The Diocesan Detective Commemorates the Mission District, Calgary

Dan Lacroix

By 1884, the CPR was bringing more settlers to the Calgary region. Unable to obtain homestead grants yet from the government, due to the lack of completed surveys, many newcomers were simply squatting on whatever piece of open land they could find. Fr. Lacombe was concerned about the proximity of settlers to his mission and the future of Our Lady of Peace. Without waiting for approval from Bishop Grandin he took passage on a CPR construction train and made his way cross-country to Ottawa. Visiting the office of the Minister of the Interior, David MacPherson, Fr. Lacombe announced he was there to obtain a homestead grant for the property around the mission. MacPherson, unmoved, told the priest that he would put in a request to the department in due time.

Local historian David Mittel-stadt, commenting on the creation of one of Calgary’s earliest communities, records Lacombe’s legendary response:

“Non, monsieur, I cannot go until I receive that settlement of our land. I came hundreds of miles to you just for this. I will wait here with your permission. I am used to camping on the prairie… I will just camp here until I get my papers.”

Well, with the prospect of having Fr. Lacombe sleeping on the floor by his office door, MacPherson lost no time in arranging the land grant!

In fact, Fr. Lacombe registered two homesteads, one for himself and one for his colleague, Fr. Leduc, in order to double the size of the property he was claiming for the Oblates and the Diocese of St. Albert.

The location of St. Mary’s Cathedral is well known to Calgarians, and it is surrounded by St. Mary’s High School, St. Mary’s Hall, the original St. Mary’s Hall, St. Monica School, the Sacred Heart Convent of the FCJ Sisters, Our Lady of Lourdes School, and, further south, the old Holy Cross Hospital site. This is the community of Mission, appropriately named, and it included St. Mary’s Cemetery on the hill across the river. It is all part of the original Lacombe-Leduc homestead area.

Fr. Lacombe had the Mission Bridge built over the Elbow River and he contracted the grading of the Mission Road, as a shortcut to and from Macleod Trail. It still is a useful shortcut!

Many Calgarians enjoy the 4th Street Lilac Festival every Spring. All the buildings, condos, and houses on the east side of 4th Street SW, south of 17th Avenue, are on sub-divided lots that Fr. Lacombe sold. Yes, he was a real estate magnate! But, honouring his vow of poverty, all proceeds were directed towards the needs of the Church, of course. Today historical signage indicates the original street names: 17th Avenue was Notre Dame Road; 18th Avenue (St. Joseph Street); 19th Avenue (St. Mary’s); 20th Avenue (Oblate); 21st Avenue (Lacombe); 22nd Avenue (Doucet); 23rd Avenue (Rouleau) - for the two French Canadian brothers who settled there; 24th Avenue (Grandin), 25th Avenue (Scollen), and 26th Avenue (Legal).

In that same year, 1884, Fr. Lacombe arranged for the construction of the St. Joseph Industrial School south of Calgary at Dunbow. With Canadian Government funding and policies in place, the Residential School was run by the Oblates and Grey Nuns. It was “meant” to serve the children of the Blackfoot Confederacy by teaching them skills to cope with the inevitable changes to their traditional lifestyle. Fr. Lacombe was the Principal and primary recruiter for the school in its first year of operation and Crowfoot approved of the plan.

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