Albert Lacombe (28 February 1827 – 12 December 1916), commonly known in Alberta simply as Father Lacombe, was a French-Canadian Roman Catholic missionary who traveled among and evangelized the Cree and also visited the Blackfoot First Nations of northwestern Canada. He is now remembered for having brokered a peace between the Cree and Blackfoot, negotiating construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway through Blackfoot territory, and securing a promise from the Blackfoot leader Crowfoot to refrain from joining the North-West Rebellion of 1885.
Lacombe was born in Saint-Sulpice, Lower Canada, to Albert Lacombe and Agathe Duhamel on 28 February 1827. Since his parents were farmers, most of his early life was spent on the family farm. However, he was from an early age highly religious. At age 22, he was ordained a priest on 13 June 1849, following studies at the Collège de l'Assomption in L'Assomption, Canada East.
Following ordination, he was sent west to Pembina, Minnesota Territory, where he worked from 1849 to 1851 with the Jesuit priest, Fr George Belcourt. In 1851 he returned briefly to Canada East, where he secured a position as a curate in the town Berthier.
Lacombe was dissatisfied in Canada East, and in 1852 he followed Monsignor Alexandre Taché, then suffragan bishop of Saint Boniface, to the Red River Colony. Later in 1852, Father Lacombe proceeded to Fort Edmonton and Lac Ste. Anne, where he overwintered with the Cree and Métis. However at this time, in 1852, the contemporary people of Alberta now known as the Alberta Métis, called themselves and were known as "half-breeds", right up until the early 20th century, as evidenced by many records. The term 'Half-breed' was used by the Government of Canada to describe, as well, the people now known as the Red River Métis. 'Half-Breed' was not historically considered a derogatory term at that time in the 1800s and was used by both the historic North West Métis and the governments at the time to distinguish between full blooded Indigenous people who did not intermarry with the French or Anglos, white Europeans and the "mixed blood" peoples of the North West, primarily unions between French-Anglo and Indigenous peoples. that he began his studies of the Cree language, which ultimately led to a translation of the New Testament into Cree, as well as a grammar and dictionary of the Cree language co-written with fellow Oblate, Constantine Scollen, at Rocky Mountain House in 1870.
After relocating to Lac Ste. Anne, Lacombe concerned himself during the period from 1853 to 1861 with expanding the mission and deepening his ties to the indigenous population, eventually travelling as far north as the Lesser Slave Lake in search of converts. He began his novitiate in the Oblate order in 1855 under René Rémas and became a member of the congregation on 28 September 1856. During his years at Lac Ste. Anne, Lacombe visited Jasper House, Fort Edmonton (Edmonton), Lac la Biche, Lesser Slave Lake, and Fort Dunvegan (Dunvegan).
Despite his good relations with the indigenous peoples, Father Lacombe had, by 1861, been unsuccessful in persuading the Cree near Lac Ste. Anne to abandon their nomadic lifestyle. He therefore sought out a new mission site more suitable for agriculture, and in 1861 a settlement was established along the Sturgeon River at Saint Albert, Rupert's Land.
A broader mission
In 1864 he was tasked with evangelizing the Cree Plains Indians, and from 1865 to 1872, he traveled extensively throughout the prairies. It was during this time that he brokered a peace between the Cree and the Blackfoot.
In 1872 Lacombe was sent to Fort Garry (modern Winnipeg, Manitoba) to promote the colonization of Manitoba, and to this end traveled throughout eastern Canada and the United States. He became the Vicar of Saint Boniface, Manitoba, in 1879. It was during this period that he began his association with the Canadian Pacific Railway and extended his ministry to the navvies working on the right-of-way.
In 1882, he relocated to Calgary following the retirement of Father Constantine Scollen from the southern Alberta missions. When the CPR was preparing to lay track through Blackfoot territory against their wishes, he negotiated an agreement with the Blackfoot leader Crowfoot that allowed the railway to pass through Blackfoot land. Crowfoot was given a lifetime pass to travel on the railway by CPR president William Van Horne, as was Lacombe. When the North-West Rebellion erupted in 1885, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald enlisted Father Lacombe's assistance in assuring the neutrality of the Blackfoot Indians. Although Cree braves commanded by Poundmaker and Big Bear were involved in the fighting, Crowfoot, believing the rebellion to be a lost cause, kept his warriors out of the conflict. Lacombe eventually wrote a biography on Crowfoot upon his death.
For the remainder of his life, Lacombe played a major role in founding schools throughout the West, such as St Mary's School in what is now the Mission District of Calgary. His last major travels were to Europe in 1900 and 1904, where he visited Austria and met Emperor Franz Joseph I. He also traveled to Galicia (now largely modern Poland and Ukraine) to promote Galician settlement of Canada. He died in 1916 in Midnapore, Alberta, now a suburb of Calgary. His body was interred in the crypt of the St. Albert parish church. Lacombe served St. Patrick's Church in Midnapore from its construction in 1904 until his death in 1916.
A high school in Calgary, Father Lacombe High School, was established in 1979 bearing his namesake. Additionally, an elementary school, Albert Lacombe, is named for him in St. Albert, Alberta. The City of Lacombe, Alberta, is also named in his honour.
In 1932, Lacombe was recognized as a National Historic Person by the government of Canada. A plaque commemorating this can be found on the north side of the North Saskatchewan River on Highway 36, Brosseau, Alberta. In addition, the work of Lacombe with the Blackfoot and Reverend John McDougall with the Cree, in helping to maintain peace, in 1885, was recognized in 1932. A plaque commemorating this can be found at the west end of city park Wetaskiwin, Alberta.
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