Sacred Heart Church in Qu'Appelle Valley has a long history. Pastor Fr. Louis Kim Nguyen, left, wil be celebrating the 150th anniversary Mass of Sacred Heart Church in Lebret, Sask., with Regina Archbishop Daniel Bohan on June 7. Photos courtesy of Alan Hustak

Sacred Heart wasn’t always a cottage country church

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • June 6, 2015

LEBRET, Sask. - The glory days of the big stone church at Lebret were decades ago when it was the focal point of a thriving Roman Catholic mission in the heart of the Qu’Appelle Valley northeast of Regina. But Sacred Heart Church is back in the spotlight this year as the oldest Catholic parish in southern Saskatchewan celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Although recent years have been relatively quiet, it hasn’t always been that way at Sacred Heart. It boasts a colourful history that has seen the parish face down Sitting Bull after his warriors annihilated General Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn, serve as peacemaker during the Riel Rebellion and endure the torching of its chapel by suspected Ku Klux Klan members.

But those days are long gone. Today, Sacred Heart’s pastor calls it a “church for cottage country.”

“Lebret, doesn’t have too many families any more, but in the summer we have about a 30-per-cent increase in the number of people who live out at the lakes who come to Mass,” said Fr. Louis Nguyen, who serves three parishes in the area. “It also remains the mother church for hundreds of people who have moved away to other parts of the country, but who still worship here when they come back to the valley.”

Ralph Blondeau, whose parents and grandparents are buried in the cemetery next to the church, was an altar server in the 1950s, and continues to act as unofficial sacristan, sometimes lector and caretaker.

“I always did come to this church,” he said. “Even when I was working in other places, I would always come home on weekends.

“Mom and dad would do it, so for the past 40 years or so my wife Lois and I are carrying on the tradition. It is our place to worship.”

The story of Sacred Heart began when Alexandre-Antoine Tache, the Lord Bishop of St. Boniface, chose Lebret as the site for a mission to minister to the Metis and aboriginals in what was then known as the Assiniboia Territory. For a time, Qu’Appelle was regarded as the major hub in the territory, but it was later surpassed by a town known then as Pile O Bones, later renamed Regina.

Tache was the first missionary from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to come west, establishing one of the first Roman Catholic mission in the area in 1845. He was drawn to the Qu’Appelle Valley because one of his great-uncles, Louis-Joseph  Gaultier La

Verendrye, was believed to have been one of the first Europeans to explore the region in the 1740s.

Tache was only 27 when he was made bishop. He had befriended Pierre Hourie, a Metis fur trader from Fort Garry who the previous year had opened the Hudson Bay Trading Post in  Fort Qu’Appelle. Tache returned to the valley in 1865 and selected a spot for his mission on a spit of land known as Denomie Point, where he celebrated Mass on Oct. 17, 1865. It was the  feast  day of St. Florent, a sixth-century French bishop, so Tache named the mission St. Florent in his honour.   

Fr. Noel Joseph Ritchot built the first mission, a rough-hewn, two-storey log building with living quarters under a thatched roof upstairs and a chapel downstairs. It opened in 1866. St. Florent was registered as an ecclesiastical district of St. Boniface in 1867 making it the first Roman Catholic parish in what today is Southern Saskatchewan.

That was the year of Canadian confederation. But Westerners, especially the Roman Catholic clergy, were skeptical about the new country. They were happy to stay out of Canada because they feared that “French Catholics in the North West Territories will be sacrificed and the new system will lead to our ruin.”

The first mission chapel burned in 1868. Following the Red River Rebellion at Fort Garry in 1870 many nomadic Manitoba Metis, looking for new homes and for buffalo to hunt, moved west into the Qu’Appelle Valley. As their numbers grew, a church facing the lake replaced the crude log chapel which had burned.

Jules Louis DeCorby, a 27-year old Oblate from Chandolas, France became the first permanent resident priest. DeCorby was a steady presence on the prairies. He learned to speak Cree, Salteaux and Sioux and, in the decade that followed, the unadorned white clapboard chapel quickly became the headquarters for all of the Oblate missionaries in southern Saskatchewan. 

Everyone referred to it and to the lake simply as “The Mission.” When DeCorby left, a priest from France, Joseph Hugonnard, was assigned to minister to a congregation which now numbered 500. Hugonnard erected the first cross on a hill above the thriving mission in 1871.

In 1877, he defused a potentially dangerous situation when Chief Sitting Bull and his starving band of 4,000 Sioux warriors, who had fled to Canada following the slaughter of Custer’s troops at the Battle of Little Big Horn, threatened to raid the mission for food. The warriors were so desperate they were prepared to trade their rifles and blankets, but food supplies were limited and Hugonnard managed to talk them into wintering at Wood Mountain, where conditions were marginally better.

By then the Royal North West Mounted Police had opened a depot at nearby Fort Qu’Appelle. It was not unreasonable to expect that the town would become the capital of the district and St. Florent would become the Cathedral See. Hugonnard opened an industrial school for aboriginals and mixed bloods in 1884 and the Grey Nuns were recruited to help run it. Its curriculum was sensitive to the Plains Cree who first enrolled there. Hugonnard’s school, for all of its eventual shortcomings, had a better record in promoting cultural continuity and family links than the federal institution, a residential school, that followed. 

During the second Riel Insurrection in 1885, Hugonnard used his influence to save lives and avoid a full-scale civil war. He persuaded Chief Star Blanket to stay out of the rebellion and  threw the weight of his church on the side of the Metis. He later unsuccessfully pleaded for clemency after Riel was sentenced to death for treason.

In 1886, Fr. Louis Lebret, a French Oblate from Britanny, came to assist Hugonnard and  opened the first post office in the rectory. Lebret wanted the mission’s postal address to be Sacre Coeur de Jesus. But federal bureaucrats in Ottawa in charge of organizing the postal service ignored the request, and named the postal station after Lebret, the postmaster, even though Lebret spent less than six months in the community.

Six years after Saskatchewan joined Confederation in 1905, the Archdiocese of Regina was established and Lebret became one of its parishes. Following the First World War a chapel dedicated to St. Florent was built on top of a hill facing the church. It was dedicated by Bishop Olivier Mathieu as a “monument of thanksgiving” to those who had died in the war. Hugonnard  died in 1917 and is buried in the cemetery to the east of the church.

“The church is the product of two streams of history,” said Fr. Glen Zimmer, the last Oblate priest moderator who left in 2004. “The French Oblates came to work with the Metis and the First Nations, then the German Oblates came to work with German and Polish immigrant communities.

“The church is part of our shared legacy. It is where different cultural heritages came together on the prairies.’’

The cornerstone for the present fieldstone church was placed in 1925. The church, with its 37-metre (122-foot) tall steeple cost $38,000 to build, or more than half a million dollars in today’s purchasing power. It was dedicated by Bishop Mathieu on July 1, 1926. That same year, an Oblate major seminary opened on the other side of the lake. Two years later, in a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment, the pilgrimage chapel on top of the hill was burned, presumably by Ku Klux Klansmen. Another smaller chapel replaced the original in 1929 and the landmark 14 stations of the cross which lead to the summit were installed.

The parish lost a substantial number of parishioners in the 1940s when Our Lady of Sorrows Church was built in Fort Qu’Appelle. The Oblate seminary closed in 1964 and burned in 1982, but Oblates continued to minister at Sacred Heart until 1986. A year earlier, the church was declared a municipal heritage property.

(Hustak is a contributing editor at VilleMarieOnline.com.)

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