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words ; but his hand grasped the extended hand of the
priest and the tears that shone in the dark eyes were

"Eh, bien," said the cure turning to the father.
"You will send him to the college, and I will pay
his way. Who knows? . . . Some day our little
Indian may be a priest and work for the Indians!"

In this way, thanks to M. Viau, another bright
young mind was added to the regiment of talented
boys without means who were then and still are being
provided for in Quebec colleges by the parish priests
or by religious communities.

Robust, active and ambitious as a student at L'As-
somption College, the little Indian worked hard,
played hard, and stood well in his classes.

The rector of the college, made aware of Albert's
desire for the priesthood, placed him at the conclusion
of his classics in charge of a junior class in the col-
lege, investing him at the same time with the cas-
sock as a mark of his purpose.

In 1847 he was called to the bishop's Palace in
Montreal to continue his theological studies there.
Bishop Bourget assigned to him the duties of under-
secretary as assistant to Canon Pare, while his theo-
logical course was pursued under the direction of
Monsignor Prince, the coadjutor bishop.

These studies were shared by Edouard Fabre (aft-
erward Archbishop of Montreal) . A lifelong friend-
ship sprang up between the young men. They dis-
covered that they had the same birthday; and each


year when Madame Fabre a grande dame of the old
school celebrated her son's birthday she made it clear
that the fete was equally Albert's and her son's.

Life at the Palace was pleasant, yet the voyageur
spirit in Albert Lacombe regarded it only as a means
to an end. Sixty years later he said :

"There at the house of the Bishop, my good pro-
tector, my dear friend, I was very happy. They were
good to me le petit sauvage, they called me. The
Canons loved me and were kind; I cannot tell you
how kind. I had not too much work to fatigue me.
I was well. . . . The cures, the parish priests
from many parts of the country, would come there
Oh! hundreds of them came there, one or two at a
time and camped there for three or four nights.

"They were fine pleasant men I liked to meet
them. They lived in comfortable houses, they were
liked by their people. They did good work. . . .
But I would look at them and say to myself, 'No,
that is not for me. I would not live quiet like that
for all the world. I must go out and work I must
save my soul in my own way.' '

In the winter of 1848 Father George Belcourt,
a missionary from the far Pembina district, sought
hospitality from the venerable bishop and alms for
his missions from the Catholics of Quebec. He was
a powerful, big man with a rugged face and great
force of personality. No country cure with delicious
morsels of talk about this or that quaint parishioner;
with preferences for this viand or that but a man


whose tales were of the wild rush of the buffalo hunt,
of the wily Saulteaux and Metis or murderous Sioux
to whom he ministered; of the splendid struggle for
human souls in a primitive land.

Albert Lacombe hung on the stranger's words, in
the community hall, at table, everywhere he went : and
when one Sunday night Father Belcourt preached in
the old cathedral of St. Jacques, at least one young
man in the Sanctuary listened enraptured to the tales
he told and the rousing appeal he made for help.

"Sunday night, when the cathedral was filled," he
has written in his letters, "the missionary 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 ' Quern
mitt em? (Whom shall I send?) and I said in re-
ply, 'Ecce ego, mitte me' (Behold, I am here; send

The following morning he opened his mind to the
bishop. And Age counselled Youth, testing its

"Wait and reflect ; and above all pray that you may
come to know God's will in the matter. Is that the
work for which the Creator has destined you?"

The young man's heart thumped in acclaim of this
as his destiny, but perceiving the bishop's tender
thought for himself he bided his time as patiently as
he might. His early patron the venerable Abbe
Viau who was now an invalid in a hospice nearby,
counselled delay. Canon Pare and Canon Mercier


to whom he owed so much instruction, advised him to
give up the idea.

"You are happy with us; you are too young to go
so far. Stay," they said. The young man could not
argue against such affectionate opposition as this.
He went his way in silence, with his mind unchanged.

"I knew I wanted to be a priest, but failing this
mission-life, if I had to be a cure, I would have de-
cided to return to the world. I wanted to make every
sacrifice, or none. That was my nature," he has said.

As spring came again the candidate's restless de-
sire for the missions became more than ever apparent.
The bishop sent for him and after questioning him
closely to ascertain the genuineness of his vocation,
told him to prepare for ordination: he might leave
for the West the following summer. Albert was ex-
ultant, although he went about his preparation with
a tinge of sadness.

On June 13th in St. Hyacinthe on the occasion of
the annual retreat at the old college, he was raised to
the priesthood. Hundreds witnessed the ceremony,
and at the imposition of hands sixty priests in turn
approached the young Levite to place a hand on his
handsome dark head and salute him as brother.

Father Lacombe returned joyfully to Montreal,
only to have his joy dashed at the very threshold.
. . . The servant who admitted him announced
that the Abbe Viau had died suddenly that forenoon.

The young priest could not believe the news in his
first grief; only the evening before he had talked


long with his venerable patron, who seemed in the
best of spirits and kissing his little Indian paternally,
blessed him in leave-taking, with these words:

"Mon cher Albert, I shall pray to-morrow that you
will always be a good and holy priest."

And now the Abbe Viau was dead. At the very
hour his protege's ordination had taken place the old
priest had given up his soul to his Master. "Whilst
I wept beside his inanimate body," Father Lacombe
wrote years later, "he seemed to say to me: 'Cur sum
consummavi ... (I have finished the course
.). Take my place as priest, for I have helped
to make you what you are to-day.' '

The plague of cholera now fell with blighting force
on Montreal. The entire energies of the Bishop's
household were directed to combatting the dread dis-
ease. Canon Mercier, a man of much charm and in-
tellect warmly loved by Father Lacombe, was weak-
ened by his untiring ministry and succumbed to the

It was not until seven weeks after his ordination
that Father Lacombe could leave for the West. His
departure, marked by a most striking scene, was de-
scribed at length in the Melanges Religieux, a church
paper published in Montreal at that period. From
this and other sources an account of this scene has
been compiled.

Its significance like that of the Mass that
prefaced the voyages of Columbus and Cartier and
Champlain, or the prayers of the departing Pilgrim


Fathers is that great deeds of venture and self-sac-
rifice have always been undertaken by the believing
heart, the man to whom a supernatural world is a
reality. The mocker criticises from the comfortable
depths of an armchair at his Club.


IT was past sunset on the evening of July 31, 1849.
In gray old Montreal, whose early history is in-
woven with churchmen and church influences, in the
chapel of the Bishop's Palace there was enacted that
evening a religious drama which fits in well with the
story of a metropolis founded by the knightly de

A young man dark, vivid, strongly-built and
black-gowned stood on the steps before the altar,
his hands almost clenched in an effort to hide the
emotion that flooded him his head upraised as in
mental distress shutting out from his vision a long
row of ecclesiastics, while one by one the venerable
Bishop, the Canons and Abbes approached him and
bent to kiss his feet.

He knew this was only the old custom taken from
the Seminary of Foreign Missions at Paris, and sug-
gested by the Biblical verse :

"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him
that bringeth good tidings and that preacheth peace. . . ."

He knew this, but his whole soul was in protest
against it now. Once he had thought the custom
strangely poetic and symbolic but now, submitted
to it himself? . . . The priest's sturdy, clear-


eyed young manhood rebelled against such tribute
from men he knew to be stronger, holier, more
worldly-wise and more intellectual than himself. But
as they came and came, bending silently to his feet,
the young man was seized on a moment with the awe
of a new, almost terrible knowledge. . . .

Hah! It was not then himself, Albert Lacombe,
the pet of the Bishop's House, the newly-ordained,
whom they saluted thus : it was instead the fulfilment
in him of the ages-old command that the Peace and
Good Will of the Christ should be carried by Chris-
tians to the bourne of the visible world! He, ff le
petit sauvage" the village boy of Saint Sulpice, was
now to be an ambassador of Christ and as such these
old men honoured him.

His head sank in humility. Protest died before
the higher thought, and the ceremony became a fresh
consecration of himself then and for his lifetime, a
memory that did at critical moments gird him in
honour and duty and right.

"My heart was almost suffocated with emotions,"
writes Father Lacombe himself of this occasion in
his Memoirs, "when, the prayer for travellers being
said, His Lordship called me to the altar and leaving
me stand there before the tabernacle this venerable
bishop lowered himself to my feet to kiss them.
Then his coadjutor, and one after another all the
priests of the Palace. ... Ah! ... The
ceremony was finished, but for me its memory will
endure forever. Still to-day in my difficulties and


hardships I think with new courage of that solemn
moment and I see again those men, long since disap-
peared from the world, but who watch from above,
praying for me in Heaven."

The bishop in a voice heavy with feeling added a
brief parting word. He reminded him, says the Me-
langes Religieuoc, of the immensity of the sacrifice he
had imposed upon himself and of the dangers he
would incur. . . . "My dear friend, my brother/'
he continued feelingly, "we cannot go with you on
your journey, but you will be accompanied by our
prayers and our hearts' best wishes. . . .

"Go where the Spirit of God has called you. Go
to those nations still seated in darkness and ignorance.
Go to console them and make them children of God.
May the holy angels accompany you. Go, in fine,
with all our dearest wishes and represent there the
diocese of Montreal." Then bending toward the
young priest, he concluded solemnly:

"My son, never forget your holy and precious call-
ing. ... I/ God is with you, who can be against

The following morning Father Lacombe left La-
chine, still the point of embarkation for the Pays d'en
Haut as it had been ten years earlier when the bri-
gades of canoes set out amid cheers and the songs of
the voyageurs.

As the primitive steamboat pushed away from the
dock the youthful passenger sought his cabin and
fought the pain of leave-taking like a man. He was


glad to land at Buffalo, for neither captain nor crew
had been considerate of the shy young priest who
spoke very little English. The crew, of a rough class
and unsympathetic to his race and creed, did not
trouble to hide their jeers at his long cassock his
"petticoat," as they termed it.

From Buffalo through to Dubuque the journey
was made by boat and by stage alternately. Occa-
sionally his fellow-passengers made themselves as
objectionable as the boat's crew had been. In all his
love-sheltered days among the child-hearted, cour-
teous folk o* Saint Sulpice and with the refined and
gentle men of L'Assomption and the Palace he had
seen nothing of the rougher side of life. He conse-
quently chronicles that journey as one of the most
triste experiences of his life.

It was arranged that he should go first to Dubuque
in Iowa where Bishop Loras resided; for the mission
of Pembina on the Red River, whither he was bound,
was then in the diocesan limits of Dubuque. He
was received with wondering kindness by the vener-
able bishop and his vicar, Father Cretin. > Both
marvelled at his air of extreme youth. On Sunday
he took part in the celebration of the Feast of the
Assumption, the patronal feast of the Church in the
United States, and preached his first sermon.

He spoke in French, for Dubuque was peopled
largely with French-Canadians. The bishop, who
formally assigned Father Lacombe to his new field,
was a cultured and pious priest from old France


"with the mind of a statesman and the heart of a
saint." He had worked in Alabama for many years
and was then busily encouraging settlers to come to
the rich prairies of Iowa.

The stay with Bishop LStfas at Dubuque refreshed
the young traveller, and he resumed his journey with
new courage. On the bishop's advice he did not wear
the soutane that had subjected him to such rudeness
on the way from Canada, but the precaution was un-
necessary. The captain and crew of the boat bound
for St. Paul, with typical western tolerance, treated
him very kindly and even helped him in his efforts to
learn English.

For twelve days the boat puffed its slow way up
the current, passing occasional encampments of In-
dians on the green banks. Here in the stillness and
free airs of the wilderness the spirit of the great West
first came to Father Lacombe. "I began to breathe
freely at last; I felt myself a new man," he says of
those delightful days on the Mississippi.

One day the boatmen called to him that St. Paul
was at hand. He hurried forward to look on the
scattered settlement of log-houses, whose occupants
were hurrying down to the riverside to meet the boat.
As Father Lacombe found his way up the hill along
a path destined to widen into one of the main streets
of St. Paul the metropolis, Father Ravoux came hur-
rying down to greet him.

St. Paul, which had dropped its disreputable old
name of Pig's Eye to adopt the name of Abbe Gal-


tier's mission, consisted of about thirty primitive log
buildings built near the church and inhabited by
French-Canadians, Metis and a few American
traders. The house in which Father Ravoux enter-
tained his young guest and on whose site a large news-
paper office now stands was of logs and about eigh-
teen feet square. It had been built by Abbe Galtier
in 1841, serving as chapel and residence, and two years
after Father Lacombe's visit the new Bishop Cretin
took possession of it as his first episcopal palace.

Father Ravoux brought the Canadian into this bare
little dwelling and asked him to consider himself mas-
ter there while he waited for the Red River brigade
to come. "For my part," he continued, "I must re-
turn to my headquarters at Fort Snelling this after-
noon. You will officiate here to-morrow."

"But where am I to sleep ?" the newcomer asked.

"Why, here," said the older priest, pointing to a
long narrow box. "That box has blankets inside.
Just open it up."

"But that's a coffin!" Father Lacombe cried, shud-
dering as his sensitive nature recoiled at the thought.

"Yes," the other agreed in the most matter of fact
way. "A half-breed died in the woods the other day
and I helped to make his coffin. It was too short,
and we had to make another. I kept this one. It
is very useful; I only had blankets before."

Studying English, listening to the yarns of the
trappers and traders sunning themselves on the gos-
sip-benches of the little village, Father Lacombe


waited one month for the arrival of Father Belcourt's
brigade. This was a new experience and his heart
rose to it as he watched the train of clumsy carts come
creaking down the trail. They were drawn by oxen,
and the brigade was manned by a couple of Canadian
freemen, 1 a Metis 2 and an Indian.

They loaded up the carts with supplies for the mis-
sion ; then one day late in September they set out
for Pembina, with Father Ravoux and the whole vil-
lage looking on. They called out cheery adieux; the
drivers snapped their long whips and the slow-breath-
ing animals plodded along the trail aglow now with
autumn tints.

The Pembina men announced early to the new-
comer that the trails were bad through the woods,
where they were obliged to travel for fear of the
roving Indians. But nothing they said prepared him
for the muddy roads, the marshes and creeks swollen
by recent rain. At times their oxen and carts sank
deep in a swamp, and the entire party was obliged
to get into harness to draw them out, after they had
carried most of the provisions on their backs to firm

When in the neighborhood of Lac Rouge, in the
country of a band of Saulteaux called the Plunderers,
a fairly large party of these Indians suddenly came
upon them.

1 Former servants of the Hudson's Bay Company whose term of con-
tract had expired.

2 Metis A person of mixed blood, and consequently a more correct
term than "half-breeds" for natives who were in part Indians.


They exacted a tribute of food. It was not their
intention to make war on a Blackrobe and Metis,
but they proposed to exercise their right as master of
that bit of territory. Probably, too, they were hungry.
In any case the lordly braves went through the carts,
took out what they wanted of provisions and articles
intended for the mission. Then reducing the bri-
gade's men to a proper state of subjection by threats
the high-handed knights of the road went off in great

The little party lightened their carts by caching
some of their freight, then pushed on. They had
about sickened of the trip as well as exhausted their
pemmican when they met another caravan by which
Father Belcourt had sent provisions. They pushed
on with fresh spirit.

When one nightfall the young missionary's caravan
made its way to the end of the trail, the first snowfall
of the year was enveloping them in a ghostly mist,
through which the lights of the rude mission-place
set down in the wilderness shone as a goal of delights.

Father Belcourt came bustling out to meet him and
drew him into the grateful light of the hearth. He
was another sort of man than Loras or Ravoux less
fine-fibred, but splendidly strong and able to cope
with any band of Indians or any western emergency.
He held sway like an Emperor in this woodland king-
dom, by force of his personality as well as by his of-


HERE in the forest-mission of Pembina, Father
Lacombe was to serve the apprenticeship to his life-
work, his wander jahre between youth and the serious
battlefield of life.

The mission had been established in 1818 by Rev.
Severe Dumoulin, who with Father Provencher had
answered Lord Selkirk's request for priests. A num-
ber of French freemen once employed by the North-
West Company had settled with their Metis families
about Pembina. In 1824 many of these settlers
founded a new home on the White Horse Plains
across the border. Pembina, however, remained a
mission-headquarters for the wandering Saulteaux,
and when Father Lacombe arrived was a village of
some size composed of American half-breeds and In-

He at once bent himself to the study of Saulteau,
one of the Algonquin dialects. He did not find the
task difficult, for then and throughout his life In-
dian languages had a strong fascination for him. He
had the further advantage of using a dictionary and
grammar composed by Father Belcourt.

In December the two men went to St. Boniface to
pay their respects to Bishop Provencher. On their
return home Father Lacombe again applied himself


to his studies, taking spiritual charge as well of the
mission, while his intrepid superior spent the winter
journeying by dog-sleighs and on foot hundreds of
miles though the forest.

The young missionary was not dissatisfied with his
first season at Pembina. That is perhaps the best
that can be said of it. He found his small flock de-
vout and attentive to their religious exercises during
the long quiet winter. He did not lack food of a
rough order, nor did he have any hardship to endure.
But the lack of congenial company and the com-
parative inactivity weighed on him. He found
vent for his restless energies only in his Indian studies.
These he devoured and consequently made notable

Spring came with warm breaths from the South-
land, pushing the anemones and bloodroot up like lit-
tle friends to greet the lonely young priest. It
sounded, too, a reveille to the languid Metis. One day
a band of them came down the river in canoes from
their winter camp. Almost daily others followed by
the river or across the plains, for Pembina was a
famous rendezvous of the buffalo-hunters.

At last all the Metis of that region had gathered
there. The Mission grew in a few days to the pro-
portions of a town, and the woodland was dotted with
tents. The Pembina Metis had sowed and planted
their gardens, and were now ready with the keenest
anticipation for the yearly excursion to the prairies.

This was the Golden Age of the Indian and Metis,


when the bison still roamed the great plains in unnum-
bered thousands. The tender buffalo flesh, dried,
fresh or pounded, made a food both appetizing and
nutritious; the buffalo skin made robes for garments
and bedding, hide for tepees and canoes; while on the
unwooded plains the sun-dried manure served the
purpose of fuel.

- The buffalo in fine was the chief factor of life in
the West; its pursuit the chief joy of the native.
From the first the missionaries had learned to look on
the time of this buffalo-hunt as most favourable for
teaching Christian doctrines to the Indians. They
were then most comfortable and correspondingly
amiable, and in the long evenings or longer days when
they sat sunning themselves while the women pre-
pared the meat of the last kill the Indian warrior
smoked his pipe happily and listened with pleasure
to the old story of the Redemption.

It fell to Father Lacombe's lot to be the chaplain
of the great Hunt in 1850. He was alive to the
pleasures and novelty of his new assignment, for all
about him the preparations of his people were tinged
with joyousness and excitement. He took a hand in
the preparations, but unfortunately as he was squar-
ing a board to mend his mission-cart the broad-axe
slipped and cut his right foot badly.

To his intense regret Father Belcourt decided he
should remain at the Mission, but the sympathetic
Metis perceiving his disappointment and anxious for
his company begged his superior to let the young


priest the Monias come. They promised to take
every care of him, and Father Belcourt yielded.

On the great eve Father Lacombe called the band
together. In the open air they recited with him the
evening prayers and startled the forest-echoes with
their lusty rendering of the hymns Father Belcourt
had translated into Indian.

"No order," says Father Lacombe, "had been ob-
served up to this in their mode of arrival or their
preparations, but Voila! how the scene changes
. . . !" The women and children withdrew after
prayers to their lodges, and the fine discipline of a
military camp suddenly pervaded the assembly. The
hunters held a council to select, by a majority of
votes, a Chief and ten captains, who in turn selected
ten or fifteen others to act as scouts. Then they drew
up anew the laws of the hunt, which were as the
laws of the Medes and Persians incontestable by the
most independent once they were accepted.

The half-breed hunter Wilkie, who had been
elected Chief, rose at the close of the council and
asked for the hunters' acceptance of these laws as a
whole. This being done by a majority of voices the
Chief declared solemnly:

"If any among you do not approve of these laws,
let him leave our camp and come not with us, for
once we have set out together from this encampment

Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 2 of 28)