January 24, 2011
Actor Paul Punyi portrays Fr. Albert Lacombe at the launch of St. Albert Parish’s 150th jubilee

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Actor Paul Punyi portrays Fr. Albert Lacombe at the launch of St. Albert Parish’s 150th jubilee

RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

ST. ALBERT — Father Albert Lacombe, the dynamic Oblate priest who devoted his life to helping the Metis and First Nations through smallpox, war, starvation and the arrival of European civilization, made a personal appearance Jan. 16 at St. Albert Church.

Dressed in a typical black robe, the white-haired Lacombe answered questions from a female reporter with aplomb and eloquence before a packed St. Albert Church, which he founded 150 years ago.

He spoke widely about his travels and told about the time he had to spend the night in a coffin. "I didn't sleep much that night," he said. One time he rescued a teenage girl from a man who was about to have his way with her.

"I called him a coward." He ended up giving the man money to get his own wife and returned the girl to her joyful family.

Actor Paul Punyi played Lacombe in this educational 45-minute play called Interview with Father Albert Lacombe. The interviewer was Punyi's wife Maureen Rooney.

The couple is founder of Rooney and Punyi Educational Theatre Productions, a St. Albert company that uses the performing arts to educate and entertain. St. Albert Parish commissioned the interview with Lacombe to kick off its 150th anniversary.

Rooney and Punyi have been doing plays in schools for 15 years and Lacombe is the 11th character they bring to the stage. Other characters they have portrayed include Louis Riel, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Illich Lenin.

"I wanted to be a priest but I wanted to have a life full of adventure," Lacombe said in response to a question. "The West is where I could best serve God; this is where I wanted to be a priest."

At the time of Lacombe's arrival, there were few permanent mission stations in the North West, and little progress had been made in the evangelization of its aboriginal peoples. With no church buildings to celebrate Mass, he preached from a small tent on the wide-open prairies and debated with politicians in the big cities.

Lacombe founded the St. Albert Mission in 1861, atop what is now St. Albert's Mission Hill, the current location of St. Albert Church. Alberta's first chapel still sits there today as the province's oldest building.

Asked why he chose the hill to set up the mission, Lacombe said he fell in love with its beauty and fertility during his travels to Lac Ste. Anne.

HOLY HILL

So on a bright January day in 1861, Lacombe led Bishop Alexandre Taché of St. Boniface to the spot on the hill. Planting his walking stick in the snow, Taché proclaimed that here was where the chapel would be built. He called the site St. Albert to honour Lacombe's name saint. And by April, huge spruce logs had been felled and whipsawed square to begin the new church.

"Tears come to my eyes when I see such a fine church in this place," Lacombe said.

Paul Punyi plays Fr. Albert Lacombe.

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Paul Punyi plays Fr. Albert Lacombe.

Lacombe was probably the most influential man in the early development of the Canadian West. It is said that during his lengthy career, this charismatic priest had a finger in every pie.

PEACE TREATIES

The Cree called him Man with the Good Soul and the Blackfoot Man with Good Heart. He helped establish peace treaties between warring tribes on the Prairies, helped to negotiate the right of passage for the CPR through southern Alberta, was an essential member of most of the numbered treaty commissions between the Government of Canada and the First Nations west of the Great Lakes, and helped develop the industrial school concept for Indian children.

Lacombe was also chaplain for the railway crews on the CPR line, worked to help landless Métis adjust to a more sedentary lifestyle, recruited French-Canadian settlers for the Canadian West, clergy for Ukrainian immigrants, and contributed largely to the establishment of Catholic schools in Western Canada, as well as several parishes.

HOME IN MIDNAPORE

He established a home for orphans and the homeless at Midnapore, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and counted crowned heads of Europe as patrons for his many charities. He has been the subject of several biographies.

Lacombe was born Feb. 28, 1827, into a peasant family from St-Sulpice, Que., on a small farm north of Montreal, and is said to have had some distant aboriginal ancestry.

A spiritual boy, he opted for the priesthood, and was still a student in 1848 when he heard Georges Belcourt speaking in Montreal about the need for missionaries to minister to the Métis from Red River. He was to spend two years at Pembina with Belcourt before returning to Quebec in 1851.

Two years later, he went back to St. Boniface where he worked for Bishop Alexandre Taché. He soon asked to be admitted into the Oblate order, where he took his permanent vows in 1856.

Taché sent Lacombe to Fort Edmonton in 1852. He spent most of the following winter with the Cree and Métis of Lac la Biche, returning to Fort Edmonton and then going to Lac Ste. Anne.

MÉTIS, CREE, BLACKFOOT

He began accompanying Métis, Cree and Blackfoot hunters out on the prairie on their expeditions, just as missionaries around the Red River had been doing for many years. He often wintered with them and in this way learning their languages. He founded St. Albert in 1859, where he established the first flourmill west of the Red River, and where he built a bridge across the Sturgeon River.

Lacombe was extremely fluent in Cree. His French-Cree dictionary was published in 1876.

In 1884, he established Dunbow Industrial School at High River, a residential school for Indian children, and in 1893, a second one on the Blood Reserve, plus a hospital staffed by the Grey Nuns.

In 1883, he became Calgary's first parish priest. Ten years later he returned to Edmonton and served at St. Joachim Parish. He established Midnapore Home in Calgary in 1906, and lived there until his death on Dec. 12, 1916.