Rindisbacher, Winter Fishing on the Ice of the Assynoibain and Red River, watercolour, 1821. Public domain

The birth of the western Canadian Catholic Church

By 
  • July 2, 2018

Two hundred years ago, a trio of missionaries were sent westward to bring peace and stability to an untamed colony.

Perhaps the Seven Oaks Massacre tipped the scale. Since Lord Selkirk established the Red River Colony in 1811, he had been asking Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis of Quebec to establish a permanent Catholic mission there.

But when 22 men, including the governor of the colony, were killed in a battle between fur traders in 1816, it added urgency for Catholic missionaries to come west. In 1818, Fathers Joseph-Norbert Provencher and Sévère Dumoulin and seminarian William Edge arrived at Red River, establishing a lasting Catholic presence in the West.

Born out of bloody conflict, the Church of the West, led by the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, is now celebrating its 200th anniversary. The main celebration will take place July 15 on the grounds of St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg, with Cardinal Gérald Lacroix as Pope Francis’ delegate. The ceremonies begin with a historical re-enactment of the arrival of Provencher, Dumoulin and Edge. 

The mission established by those three men spread Catholicism across what would become Western and Northern Canada and helped establish social stability. However, its failures were many: it was unsuccessful in establishing the frontier Church as a clone of the francophone, traditionalist Church in Quebec, became a flashpoint for French-English language tensions and helped to destroy Indigenous cultures.

StBonifaceOn July 22, 1968, the 1906 cathedral was damaged in a fire, destroying many features including the rose window. Only the facade, sacristy, and the walls of the old church remains. (Wikimedia Commons) 

Despite those failures and humble beginnings, the Church in the North West today boasts a Catholic population of more than 2.3 million people in 22 dioceses and eparchies.

Missionaries had accompanied fur traders to the North West prior to 1818, but none had remained. But as Selkirk attempted to establish an agricultural settlement near the Red River trading post, the wild and licentious behaviour of the existing inhabitants caused him concern.

The feuding between the traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the rival North West Company only intensified the lack of stability across the interior of the continent. On June 19, 1816, at Seven Oaks, a few kilometres north of the colony, the two sides clashed, with 21 HBC men and one Nor’Wester dying in the battle.

Although Selkirk was not himself Catholic, most residents of the colony were. He looked forward to Catholic priests coming to Red River, not so much to spread the Gospel, but to stabilize the new society.

The first of the eight instructions Plessis gave to his missionary trio was blunt: “They are to consider the first object of their mission to be to reclaim from barbarism and the disorders that result from it the Indian nations scattered over that vast country.”

That founding principle made the Church an active agent in stripping the original peoples of their traditional culture.

In 1821, Provencher was ordained an auxiliary bishop to Plessis, giving him ecclesiastical authority over the vast land to the north and west of present-day Winnipeg. A heroic venture had begun, but progress was slow.

The new bishop found the First Nations, especially the Saulteaux of the southern plains, difficult to convert, something he attributed to their nomadic lifestyle, licentious ways and difficult language. So, he focused his attention on the buffalo-hunting Métis.

Twenty-five years later, the Church had made a few inroads among the Métis, but no progress with the First Nations. As well, only a small handful of priests had been sent to serve the region.

While the HBC had provided a land grant to establish the mission and a small annual allowance for its activities, relations between the company and the Church were often strained. Provencher tried to be conciliatory with the HBC, but that only earned him the scorn of many of his flock. When the settlers launched a petition challenging the company’s monopoly over all trade in the North West, Provencher remained neutral.

In 1844, the region was separated from the Diocese of Quebec, giving the new vicariate apostolic more autonomy, but also undermining its ability to draw on the resources of the Eastern diocese. Provencher had recruited the Sisters of Charity of Montreal (Grey Nuns) to come West, but he needed more priests. He wanted to get them from the French Jesuits, but Sir George Simpson, governor of the HBC, declared no “foreign priests” would be allowed in the North West.

Unsure where to turn, Provencher encountered a new congregation, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who were setting down roots in Quebec. The Oblates’ founder St. Eugene de Mazenod ordered the reluctant Canadian superior to send three Oblates to the West in 1845, one of whom was the 23-year-old sub-deacon Alexandre-Antonin Taché, who eight years later succeeded Provencher as bishop.

At first, the Oblate experiment went poorly. By 1851, Mazenod was preparing to pull his men out of the West when he learned of Taché’s appointment as coadjutor bishop to Provencher, having the right to succeed him. Mazenod saw the appointment as providential and reversed course, sending large numbers of the Oblates to the North West.

Taché became bishop upon Provencher’s death in 1853 and the influx of Oblates and Grey Nuns was the key to establishing a flourishing Church.

StBoniface Grey NunsSt. Boniface Cathedral and the Grey Nuns' Convent in 1858 by William Henry Edward Napier. (Public domain

Taché was a man of vision, and his vision was of a Church in the North West that was a garrison of Quebec’s language and culture. Raised in a patrician family in Quebec, he believed it essential for Church leaders to form one of the dominant elites in Western society as they did in Quebec.

He sought to attract francophone immigrants who would farm in the traditional ways of rural Quebec. Few came and, of those who did, most opted to buy inexpensive homesteads rather than the pricier, traditional farms that had been owned by the Métis. In Quebec, few shared Taché’s dream of the West becoming its sister province. 

By the time Taché died in 1894, his dream had faded. The bishops and most of the priests were still French-speaking, but the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe had begun. The final nails in the coffin were the appointment of John McNally as the first bishop of Calgary in 1912 and the erection of a second, English-speaking archdiocese in Winnipeg in 1915.

While Taché’s dream was not realized, by the early 20th century the Catholic Church had become a strong and viable institution increasingly integrated into mainstream society across Western and Northern Canada.

(Sources for this article include Raymond Huel’s Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and Métis and Archbishop A.-A. Taché of St. Boniface: The ‘Good Fight’ and the Illusive Vision.)

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