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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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years are printing themselves still more plainly on
his weakening form, but with his habit of eating little
scarcely more than one meal a day he contrives
to be always in fair health.

In January 1907, he made a brief visit to Edmon-
ton and St. Albert district. At Beaumont, a small
French-Canadian settlement in which he had estab-
lished the mission twelve years earlier he officiated
one Sunday of his visit. People flocked from all
over the countryside to hear the "fameux Pere
Lacombe" who said to them during his address:

"We are told that in the earliest days of the Church
an old white-haired man, bent with age and partic-
ularly tried by the labors of a long and painful
apostolate, being no longer able to walk by himself
had himself carried by his disciples into the midst
of an assemblage of the faithful and there he did not
cease to repeat:

" 'My little children, love one another.'

"This old man was the apostle St. John. Eh f bien,


to-day you have before you another old man. Hav-
ing had the happiness of founding this good parish,
he has wished to visit once more a place filled with
memories for him, and to come to give you some ad-
vice which I am sure his white hairs will make you
hear with respect : I will say to you nothing else than
that which St. John said; like him I shall repeat to
you, 'Love one another.' '

Even yet the old missionary could thrill his au-
diences when he chose; and he did so that night as
he closed a lengthy address on the West with this
clarion call

"Advance the work of colonization! Do not rest
idle in the shade. Do not go elsewhere to seek the
benefits you have here and can enjoy with more ad-
vantages. The future is yours, if you will seize the
present. Courage and tenacity these form the se-
cret of success!"

It was while he made this sojourn in the north
that, meeting me, he renewed a request first made in
1904: would I not relieve him of the work upon his
Memoirs? This time I agreed, arranging to spend
some months near the Hermitage to secure his

By February 28th, which was his eightieth birth-
day the old Chief as he was wont to call himself
now was in Montreal. Archbishop Bruchesi, plac-
ing the Palace at his disposal, suggested that he give
a birthday banquet to his friends. Father Lacombe
was charmed with the novel idea, deeply touched too


at the "delicacy of thought and the courtesy of this
dear Archbishop," and straightway issued numerous

In April he wrote his bishop with some malice
prepense in the idea of tunning the tables upon his
teasing brethren:

"Done, soon we shall commence the fameux Memoirs, but
I have a new plan concerning them! It is very interesting
for you and others of my friends to push me unceasingly to
undertake this work which is far from making me smile.

"But will it not be permitted me for my part to ask all our
Ancients to write their Memoirs also, uniting them with mine
to make one entire book out of them? I propose this and
ask you to have the following missionaries write their Mem-

"1st. Bishop Legal, who apart from his title and position
has had a long experience among the Indians in the founda-
tion of this diocese. This would make a fine complement to
the Life of Bishop Grandin.

"2nd. The venerable Father Lestanc. How many things
would this venerable missionary have to tell of his remem-
brances of whites and Indians, and his voyages with the half-
breeds into the prairies!

"3rd. Dear Father Tissier who could relate his sojourn
at the Peace River and his work among us.

"4th. Dear Father Leduc who has also reminiscences en
masse. With his good memory, what interesting things
would he not recall ! It seems to me that he is one of Ours
who has achievements and deeds to record.

"5th. The Rev. Father Grandin with his position of Vicar,
would he not be counted among the Ancients? He had his


experiences also among the savages, half-breeds and whites.
Being the nephew of our first Bishop and a capable mis-
sionary, we should invite him to write his Memoirs.

"6th. The benign Pere Doucet is he not one of the most
ancient? Notwithstanding his humility and his reluctance to
talk, he should be compelled to write his Memoirs. How
many things could he not tell us about the Indians, Metis and
the rest? . . .

"Done, My Lord, such is my new plan! It is very fine
for you to start me upon this job, but let each one take a
part in the work, which should be of especial interest to all
these Ancients."

Spending the most of the remainder of 1907 at
the Hermitage he writes solemnly on New Year's
eve to his bishop. The letter is that of an old man,
full of years and wisdom. He assumes again the
role of first Counsellor as in the days of Bishop Tache,
concluding the letter with a word of advice to the
bishop to give latitude to young priests, especially
when they possess a certain aptitude and capacity for
their duties.

"With politeness and charity," he says, "put the
old aside, for they will have enough good sense to
understand their position."


THE year 1908, which was iliainly spent in his
Hermitage, brought the old "Chief of the Foothills"
to the parting of the Ways.

He was eighty-one. He had lived to see the last
traces of the frontier regime lost in the progress of
modern cities to see old trails trod by himself and
his "fameux Aleocis" buried beneath asphalt. But
up to this, in his colony of St. Paul, he had held him-
self staunchly identified with his now-humble friends
the Metis in contradistinction to the "proud pale-
faces who overrun our lands."

He was now to witness the breaking of this last

The superintendent of the colony had realized for
some time that it was no longer possible to continue
that settlement on the basis planned by Father La-
combe. Of those who had been brought there and
surrounded with every advantage many had willed
to turn their backs on the quiet country life, to drift
again to the lights, the cheap pleasures and vice of
the city purlieus they had known.

Several others had moved out of the colony to
ordinary homesteads. Those who remained about
eighty families in all were well-established on
farms and on the way of making an independent live-



lihood. Father Therien urged that the plan of com-
munity life should be broken, and the Metis put on
the status of any other homesteader in the West.

In consideration of the money expended in that
region by the Oblate order and their friends he sug-
gested that a certain portion of land be deeded to the
controlling syndicate, while the remainder should be
thrown open to homesteaders in the usual way.

The plan immediately recommended itself to
Bishop Legal and Archbishop Langevin, two mem-
bers of the syndicate who had begun to consider
this expensive philanthropic work something of a
white elephant. Father Lacombe was the last to be
won to it, but he was confronted by the continually
failing finances and his own enfeebled forces.

As cogent as either of these reasons was the indis-
putable fact that many of the Metis he had hoped to
"redeem" would not submit to the redemption, when
they found themselves confronted with the routine
of farmwork.

On March 28th Father Lacombe wrote to Bishop
Legal that if all the members of the syndicate
favoured the plan and the Government consisted to
it "then I submit to it." This was his renunciation
of the one big undertaking of his life in which he
felt he had not succeeded.

In the spring of 1909 the alteration of the Colony
was effected by the Government, and St. Paul de
Metis as a protected colony ceased to exist.

Father Lacombe, deprived of one scheme of be-


nevolence, immediately sought another. He was
now inspired to throw all his energies into a Plan,
which had been in his mind in a vague way for
years. . . . Very occasionally he had spoken of
it, wistfully and timidly almost, as "my dream of
an old missionary." He resolved to realize this now
and so provide a refuge for the orphans and home-
less aged of Alberta.

Progress had made its own of the old hunting-
ground of his Indians, and in its spectacular march
the weak as elsewhere were thrust to the wall.
Father Lacombe's heart called out to him to help

Everyone else in the West was intent upon the
opportunities and necessities of development. Gov-
ernments were absorbed in constructive legislation
and public works. Young missionaries expended
their energies in forming new missions for the in-
pouring immigrants. Individuals were busy making
fortunes or places for themselves.

They had no time to seek those in danger of fall-
ing by the way: this mission remained for the Man-

As soon as Father Lacombe realized that this was
to be his next undertaking his mind became a glow-
ing smelting-pot of plans about the Home. There
must be found money to build and maintain the in-
stitution, a competent staff to conduct the Home, a
suitable site in some pretty country place, where the
children could learn to work the land and a stream


by which the old people would have a pleasant seat
under the trees to dream or pray their last days away.

Strangely enough, in view of his own busy old
age and inability to be tranquil Father Lacombe
never lost his belief in the tranquil old age as the

He now approached Mr. Burns of Calgary, and
after a couple of interviews the delicious old diplomat
came away the possessor of 200 acres of good farm-
land with the stream and trees and in the. exact lo-
cality he desired. Then he mapped out a progress
through the province to beg again more audacious,
more imperious and more wheedling than ever, be-
cause he felt so little time remained to him.

Upon the initiation of His Excellency Lord Grey
a celebration of Quebec's tercentenary had been ar-
ranged to take place during the following summer.
Elaborate preparations were being carried out for a
pageant of the Old Regime, and Father Lacombe
as an historic figure, known from end to end of Que-
bec, was invited to take some part in the festivities.

He writes the bishop on June 15th:

"Done, I am not going to Quebec. There are many other
things more important for the old Chief of the Mountains
than to go and bow myself before the crosses and mitres of
the centenarians. Excuse me, I forget myself bless me !"

The more important matters which occupy him are
the plans for his Home "cette oeuvre ineffable"
and the giving out of reminiscences for his memoirs.




His plan of campaign for the Home is not yet com-
plete but when it is, he dictates serenely to his ec-
clesiastical superior,

"You will publish a pastoral letter to announce
our work."

It will be recalled that Father Lacombe was one
of the founders of the Indian school system in
Canada. A voluminous correspondence with the In-
dian Department, which remains in his possession,
indicates to what a large extent the department was
guided by him in its earliest administration of the

He was naturally interested this year when a ques-
tion arose concerning the need of improving the sys-
tem. He was frank in his expression of opinion:

"With my experience of those schools on which so
much thought and money has been expended I can
only say that they have not been the success we hoped
for. We taught some boys and girls who were
bright as white children. . . . But that was only
the beginning the real problem came when they
left school.

"To go back to their homes not white, and not
Indians any longer! Many were failures. . . .
Oh, it is very sad to think about all that when you
remember all the love and work and sacrifice we put
into these schools. . . .

"I am too old now. I am useless for that," the
octogenarian continued with painful emphasis of his
own failing powers. "But if I were a young man


again" and his voice rose to fresh strength as his in-
domitable spirit fired him "that would be my mission
just to make a success of our Indian schools."

In November he accompanied Bishop Legal to
Chicago, where thousands of laymen and ecclesiastical
dignitaries attended the first Catholic missionary
congress of the New World. Here he went his way
content in an obscurity overcast by the forms of thou-
sands of young, eager men marshalling their forces
of organization.

Apart from the large issues discussed there were
numerous side-lights which caught the still-harvest-
ing eyes of the veteran and revealed him no non-
progressive. When the newer missionaries described
to him a chapel-car which was kept moving along
western railroads among settlers living in isolated
groups without churches he told them of the chapel-
tent built by himself forty years before.

His host, a Chicago millionaire, took the veteran
for many rides in his motor car once gliding along
miles of smooth boulevards at the rate of twenty-five
miles an hour. At the end the party found Father
Lacombe serenely exultant, his eyes afire with pleas-
ure, his sturdy old-timer's spirit unquenched by the
lightnings of the New Age. They awaited surprised
comment from him; instead he remarked to his host
with a twinkling eye

"Why don't you go more fast? This is not fast
enough for me!" ...

Had not his dogs shaggy Pappilon and his mates


skimmed over the hard snow at a rate that took
one's breath away? And would Papillon's master
confess to surprise at the speed of a Chicago automo-
bile ? Not so long as the heart of an old-timer burned
in him.

Father Lacombe in the retirement of his Hermitage
had now no part or interest in the political world,
into which he had once been thrust so prominently.
But his former intercourse had given him decided
convictions, as indicated in a conversation this autumn :

"I have never belonged to any party. As a citi-
zen and patriot I would always support the party
which rules the country for the time. It is stupid
to do otherwise.

"The people have voted: the majority has said
'This party shall govern the country.' Then it is
my duty to help that party govern in the wisest way.
The work of opposition is for the opposing party
in the House. But even they should not stir up the
people wrongfully.

"I consider it criminal for a member of the op-
position who, when he believes a certain measure good
for the country, votes against it because it was in-
troduced by the Government and its passage may
strengthen the governing party with the people.
. . . Criminal! Stupid!

"Such men, politicians to whatever party they
belong I would see them thrown down like that!"
he said, with a vigorous gesture of his closed fist to-
ward the floor.


"They have no conscience no patriotism. I
would excuse such conduct only in the unformed
school-boy, who believes he must follow his 'gang' in
everything they do.

"Why should I oppose the party that governs, as
long as it is doing right? Stupid! That is a strange
way to be a patriot. . . . But when they do
wrong then let everyone unite and turn them out!

"When Sir John was governing the country I did
all I could to help him. When Laurier came I did
what I could to help him. But one day I said to
Laurier: 'If you went out of power to-morrow, I
would support the next Government.' He only
laughed and said: 'I believe you would.' '

The time was now ripe for his new campaign, and
he blithely opened the New Year 1909 with a
series of collections for the building-fund of the
Home. Throughout Alberta he passed, until he had
exhausted the generosity of his friends there when
he journeyed on to Eastern Canada and renewed his

At Quebec in August he attended with hundreds
of other ecclesiastics the first Plenary Council of the
Church held in Canada. Here as at Chicago it was
the old missionary's part to look on at the energy
and scholarly ability of younger brethren.

On his return west he accompanied the bishop to
St. Albert, and was there the centre of a festival in
celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of his ordina-
tion. Linked with this was the celebration of the


fiftieth anniversary of the Grey Nuns' arrival in the
diocese. For two days the little Cathedral town was
en fete.

Under the trees in the gardens of the Indian
School sweet-faced nuns of many Orders and in
varied garb moved gently, the guests of their pioneer
sisters the Grey Nuns.

But over the hill on the grounds of the rambling
old wooden Palace, the scene was more vividly in-
teresting, if less picturesque. For the Old Guard
of the Indian missions were there in force mingling
with scores of younger Oblates.

They were of the men who had touched upon the
first score of years Father Lacombe spent in the West.
Some had held their splendid physique almost unim-
paired. Others were shrunken and stooped and
transparently frail: one and all were modest, unas-
sertive and light-hearted as school-boys.

There was Father Tissier, gentle and shrewd, who
still dated the past from the year Father Lacombe
blessed his isolation on the Peace by a fraternal visit :
Father Leduc, capable, great-hearted and drolly hu-
morous, bearing still with him the marks of the
plague of 1870, and Father Blanchet who had shared
the dangers of that period with him.

Father Grandin was there, with leonine head and
masses of silver hair now the Provincial head of
his Order in Alberta: Father Doucet, the gentle and
meek "God's lamb" and the beloved of his sturdier
brother, Father Lacombe.


Father Lestanc was there too stooped and deaf,
but alert and genial still, his tongue sharp as of old
to turn wit or satire, and his spirit as ready as on
the night he opposed Donald Smith in old Fort
Garry; Father Legoff, linguist and author, and in
1885 a prisoner of Big Bear. Finally there was the
bishop himself, who had elected as an Oblate to know
exile from Old France and had shared the mud-
chinked hut on the Blood reserve with Father La-

A banquet was given at which the governor of
the province, members of the Government, prominent
men of the district and old-timers were guests.

Father Lacombe made an after-dinner speech
there, revealing such exquisite humour and depths of
diplomacy with bursts of naivete that his audience
for more than half an hour hung on his words and
punctuated his phrases with delighted laughter. It
was a notable speech for a man of eighty-two.

Here and there in the crowds on the sunny lawns
those days moved quietly a slim, erect young-old man
who bore a striking resemblance to Father Lacombe.
It was Gaspard Lacombe, the foot-loose wanderer,
anchored at last. But while the priest of eighty-two
was still an eager, high-spirited boy in heart the lay-
man of three-score was tired and more than a little

At a soiree in the Hall dusky small boys clad
as Indians enacted in fascinating pantomime set to
music the battle of 1865, when Father Lacombe had


interposed between the Blackfeet and Crees. In an-
other scene girls symbolically represented the twelve
foundations laid by the old man who looked on with
childlike delight at their skilful representation.

Finally there drifted out from the wings a fairy-
like troop of children who crowned the veteran with
flowers. Then discrowning himself the old priest
made his way slowly, heavily through the strewn
flowers to the stage. There he delicately turned the
tide of feeling from himself to the three nuns who
had so bravely ventured in to Ste. Anne's forest-
mission fifty years before: devoted women who had
passed to their reward while he still lingered as a
link with the Past. . . .

After the soiree the darkness of the night on the hill
was radiantly troubled with showers and swords
and balls of pyrotechnic fire: and here the festival

A few days later Father Lacombe went to Ed-
monton to greet Lord Strathcona who was then on
a tour of the West.

The two old friends met on the lawn at Govern-
ment House, where smartly-frocked westerners were
assembling for the reception to the High Commis-

The great empire-builder went forward to meet
the little man in the black cassock also an empire-
builder in his way.

"Ha, my old friend!" said Father Lacombe with
caressing notes, "I am glad glad to see you."


Deep pleasure lit up the face of each, as though
consciousness of a kinship in which none of the new-
comers shared had suddenly transmuted their
mutual esteem and liking into a glowing affection.

Strathcona had been thrown from his carriage a
few days before in British Columbia and had his
right arm in a sling. The injured member now
caught the attention of the Man-of-the-Good-Heart
and he put out a quick hand of sympathy, suddenly
mindful of the other's age and the fatigues of his

He spoke his fears: but Strathcona brushed them
aside as laughingly as he would have done on their
trip to St. Paul forty years earlier: and the old priest
murmured his admiration:

"Ha, that is like you, always you never would
complain !"

The two pioneers now withdrew to a bench beneath
the trees, oblivious of the assembling guests. As
they sat together, Strathcona's hand in the warm
clasp of Pere Lacombe, the two old men studied one
another covertly for the marks of the years.

They rallied each other on their youthfulness, these
two white-haired veterans who would not grow older:
and they laughed at Strathcona's assurance that they
were still boys.

Then as memories rose like exhalations from the
Past shutting off themselves and the years they had
known from the gathering ranks in gala attire, they
dropped into tender reminiscence of the old-times


le bon vieux temps for which they stood alone
that day.

Presently the conversation was lifted from the
Past the live Present had pressing claims upon these
boys of more than four-score; and when the gentle
transition was complete it was the new Home that
dream of an old man of which they talked.

Father Lacombe was making a plea for a "little
souvenir" for the Home and the poor it would shelter ;
but it is doubtful if the other heeded his words greatly.
This man of many dreams and vast possessions felt
the greater urgency of an appeal that was wordless
- the well-spent years, the radiant humanity of the
man in the cassock.

They had each gone into the wilderness striplings
with staff and scrip and the mind to do great things.
The one man was now a peer of the realm and a
man of immense wealth; the other had little more
than his staff and scrip, but with them he was a prince
of hearts and good works.

His lightly worded plea for aid was scarcely ut-
tered before the assurance came and with this little
matter past the two picked up the threads of old
memories until the hour for the reception.

They took leave of each other now. A long warm
handclasp a long steady look of farewell: "Good-
bye; God bless you!" from Father Lacombe, and a
wistful question unspoken between the two! Then
the old priest swiftly lifted his friend's hand to his
lips; and was gone.


The "little souvenir" came shortly after from
Strathcona. It was a cheque for $10,000.

In 1910, having collected $30,000 for his Home
Father Lacombe ordered its construction at a cost of
about twice that sum. He then spent the summer at
Midnapore pottering delightedly about the building,
watching it grow brick by brick; while the workmen
grew pleasantly familiar with the inquisitive paternal
old form stooping over his stick.

He lived nearby in a small frame-building as bare
as the shack at Macleod in the eighties. Nothing of
all the funds he had begged remained to him noth-
ing of all the gifts that had been showered upon him :
for giving has been his especial weakness.

But the old man needed none of these. He was
still rich in his own personality. The primal ele-
ments of joyousness, fearlessness and grit that sus-
tained him in his prime were still with him: though
frequently obscured with the small vanities and curi-
osities of a child, or fitful bursts of annoyance.

These last only waited upon a comprehending
gleam in another's eyes to be dissolved into smiles
deliciously-knowing, self-accusing smiles that flut-
tered roguishly across the fine old face. No estimate
of Father Lacombe is adequate that does not empha-

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Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 26 of 28)