of his colleagues ?
And furthermore, there is no such candidate representing a
principle of nationality as I do.' . . ."

Kiel had fled to Montreal from St. Boniface in
1873, when the warrant for his arrest was issued.
When Father Lacomhe met him there in 1874 he was
in a state of mental derangement, due it was believed
to the continual fear of assassination and arrest prey-
ing on his mind since his first hurried exit from St.
Boniface in 1872. It fell to the lot of Father La-
combe as the Archbishop's representative in the east
to visit the unfortunate Metis occasionally at Longue
Pointe Asylum outside Montreal, where he was
finally kept under supervision.

From this house Father Lacombe transferred him
this year to an institution at Plattsburg, N. Y., where
he was kept under some restraint. His mind con-
tinued to be affected at intervals always upon re-
ligious and political questions. One night in
particular he astounded the community by running
into the dining-room scantily clad and proclaiming
himself to be the Holy Ghost.

Notwithstanding his eagerness to go and civilise


the Blackfeet Father Lacombe permitted himself to
become absorbed in work for Archbishop Tache.
This prelate was then bending his energies to pro-
moting colonization of the west, and Father Lacombe
seemed the one man equipped to be his lieutenant.
His knowledge of the west and persuasive person-
ality both fitted him for his new duties.

On July 22, 1874, Father Lacombe returned from
a colonization campaign to Winnipeg as parish-priest
of St. Mary's in the growing frontier-town. This
was to be his headquarters while he continued his
work of colonization. A large log-building served
as a church and residence for himself and curate,
Father Baudin. The church situated on the second
floor was only reached by an outside stairway.

The building had been erected for him, and for
once Father Lacombe stepped into a mission-house
which he did not have to construct or chink. This
was an aid to bodily comforts; but in other ways the
missionary did not enjoy his early ministry at Winni-
peg. The people he met in his own parish or out
of it seemed to him to be rarely as good or kind as
his Christian Indians; while to sections of the popu-
lation he found his priestly garb was offensive.

Of these he used to ask indignantly:

"Why shouldn't I wear my soutane if I want to?
We have done much to civilize this country wearing
these soutanes: they are the Oblates' uniforms as
soldiers of Christ. The policemen, the trainmen and
the Queen's soldiers wear their uniforms and no one


objects. Why shouldn't I wear mine without re-

More than once insulting, jeering remarks were
thrown slyly at him as he passed through the streets;
and usually then a very unpriestly desire came to
thrash the man or boy who flung the jeer at the cruci-
fix or robe. There never was anything of the turn-
the-other-cheek Christianity about Father Lacombe.

In the spring of 1875 he brought out a large number
of excellent settlers. In 1876, in response to his
efforts in Quebec and Massachusetts fully 600
French-Canadians arrived in Manitoba. New par-
ishes were formed at numerous points on the prairies,
and Father Lacombe rejoicing in the pleasure this
gave his invalid Archbishop applied himself to col-
onization with zest, as though he really enjoyed it.
In reality he found it very ungrateful work.

In 1877, accompanied by Father Fillion and two
others, he continued his work. This year 400 families
were settled in Manitoba. On one trip west Father
Lacombe accompanied ten families from Lowell.
The weather was depressing, and the band of emi-
grants discouraged. On their arrival he left them in
the immigrants' quarters promising to go with them
next day to select their farms.

The next day was radiantly fine. . . . "But
such mud! The oily mud of Winnipeg in the days
before there were pavements," Father Lacombe
shuddered to recall it.


The newcomers sat outside the Hall smoking dole-
fully. Inside the building their womenfolk were
complaining steadily. They clamoured to go home.

"How do things go this morning?" Father Lacombe
asked them.

"Oh, no better. It is a poor country you bring us
to. It is always raining raining; and then mud!
Look at that mud! We will go back east."

The words and manner alike were impertinent;
and when they would not listen to his placating re-
marks all Father Lacombe's patience fled, and he
cried to them:

"Then go back, since you have not more sense than
to judge a country before you have looked into it.
If there is deep mud here it is only because the soil
is fat the richest in America. But go back to your
Massachusetts if you want to, where the soil is all
pebbles, and work again in the factories!"

His outburst acted upon their flagging ambitions
like a cold douche. They decided to stay in Mani-
toba, and in a few years they had no reason to regret
their decision.

"This year of 1877," Father Lacombe notes in his
letters "was one of events on the Red River. . . ."
And not the least was the arrival of the first locomo-
tive-engine brought on a decorated barge down the
river by the steamer Selkirk. During the last four
miles of its journey the whistles of the Selkirk tooted
joyously: the bells of St. Boniface added their peals,


waking the echoes of vanished days along the historic
river. And Winnipeg turned out en masse to wel-
come the harbinger of the new Era.

Apart from the ordinary round of his ministry and
his eastern work this period of Father Lacombe's life
was marked with the formation of several notable
friendships. Friends have always been to his warm
nature the jewels strung along the rosary of his years,
and these of the seventies made no exception.

In St. Paul he met Jim Hill, then a man in the
prime of life and already marked out as one of the
coming men of the west. Two qualities drew Father
Lacombe's regard to him the excellence of the man
in his domestic relations, and his commanding genius
for business coldly daring, keen and unfailingly ac-
curate in his judgments.

One day driving down the winter trail to St. Paul
Father Lacombe met Donald Smith. He also was
in his prime, a man of greater abilities and more stu-
pendous plans than the Red River yet realized. The
priest, who had always a keen scent for the note of
distinction in a man's character, soon felt himself
drawn to a friendship for Smith which was to be per-

Mr. Smith was delicately thoughtful for the mis-
sionary during their long cold drive. As habitual he
was strikingly pleasant in voice and manner: where-
fore Father Lacombe adds:

"But ah, he was determined behind that pleasant-
ness. For the Company he was the ideal man:


smooth but so firm! He fulfilled always their motto
'Pro pelle cutem! Also he was the most lucky man
I ever knew and one of the most agreeable to ap-

Another interesting man of the early days of
Canadian rule in the west was Luxton, the brilliant
founder of the Manitoba Free Press. His first meet-
ing with Father Lacombe was made picturesque by
the circumstances and the strong individuality of the

This is the story of their meeting, evoked by a
question concerning an old letter.

"When I was at St. Mary's of Winnipeg, you un-
derstand that was hard work for me, making the
foundation of a new parish with a melange of all kinds
of people Ontariens, Metis, Scotch, Irish, French
and some Indians.

"Well, when I was there in Winnipeg a newspaper
was organized what you call the Free Press, and
Luxton, that was the man at the head. He did not
care much about us, you understand. He did not
know anything of us priests nor our faith, and he was
prejudiced. From many little things I see that. So
I decide to go and talk with him. . . ,"

Father Lacorpbe's old eyes twinkled at the memory
of that interview and of Luxton's laughter at the
audacious Blackrobe.

Like everyone else to whom this naive, warm-
hearted priest cared to show his real self the keen-
witted newspaperman was captivated with his amusing


jumble of fun and diplomatic wile. Luxton eventu-
ally came to regard Father Lacombe and his enter-
taining friendship as one of the mental oases of his new
life! The regard was mutual.

"I admired that man," Father Lacombe recalls;
"he was so honest and sincere and upright."

Later on Luxton felt it in his conscience to attack
the Canadian Pacific for what he believed to be
monopolistic methods; likewise he defended the Cath-
olics' claims to maintain their own schools upon their
own taxes, if they so desired. Both courses were un-
popular with the powers and the first ruined him.
So when Luxton's uncompromising independence
and sincerity had brought him to hard days, and when
many former friends had deserted him it was to Father
Lacombe he came one day; and that warm heart,
touched to the quick, saw him over the darkest days
until new hope came. . . .

Here is the letter that had lain forgotten while
Father Lacombe talked one written years after
Luxton left Winnipeg.

"ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 23, '99.
"Rev. Father Lacombe, Edmonton, N. W. T.

"Mr REV. AND DEAR FATHER: I have seen in the Win-
nipeg papers that just about now the fifty-year jubilee of
your entering upon your holy work is being celebrated.
Though I am not sure that it is not somewhat of an im-
pertinence on the part of one who is not of the same fold
to do so I cannot forbear tendering my congratulations
on the occasion. Your humanising work not to mention


the strictly Christian part has been such that it cannot
fail to command the admiration of all good men who know
anything of what it has been.

"My dear and venerable Father, permit me to assure you
of my most fervent hope, that you may yet be spared
many more years of valuable life to be more or less an
active participant in good work, and to enjoy seeing the
fruits before you are called hence to whatever reward is in
store for the most holy of men for that I know is yours.
"Respectfully and affectionately,

"Yours truly,


The restraint over the warmth of this letter tells
its own story of Luxton's attitude toward priests, be-
fore he came to know this one. When he wrote the
letter he was manager of a paper in St. Paul; since
then he has passed away, while his octogenarian friend

During Father Lacombe's incumbency of St.
Mary's Church a young Metis named Angus Morri-
son was committed to gaol on a charge of murder.

As chaplain of the Penitentiary Father Lacombe
one day met his half-breed there all half-breeds
were his, it will be noted. Angus was a good-looking
youth of twenty who always protested his innocence
of murdering a Scotch settler for robbery. Many
believed him innocent, and general sympathy was felt
for him.

During his imprisonment Father Lacombe was his
spiritual adviser. When he was finally sentenced to


be hanged Father Lacombe circulated a petition pray-
ing the authorities to commute the sentence. Eventu-
ally an imposing list of names went down to Ottawa,
but it was decided that the sentence should be carried

To Father Lacombe's distress, when he conveyed
this news to the prisoner, the lad fainted. Again
when Angus took leave of his widowed mother the
scene was so pitiful that Father Lacombe felt he had
known nothing of human grief before.

This is his story of Angus in part:

"Hah! I prepared him then to be strong and cour-
ageous, but I told the Bishop I would not consent to
go to the hanging. . . . Ah, I could not do that.
I made a plan in a Metis parish nearby they had
wanted me for many weeks to preach a retreat.
This was my chance. . . . 'Now/ I said to the
Bishop, 'I am going.'

" 'But that will take you away some days,' he said :
'You forget your Angus.'

"I beg him then to let me go away: some stronger
priest would go with Angus.

" 'No,' the Bishop insist with me, 'you prepared
him; he loves you now like a father. If you go away
he will be discouraged. This is your work for him.
. . . It is your duty as a priest.'

"Then I go home and say to myself: 'No, I cannot;
it will kill me.' . . . Some days I was thinking
that, but at last one day at Mass I feel to myself I
can go now, since it is my duty. . . . But again


when I think of it it was like killing myself. Al-
ways I felt that on my mind.

"That night before the execution I stayed all night
in his cell with Angus. He was a frightened lad, my
Angus very nervous and affectionate. I told the
gaoler he must not put the irons on that night: I
would be responsible. He did as I said.

"After we said the prayers Angus slept all night,
but I could not close my eyes. I just watch that poor
lad and pray for him. ... At four o'clock I
roused him.

"When he wake to that day and know it he cried;
my poor Angus! And I let him cry well at first.
Then I help him dress. Outside in the hall before
his cell I offered the Sacrifice of the Mass, and gave
him communion. , ; ^ . He would not take any

"That was a fine day cold but fine, and the scaf-
fold was built outside the window on the second story.
When we came to that window I felt I was going to
faint myself, because going through the corridor I
saw the hangman coming all in black.

"Outside, it seemed all the people of Winnipeg
were there: that was one of the first hangings in the

"I was afraid for Angus, and I say:

* 'My boy, show yourself a brave man to those
white peoples '

"They told the prisoner to speak, but he could not.
I spoke for him, just to say that Angus was dying


all right with his God, and he asked pardon from any
one he had ever hurt.

"Now ah, God came upon me, and my weakness
changed. No more nervous I was all master of my-
self! . . .

"Over us there was a big black flag, and down be-
low I knew there was a coffin . . . and across
the river the bells of St. Boniface were tolling.

"It was nine o'clock the hour.

"Angus knelt, and I pronounced over him a last
absolution. . . . Ah-h! . . ."

The old priest's head fell forward in silence, and as
I waited I heard echoes of Eternity. . , .

"The body of my Angus was brought to St. Boni-
face that day and the Bishop T ache made one of his
finest sermons over that poor boy. That text he took
from the Dies Irae; you know that grand sentiment
in it. 1 . . . 'Tantus labor non sit cassus? 3 ' Shall
such love meet no return?'

i The reference here is to one verse of the Dies Irae, the superb
requiem hymn of the Catholic Church composed many centuries ago.
Its rhythm has the swing of a tolling bell; chanted, it is one of the
most affecting and beautiful things in the world of music. The verse
from which the text was taken is in full:

Quarens me sedisti lassus,
Redemisti crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus?

Seeking me Thou sat'st forlorn,
Saved me on the tree of scorn:
Shall such love meet no return?


EVEN in the pampered ways of civilization Father
Lacombe lost none of the vitality which had so dis-
tinguished him on the plains. One day in the
spring the small riverboat Swallow, on which he was
returning from Selkirk mission, suddenly careened
off Point Douglas in a bitter wind and snowstorm.
All hastened to the small boats. Father Lacombe
missed his footing and fell into the river.

As he was about to sink a second time a man
caught him by the hair and pulled him into the boat.
Numbed and icy after a long walk on reaching land
he found shelter in a Metis cottage, while a messen-
ger went to St. Boniface for the Archbishop's car-

"I went to bed about five o'clock that day maybe;
next day I rise about seven, all right. That was
nothing a dip in the river!"

But while Father Lacombe was spending himself
in moulding into shape the elements of his town-par-
ish and in colonisation work events were moving
marvellously on the plains among his own people.

The Government of Ottawa, recognizing that a
new period of western development was at hand,
mobolized and despatched to the Northwest in
1874 a semi-military force of Mounted Police.



The intention was to pave the way for new forms of
government, meanwhile suppressing cattle-stealing
and the illicit sale of liquor on the Montana border.

Having profited by the lesson of the Red River
agitation the Government also sent commissioners
into the country to deal with the Indian tribes before
the change came about. By these treaties the In-
dians agreed to live within fixed limits of territory
called reserves, and in lieu of certain annual pay-
ments and rations they yielded all claim to the wide
hunting-grounds of their fathers.

It was at Treaty No. 6, near Fort Pitt, that Father
Lacombe's Cree friends made their surrender.
Sweet-Grass was still Head-Chief, and that day he
spoke worthily for his people, urging them to come
peacefully into treaty-relations and learn to farm like
white men. The Treaty stipulated not only money
payments but the provision of schools on reserves and
practical instruction in farming.

In 1877 Governor Laird brought the Blackfeet
into treaty. Father Lacombe was invited by the
Federal Government to be present as counsellor and
friend of these Indians, in the same capacity Bishop
Grandin had attended the Cree treaty-ceremonies.
He left Ottawa in August intending to travel by St.
Paul and Fort Benton to Macleod, the new Police
post in the Blackfoot country.

Unfortunately he fell ill at St. Paul and after a
severe sickness of weeks was obliged to return to St.
Boniface. The treaty-commissioner meanwhile se-


cured as his substitute his former assistant, Father

The preliminaries of the Indian problem being dis-
posed of and the Indians established on their reserves
the Government was reprehensibly slow in carrying
out its whole programme. They were to teach the
elders to farm and the children to read: they lagged
in doing both.

The buffalo, steadily decreasing in numbers for
some years, suddenly disappeared.

Nothing could have more effectively broken the
links of the Past for the Indian. The buffalo had
been their living manna. Emerging each spring
from the earth, as they once believed, the Indians
looked on the buffalo as a manifestation of the Great
Spirit's care for his people.

With the coming of the whites this was gone!

They did not stop to reason why; or to what ex-
tent their reckless slaughter was accountable. They
preferred to blame the extermination of the buffalo
upon the Sioux and American trader with his repeat-

It was in the winter of 1878-1879 the Indians' best
friend disappeared entirely, and the Hunger-Moon
of the Blackfeet did not last for twenty-eight days
that year, but for months.

The Crees, more fortunate in their northern hunt-
ing-grounds, had resource in other game and in goods
exchanged for furs at the Company's posts. But the
Blackfeet did not live in a fur-country. As in John


Rowand's day the buffalo had been their all. They
were now in a most desperate plight.

Twenty years before Father Lacombe had begun
to Christianize the Blackfeet, and it was ten years
since he had planned to give himself entirely to civ-
ilising them. In all this time he had lost none of his
original interest in these Indians, and it was with
poignant grief that he heard of their present condi-
tion through letters from Father Scollen.

He had known them in their pride kings of the
open plain in their barbaric power brave and proud,
honourable and hospitable; dwellers in frail skin-
lodges yet Lords of all the outdoor world. Now he
heard of them as miserable dependents upon the char-
ity of the Mounted Police and the missionaries. Ow-
ing to the difficulties of transportation supplies could
not be brought in readily. Moreover in spite of the
best efforts of those in the country it was difficult to
bring Ottawa to understand the acute distress that

Father Scollen in his voluminous letters related
that the Indians were devouring their dogs and had
even eaten the carcasses of poisoned wolves and soup
made of old buffalo bones gathered on the prairies.
A few of the aged died of starvation and he had seen
men leaving their lodges because they could -not pro-
vide food for children wailing with hunger.

They had begged all they could from the few
whites in the settlements. Now he feared they
would be driven to steal the range-cattle.


In a letter by the same writer forwarded to Ot-
tawa by Major Irvine, N. W. M. P., the harrowing
condition of the Indians is strongly set forth. He
demands farming implements and seed for the Pie-
gans, as promised at their Treaty two years earlier.
He concludes with the hope that if not palatable his
letter may at least be useful "for I can assure you I
have written it with all frankness." Which state-
ment no one who has read the letter will doubt!

Jean L'Heureux, an interesting character who had
applied, but was rejected by Father Lacombe, as a
catechist at Lac Ste. Anne in the fifties, wrote an

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 14 of 28)