The early history of this part of western Canada is very closely tied to the story of the Church’s missions among the indigenous people now known collectively as First Nations. Early priests spent lifetimes – sometimes risking untimely ends – ministering to the needs of the aboriginal peoples of the plains and eastern mountain regions. The manner in which they conducted themselves meant that many of them carved colourful and exciting niches in Canadian history.


Just a little more than 100 years ago, all of this part of the country was virgin territory – the home of indigenous bands with such well-known names as Blackfoot, Cree, Blood, Sarcee, Peigan, etc., and huge herds of buffalo that roamed unfettered over the trackless miles of grassland. Only the occasional fur-trading fort gave evidence of the existence of white man except, of course, for the brave band of black-robed missionaries moving among tribal encampments, bringing the word of God and the message of Christian love to people who previously knew neither. These missionaries, who were most often French speaking, crossed miles of unmarked prairie and wooded mountain ranges by foot, in canoes and on horseback to spread their influence to all corners of the sparsely populated country.


In fact, it was a Catholic missionary who was the first to camp and build on the site of what is now Calgary. Popular belief has the Northwest Mounted Police, (forerunners of today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police), establishing the first camp at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers (approximately across from the Calgary Zoo on St. George’s Island.). But when the Mounties crested the rise overlooking the valley they saw a solitary tent on the spot where they later built the fort that became Calgary.


In the tent was Father Leon Doucet who, with an aboriginal helper, was raising a small wooden hut to serve as a place of worship for the indigenous people in the area. He had been there since early in that summer of 1875, tending an unofficial parish that stretched from plains to foothills – and including a good deal of the country now within St. Patrick’s parish.


One of the most illustrious of all the early missionaries was a man with close ties to St. Patrick’s – Father Albert Lacombe. Albert Lacombe was the great-grandson of a white girl who was kidnapped from her parent’s homestead in Quebec by the Algonquins and held captive for five years. He grew up with an overwhelming desire to be a missionary to the indigenous peoples of the west. Possibly he felt an empathy with them because of the aboriginal blood in his own veins, but whatever the reason, he moved west as soon as possible after his ordination.


He first stopped near Winnipeg, where he worked with local tribes, living with them, going on buffalo hunts and learning to make pemmican as he studied their way of life. Then, his early period of indoctrination over, the priest ventured 1,000 miles further west, to the log-walled fort at Edmonton, where he tended the religious education of the Cree people of the area. According to records, it was while Father Lacombe was still working with the Cree that the Church asked him to take responsibility for the missions among the First Nations bands to the south of Fort Edmonton. Because he was the first priest to venture among these indigenous people, they were not always receptive to his approach. One of the tribes he had most trouble `reaching` was the Blackfoot, whose reserve is now located at Gleichen, about 50 miles due east of Calgary.


Priestly perseverance, aided by an outbreak of scarlet fever that in 1857 threatened to wipe out the Blackfoot, eventually won out. It was after Father Lacombe and his faithful servant, Alexis Cardinal, fought their way through a blinding blizzard to assist the suffering aboriginals that they began to take him into their confidence. Father Lacombe paid a pretty high price for that reward too, since he contracted the disease, but he eventually recovered and when, some time later, he was able to rescue a kidnapped Blackfoot maiden from her Cree abductors, the pact of trust and love between the missionary and the indigenous people was sealed.


It was while Father Lacombe was staying at a Blackfoot encampment in 1865 that one of the great moments in western history occurred – an event that firmly established the priest as one of the bravest of the adventurers who made the first trips west. A large party of Cree warriors attacked the Blackfoot encampment under cover of darkness. Outnumbered badly, the situation looked indeed bleak for the Blackfoot, who barely managed to hold off the Cree attack through the hours of darkness until dawn brought them reinforcements. Throughout the night, Father Lacombe moved among the combatants, administering first aid and, often, baptism and final sacraments to his indigenous charges. Then, as the light of day broke and the strengthened Blackfoot forces were about to carry the battle to the Crees, the priest persuaded them to stop. With crucifix held high, the courageous priest walked toward the Cree, directly into their line of fire, imploring them to stop the bloodshed.


A bullet grazed his head and, bleeding profusely, Father Lacombe fell to the ground. Crowfoot, chief of the Blackfoot, cried out to the Cree that they had killed `Good Heart`, the `Man of Prayer`. As besieged Blackfeet showed signs of continuing the battle, the Cree, stunned by what had happened to Father Lacombe, who they knew and respected, retreated and the fight was over. Later Father Lacombe repeated the same sort of courageous act to stop an attack by another indigenous band on a small white outpost near Fort Edmonton.


His selfless work among the tribes reaped the rewards he sought when, in 1865, as he was given responsibility for all the missions in the south, the priest was able to record the instruction and baptism of 442 First Nations persons.