The Diocesan Detective Commemorates the Lacombe Home

Dan Lacroix

By the spring of 1885, there was trouble brewing in the West. Louis Riel protested conditions to the Canadian Government on behalf of the Metis and some Cree bands in central Saskatchewan and started the North West Rebellion. Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent soldiers on the CPR to put down the uprising and protect settler’s communities on the prairies.

The Blackfoot Confederacy had been approached by Riel to join in the fray and people in Calgary and surrounding areas were nervous. What would Crowfoot do?

Once again, Fr. Lacombe was called upon to take his place on the national stage and he made several visits to Crowfoot to ensure his loyalty and control over the heavily-armed young warriors.

One of the most important telegrams in Canadian history was sent to Ottawa by Lacombe. It simply read: “I have seen Crowfoot and all the Blackfoot. All quiet. Promised me to be loyal no matter how things turn out elsewhere.”

The Riel Rebellion was over by the summer of 1885 and one of the outcomes of the danger in Saskatchewan became a benefit for Calgary. Bishop Grandin transferred some Sisters of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, the FCJs, away from the area near the rebellion. Fr. Lacombe had just finished building a brand new two-story Oblate rectory and chapel for the mission. He gladly turned it over to the Sisters for their convent and a school room. Once again Fr. Lacombe would be living in a tent on the prairie… but it was all for a good cause!

In December of 1885, the first school district in the North West Territories was erected… Lacombe Roman Catholic School District #1, with Mother Mary Greene fcj, as its first superintendent. Later the name would be changed to the Calgary Catholic School District.

In 1886, Prime Minister Macdonald invited Crowfoot and the other chiefs from southern Alberta, who had remained loyal during the Rebellion, to tour eastern Canada and receive honors. Fr. Lacombe accompanied them and was effectively their tour guide. On their visit to Ottawa, Crowfoot got up to make a speech and he acknowledged his friend: “This man, the Man of Good Heart, is our brother — not only our Father, as the white people call him — but our brother. He is one of our people. When we weep he is sad for us, when we laugh, he laughs with us. We love him. He is our brother.”

Crowfoot died in 1890, after being baptized by Fr. Doucet. Fr. Lacombe honored his friend, the Great Chief, by writing a biography of his life for newspaper publication. It was the end of an era.

The last 30 years of Fr. Lacombe’s life were not filled with the dramatic history-making events of his hey-day in the national spotlight, but his travel schedule and the list of his accomplishments is still impressive. From the age of 60 Fr. Lacombe tried to retire at least five or six times, but there was always something to do!

He had built himself a chapel-cabin at Pincher Creek, in southwest Alberta in 1885, dedicated to St. Michael, and called it his “hermitage,” a place he could go for solitude and use as a home base. He would return there repeatedly over the years until 1908… but he was never there for long.

In 1909, he was inspired to create what he called, “the most beautiful dream of my life!” It would be located in the Calgary area and called the Lacombe Home… for orphans and the elderly.

He approached Patrick Burns, one of the Big 4 founders of the Calgary Stampede. Burns owned the large Bow Valley Ranche and donated 200 acres of land on a bluff overlooking Fish Creek, close to Macleod Trail and the Midnapore CPR station. Lord Strathcona, of CPR fame, made a significant donation as did many of Lacombe’s old friends.

The Sisters of Providence agreed to administer and serve at the Home and it was opened in November, 1910. An aging Fr. Lacombe was its first resident.

At the dedication he said: “We are now ready to receive all those in need who will come and knock at our door. The elderly will find solace in their time of suffering. The little ones will find devoted mothers to care for them.”

The Lacombe Home was declared a Provincial Historic Site in 1979, but the building burned down in 1999. The area today is home to St. Mary’s University, the Sisters of Providence Convent, the Fr. Lacombe Care Centre, and the Providence Care Centre. The Fish Creek/Lacombe C-Train station honors the history of the area.

By 1913, Calgary and southern Alberta had become its own Diocese led by Bishop McNally. St. Mary’s was now a Cathedral and Fr. Lacombe made his last public appearance there in March of that year. He finished his remarks with these words:

“Many years ago, I stood here on this piece of ground and pictured myself the time when a great Cathedral would stand here.

I will not be with you very long now. I want to plead with you for the poor and the needy and the destitute. God bless you for your kindness to those needy ones at Midnapore. God bless you, people of Calgary, God bless you!”

Fr. Lacombe died on December 12, 1916 in his room at the Lacombe Home. After a funeral Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, his casket was taken by a CPR “ceremonial train” up to Edmonton to lie in state at St. Joachim’s Church for a few days of public veneration… a parish he had founded 60 years earlier.

Later he was buried at St. Albert, crossing the Sturgeon River Bridge for the last time. His body lies in a crypt beneath the St. Albert Church beside those of Bishop Grandin and Fr. Leduc.

That’s in Treaty #6 Territory, traditional lands of the Cree. They called him… “the Noble Soul.”

But his “heart,” at his request, is still in southern Alberta, buried in a small cemetery behind the Sisters of Providence Convent overlooking Fish Creek Provincial Park.

That’s here, in Treaty #7 Territory, traditional lands of the Blackfoot. They called him: “The Man of Good Heart.”

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