ROAMING THE PRAIRES, Fr. Lacombe loved the simplicity of life, the beauty of the wilderness and the exhilaration of the Buffalo hunt. In his journal he notes: “Hey, I am in my element. My cart, my 3 horses, my good Alexis (handyman and hunter), and our Blackfoot cook (Suzanne), with whom I am studying the Blackfoot language, my tent, my chapel-case, my catechisms and objects of piety – behold: my church and my rectory!”
Fr. Lacombe was a dedicated teacher of the Faith. He became proficient in both Cree and Blackfoot and contributed to the creation, development and eventual publication of a Cree dictionary and a Blackfoot glossary. His greatest teaching innovation, though, is the “Catholic Ladder.”
In his book, Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and Métis, author Raymond Huel, Professor of History at the University of Lethbridge, states:
“The (Oblate) missionaries also demonstrated great ingenuity and flexibility in the development of instructional aids. Albert Lacombe transformed the Catholic Ladder into ‘a small masterpiece of pedagogy.’ While preaching to the Blackfoot in 1865, Lacombe supplemented his instruction with drawings made in the sand. Noticing that the visual presentation appealed to his audience, he later suspended a buffalo robe between two poles and used it to draw figures and symbols to present Biblical history. Upon returning to St. Albert, Lacombe used ink and paper to prepare more elaborate versions.”
Later, on his way to Europe to raise funds, recruit clergy and invite immigrants for Oblate Bishop Vital Grandin’s new St. Albert Diocese, he met with the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal, and they published a definitive colored edition. Fr. Lacombe shared his illustrated Catholic Ladder with his fellow missionaries and eventually it was approved by the Pope and used all over the world.
In 1870, a smallpox epidemic devastated Métis, Cree and Blackfoot communities, and Fr. Lacombe responded by visiting village after village, comforting the sick and burying the dead. He wrote to Bishop Taché, “Day and night I am constantly occupied, scarcely having time to say Mass!” Then an influx of illegal American whiskey traders in southern Alberta exploited the Blackfoot with their brand of firewater, prompting Fr. Lacombe to communicate with Ottawa. In 1871 he wrote: “While we await … an impressive (police) force to compel the fulfillment of law, we suffer unceasingly!” By 1872, Lacombe was planning a permanent mission, for himself, in Blackfoot Territory somewhere in the Bow Valley region.
It was not to be, though, as Lacombe was called away to the East on assignments for the Oblates that would keep him from southern Alberta for 10 years!
In that same year, 1872, Alexis Cardinal, Lacombe’s Métis handyman, built a small chapel-cabin for him by the Elbow River in the Springbank region, in anticipation of the Blackfoot mission.
In Lacombe’s absence, Bishop Grandin sent brother Oblates, Fr. Constantine Scollen, and later, Fr. Leon Doucet, who established Notre Dame de la Paix [Our Lady of Peace] at the site of Cardinal’s chapel-cabin in 1873. The mission was re-located to the meeting of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, where the North West Mounted Police built Fort Calgary, in 1875.
Fr. Lacombe was expected to return as an interpreter and advocate for the Blackfoot when they signed Treaty #7 at Blackfoot Crossing, in 1877, but he fell ill while travelling and couldn’t make it. Fr. Scollen replaced him.
When the Buffalo all but disappeared from the Canadian plains in 1879, First Nations bands moved onto their Reserves and the West was opened up for a trans-continental railway and the arrival of settlers to populate the prairies.