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.