A BRIEF HISTORY OF ST. PATRICK’S PARISH
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.
Eight years later, in 1873, the first church in what was to become St. Patrick’s Parish was established on Bragg Creek. The building was erected to serve aboriginals who wintered nearby and Mass was offered by missionary priests who worked the foothills area. It is not certain whether Father Lacombe was one of them.
But Father Lacombe was definitely on hand when the Canadian Pacific Railway built its tracks across the Prairies. The Peigans to the south of Calgary didn’t want the railway passing through their hunting grounds and were on the verge of going on the warpath when Father Lacombe was called to the scene. He brought tea, tobacco and food to the indigenous locals and after sharing a meal, talked them out of their opposition.
This led to another vignette of Western history, because the CPR so appreciated his action it staged a special reception for the priest in Calgary. During the party, George Stephen resigned as president of the railway for one hour and appointed Father Lacombe in his stead. Not to be outdone, the priest named Stephen rector of the parish of St. Mary. Apart from being good fun, the switch of roles brought a $10,000 donation to help Father Lacombe’s work. As well, Father Lacombe was given a lifetime pass on the railway, which he used, to advantage, traveling throughout the province and to Ottawa in support of a variety of measures that he deemed necessary to the development of his mission.
Father Lacombe, looked after St. Patrick’s parish for some years after he moved to the area in 1909, in semi-retirement, to help the Sisters of Providence build the Lacombe home – an orphanage and old folks home. The home was a landmark in the Midnapore area until a fire destroyed it in 1998. St. Mary’s College presently occupies the site of the old Lacombe Home.
Although Father Lacombe spent much of his time out of the parish, notably in Ottawa seeking assistance for various missions, he nevertheless carefully tended his growing brood of parishioners. Some early residents complained that his sermons were more often in the Cree tongue than in English.
In 1905 the dozen or so families that had settled in the Midnapore area decided the time had come to build their own church. Land was donated by Patrick Glenn, son of the first settler, and a building fund set up. It was hoped that each family would contribute a minimum of $100, but donations were left entirely to individual means. Various fund raising activities, including concerts in the local school that starred various parishioners, were undertaken.
One of the most popular fundraisers was the box lunch social, to which (for those not familiar with old-time custom) every girl brought a box lunch. The lunches were auctioned during the evening, and the successful buyer got to share the feast with the girl who prepared it. There was much competition among the girls to prepare the best lunch and among the men to buy the box packed by the best – or prettiest – cooks. One young bachelor, Joe Shannon, set an entire social on its ear when he bid $25 each for four lunches and insisted on all four girls joining him in the sumptuous repast that followed.
When the princely sum of just over $4,000 was attained, building began. Jim Stevens, a stonemason, used Calgary sandstone blocks as a foundation. Mortar was mixed in old lard pails by voluntary labour. A gratis work force erected the wooden building under the capable eye of carpenter Tom Patton, and an old pot bellied stove was installed for heating. The bell, struck in Montreal and hung in 1909, was a gift to Father Lacombe from Archbishop Legal.
The first mass was offered in August of 1905 by Father Lestanc, OMI, of Okotoks, who stayed with the Glenns on the Saturday night before. Also spending Saturday night were a number of Sarcee people, who camped near Fish Creek to be sure of making mass the next morning. Mass was scheduled to begin at 10:45am, but it was closer to 11:30am when it started, as Father Lestanc wanted to make sure that everyone coming by horse and buggy made it in time.
One of the prime forces behind the building of the church was a former buffalo hunter named George Hodgson. A hard worker and a man of much determination, Mr. Hodgson continued to attend mass every Sunday even after he left his homestead for a residence nearer Calgary. He would arrive at the church on the back of a saddle pony until he was well past 90 years of age. Mr. Hodgson also took up the collection for years, until finally other members of the parish suggested he be honourably retired at the age of 95. They were concerned that he was becoming a little forgetful and taking up collection twice some Sundays.
After Father Lacombe died in 1916, a succession of priests was appointed to the parish until, in 1922, Father Albert Newman came to Midnapore. He remained parish priest until his death in 1948 – a term that saw him use his love of gardening to turn the treeless prairie grassland around the church and home into a grove of poplar, elm, ash, spruce, lilac and many other varieties of trees. These were carefully watered by altar servers, carrying buckets from the nearby creek. Fr. Newman also started the little cemetery beside the church.
THE DIOCESE’S LARGEST PARISH ONCE STRETCHED TO B.C. BORDER
In the very early days, the area now known as Midnapore may have been an occasional stopping place for missionaries engaged in bringing Christianity to the indigenous people. After pioneers began settling the area, the district officially became a mission, served on an occasional basis by priests from nearby Okotoks, who offered mass in a schoolhouse or in private homes. Boundaries were clearly detailed by church officials when the Calgary diocese was formed in 1912.
Those boundaries, which were not changed until 1974, comprised that area south of what is now known as Anderson Rd., west of the Bow River, east of the British Columbia border and north of a line running just south of Dewinton. This is a long, narrow strip of land that comprises more than 450 square miles, making St. Patrick’s one of the largest parishes in the diocese.
The parish originally took in the Sarcee Reserve southwest of Calgary. Early records show the reserve as a major mission and many indigenous names appear in parish records from the early years. A succession of priests tended the missions, but one of the most famous of all of Canada’s missionary priests, Father Albert Lacombe, distinguished the parish by becoming its first resident pastor.
The original St. Patrick’s church was almost lost to fire in 1970. Fortunately a passing policeman noticed a red glow in the windows and turned in the alarm in time to save the shell of the building. The interior was pretty heavily damaged. While work was going on to repair the interior, mass was held at the neighbouring Anglican Church. Bishop Paul O’Byrne reopened the renovated church just before Christmas of 1970.
Because the fire damaged the church statues, new ones were fashioned by Albert Gerritsen. An indigenous Madonna and child was carved from a piece of Alberta poplar to honour the parish’s early tradition. On a mahogany Celtic cross Albert fashioned St. Patrick, holding in his hands a tiny chapel to symbolize apostleship to the Church of Ireland. A crucifix. was carved from mahogany.
When the parishioners first saw the statues, which differed greatly from the more conventional originals, much controversy arose. Finally it was decided to hold a secret ballot to determine whether the new works should be kept. It is perhaps a tribute to St. Patrick’s lengthy history that the most popular piece, by far, proved to be the indigenous Madonna.
INDIGENOUS and PIONEER FAMILIES WERE THE FIRST MIDNAPORE RESIDENTS
Midnapore, was once a much more important community in the area’s scheme of things than it is today. At one time it was a popular stopping point on the pioneer trail between Fort Calgary and outposts to the south. As well, it was the location of Alberta’s very first manufacturing industry – a woolen mill that turned out products of such high quality that even today some of the families in the area warm their beds with blankets from its looms.
Back in the early Eighteen Seventies, before Calgary was even a Mounted Police outpost, a prospector cum buffalo hunter named John Glenn became the first man to claim land along the banks of Fish Creek, where previously only First Nations people had lived. Glenn established himself in a log house near the creek at an opportune fording place and began cultivating the land. Much more at home with a prospector’s pick (he had followed the gold trail throughout much of the west) or the buffalo hunter’s rifle than with a plow, Glenn nevertheless became the first person in southern Alberta to grow vegetables.
He proved his adaptability to his newfound occupation by becoming, in 1879 (seven years after his arrival in Midnapore) the first to irrigate land in what would later become the Province of Alberta. Glenn diverted the water of Fish Creek through about half a mile of ditch to irrigate a 15-acre plot of vegetables. Part of Glenn’s land later became the site of the two small churches that face the highway in Midnapore – St. Patrick’s and St. Paul’s. Glenn himself donated the land for the Anglican Church and his son Patrick gave the land for the Catholic Church.
Glenn, the first white Catholic resident of the area, also became, by virtue of the convenience of his house to the trail, the first postmaster in the district, which was then known as Fish Creek. Being illiterate, the task didn’t sit too easily on his shoulders so he divested himself of the job at the first opportunity – and at the same time named the town.
It happened one day when he and another well-known pioneer in the area, Samuel W. Shaw, were chatting as Glenn sorted the mail. He came across a letter addressed to the postmaster of Midnapore. Jocularly he passed it on to Shaw, saying, “This is one for you”. The letter, as it turned out, was meant for Midnapore, India, but by accepting it, Shaw appears to have accepted the title of postmaster of Fish Creek. Then, because another Fish Creek, in Saskatchewan, was attracting a lot of attention as the result of the Riel Rebellion, it was decided Alberta’s Fish Creek needed a new name. Shaw and Glenn, being the main, if not the only, residents of the community, immediately decided Midnapore was good enough for them, and Midnapore it became. The name, incidentally, is apparently East Indian for `good crossing`.
From that one incident it is obvious life in the old days was a great deal less complicated than it is now. Which was probably the result of people having more important things – like survival – to worry about then than they do now.
The experience of the Shaw family, who immigrated from England in 1884, is probably as indicative of what the early lifestyle in Midnapore was like as anything.
A man who obviously meant to be prepared for a new life in the new world, Shaw trained some of his offspring in the cobbler’s art and others in weaving before leaving England. He purchased equipment for both a woolen mill and a shoemaker’s shop, and then added (probably in the hope they would be useful and profitable in his new home) telegraphic equipment, cameras and photographic supplies, 16 guns and a steel trunk full of gunpowder.
The family arrived in Winnipeg by the fairly conventional means of boat and train. There they purchased four teams of oxen and enough food for two years. Leaving the mill equipment in Winnipeg, the family then entrained again for Swift Current, which was, at that time, the western terminus of the still building Canadian Pacific railroad. The Shaws loaded their possessions and eight children on ox-drawn Red River Carts and a covered Conestoga wagon and set out across the trackless prairie for Fort Calgary, with only a compass to guide them. It took them a month at 10 to 15 miles a day to reach the Fort during which time the family reported, undoubtedly to its patriarch’s great relief, the presence of many buffalo and antelope but no indigenous people.
Shaw had planned to continue north to the Peace River area, but a chance meeting with Glenn in Calgary changed all that. Calgary at that time was little more than the Mounted Police fort surrounded by a few log cabins, a Hudson’s Bay Company post and another store, all scattered along a few dirt streets. But Glenn apparently convinced Shaw of the area’s potential as a place to homestead. Shortly thereafter Shaw settled at Fish Creek on a half section of land pre-empted from Glenn. The rest of the summer was spent in a tent while the family readied a 20 by 30 foot log cabin capped by a sod roof.
In 1889 Shaw had his woolen mill equipment brought out from Winnipeg (the railway now reached the entire distance) and set about establishing the Shaw Woolen Co. as the first manufacturing business in the region. Calgary would have been the site of the mill, except that Shaw was unable to talk town council into giving him a two-year tax exemption, so he decided instead to erect it on his own property in Midnapore, where the exemption was automatic. Soon western Canada’s first mill was turning out high quality cloth made from the wool of Alberta sheep. Blankets from the extra large looms of the mill were readily recognized everywhere because they were both longer and wider than the usual size.
Real entrepreneurs, the family wasn’t content with just one business. Mrs. Shaw opened the first haberdashery in Calgary, from which she tailored men’s suits made of Shaw cloth. Her husband established Midnapore’s first general store and, unofficially the town’s first pharmacy, with medicines brought from England. He also wired the family’s various buildings for telegraph and later, when some family members moved to Calgary, connected the city and town for the first time, although the lines were all private ones.
Shaw, an Anglican played the organ at St. Paul’s. He played at St. Patrick’s too, but the Catholics were charged 10 cents a year. He wanted to have a cash arrangement so he could always be fired or quit, depending on who wanted rid of the other. Before the church was built, the pioneer played for services held at the police barracks on a piano brought from a nearby saloon by wheelbarrow.
The Midnapore area was notably proud of its ranching heritage, and some of the largest ranches around were located within a day’s ride of the community. Among them was one of the biggest, owned by one of Calgary’s most illustrious figures of the early days. The Bow Valley Ranch was organized in 1873 as a government farm, but was later taken over by Patrick Burns, later Senator Burns, a man who had much influence on the development not only of Calgary but also of Alberta and Western Canada.
Under Burn’s supervision, the ranch was expanded so that at one time it extended up the Bow River a full ten miles from Midnapore. Burns, about whom several books could be written, was a devout Catholic and the man who donated the 200 acres of land on which the Lacombe Home was built. He was also the originator of a financial empire built around beef and was responsible for planting, in 1917, the row of poplars – 1,850 of them – that beautify the highway entrance to Midnapore (and Calgary) from the south.
A favourite parish story tells of the day Pat Burns hired a man to paint St. Patrick’s. Looking across at the neighbouring Anglican Church, Burns told the painter “might as well do that one too” – thus beginning a practice that carried on for years.
Where proud historic traditions are concerned, Midnapore then, takes a back seat to no community. A truly western pioneer community that reportedly reached a population of 600, the town was annexed by Calgary in 1962, thus foiling the predictions of some early settlers who, before the turn of the century, figured it was a cinch to outpace its northern neighbour in terms of growth.
With the annexation of Midnapore into the City of Calgary boundaries in 1962 came the developers, purchasing farms and land to build houses. As homes were completed families moved in, which brought an upsurge in the population of the area. This trend continued and by 1979, when Father Rigby came to St. Patrick’s Parish as Pastor, he came with the knowledge that a larger church was needed to provide for the spiritual needs of the Catholic families who had taken up residence in the surrounding area. Prior to the appointment of Father Rigby, former Pastors, Father Jack Kirley (1970 – 1977), and Father Denis Fleming (1977 – 1979), were eventually celebrating four Masses each weekend to accommodate the increase of St. Patrick’s congregation: 5pm on Saturdays, 9am, 10:30am and 12 noon on Sundays.
During the time of Fathers Kirley and Fleming there was talk of a new church being built, and the need for it, but no plans made. In 1979 the Sisters of Providence provided the parish with three acres of unserviced land on the west side of the Macleod Trail.
For the first year as Pastor of St. Patrick’s, Father Rigby continued with four weekend Masses in the Church. Midnapore continued to grow. Homes were being built to the south and to the west bringing in more people, not only Catholics but other denominations too. A public school was built. Masses at the Church were becoming so over-crowded that it was decided to rent the gymnasium at the school for the 11am Mass to relieve the pressure. In the meantime committees were formed amongst the members of the congregation and social events were planned to raise funds toward the erection of a larger church. It was decided that the original church property should be sold to aid the new venture.
On April 27, 1981, a Catholic School was opened on Midlake Boulevard. This was named Mother Teresa School (now St. Teresa of Calcutta School) in honour of Mother Teresa and her community who have devoted their lives working with the poor and outcasts of the world. She began in India, the country that gave Midnapore its name. With the opening of the Catholic School, St. Patrick’s parish-pioneers decided that this was where they should worship and the first 11am Mass was celebrated there on July 5, 1981.
Membership continued to increase at St. Patrick’s, so the next move was for the 9 a.m. Mass to commence in the School on March 7, 1982. Saturday Mass continued on in the Church. Not only St. Patrick’s was suffering growing pains. At this time Midlands United Church was in need of worship space for their new members. It was decided to rent the St. Patrick’s church to them for this purpose. They continued there until they too outgrew the church and moved into the gymnasium at the Elementary School. St. Paul’s Anglican Parish were having a problem with the increase in their congregation too, so they took over St. Patrick’s for their morning services and continued there until they had renovated their parish hall to accommodate the people. All Saints Lutheran also made use of the Church for services.
Plans for the sale of St. Patrick’s property did not materialize. However, under the guidance of Bishop, Paul O’Byrne, we were given permission to build a new church, aided by Diocesan Funds. At a general meeting of the congregation on January 13, 1982, Mr. Enrique Fernandez, an architect, presented blue prints and a model of the new church, which were approved by the parishioners present at the meeting. The sod was turned on August 31, 1982. First services in the new St. Patrick’s Church situated on Shawnessy Boulevard, were held on the Feast Of Pentecost, May 21/22, 1983.
Much of the church furnishing costs were aided by donations from parishioners. Social affairs, dances, a harvest supper, a walkathon and a raffle of the old rectory, purchased in 1976, kept providing funds. The tabernacle, a gift from the altar servers, was purchased from old St. Mary’s Church, Cochrane with money the servers raised from bottle drives and car washes. The Stations of the Cross came from an old Church in Scotland. The hand-chipped prism window of Christ the King came from the workshop of Andre Rault, Rhiems, France. Clay removed from excavations in Midnapore was used in the moulding of chalices, patens, candleholders, holy water fonts and large ornamental vases. The large “rose” window at the entrance of the Church was designed and constructed by Irene Scott, a parishioner. The stained glass windows at the back of the church tell the life story of St. Patrick, who converted pagan Ireland to Christianity. The money for this was raised by annual St. Patrick’s dances and by generous parishioners.
Dedication of the new Church by Bishop Paul O’Byrne was on Sunday, September 4, 1983, almost 79 years after the dedication date of the original St. Patrick’s Church, on September 11, 1904. Present for the Blessing were some people with direct links to the founding families: Mrs. Marshall, daughter of Patrick Glenn who donated the original land on which St. Patrick’s was first built, and Albert McKevitt who was present at the opening of “old” St. Patrick’s.
The parish was left with a debt of approximately $700,000 for the capital construction and cost of servicing the land the Church occupies. The Knights of Columbus – Father Albert Newman Council #8470 was instrumental in paying down much of the debt through fund raisers and bingos. First the mortgage was paid off and then the loan from the diocese was finally paid off in 1995.
“Buried” behind the consecration stone of the Church is a time capsule containing items of historical interest: Coins dating back to 1904 and to 1983; Old photographs of early families and members of St. Patrick’s; Old photographs of Midnapore and St. Patrick’s; A census of all known Catholic families in the parish as of August 1983; Photographs of the opening of the new Church on Pentecost Sunday, May 21/22, 1983; Photographs of the First Communion Class of 1983; A complete history of the diocese of Calgary; Newspaper articles about “old” and “new” St. Patrick’s; A videotape of the last Mass in old St. Patrick’s and one of the first Mass in the new Church and other memorabilia. It was proposed at that time that future generations may like to open the time capsule either on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the new church, or on the centenary of the old, Church.
In 1983 when St. Patrick’s was dedicated, parishioners looked across the street to wheat fields and a view of the mountains. Now, St. Patrick’s is no longer at the edge of the city. It continues to be one of the fastest growing parishes in the diocese. The continuous construction of new homes is filling the existing and new suburbs, with a resultant growth in the Catholic population, which needs to be served by the parish. A building fund has been established for an expansion of church facilities to provide more seating. St. Patrick’s is both an “old” parish, which is proud of its heritage and a “young” Spirit-filled parish with children in every pew. It is filled with memories of the past and hope for the challenging future.
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