Grouard-McLennan: How a Missionary Diocese came to be

The Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan encompasses about 225,000 sq. km. of northwestern Alberta. It extends from Valleyview in the south to High Level and Fort Vermilion in the north; and from Slave Lake in the east to the Alberta-BC border in the west. Another way to describe it is as covering the western half of Treaty 8 land. The Roman Catholic Population is 47,503 (2006) in 66 Parishes and Missions. So much is owed to the Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (O.M.I.), which pioneered in the west and north of early Canada. Their numbers have dwindled today, but these amazing priests and bishops were responsible for the founding and survival of the Catholic faith in hard to reach and isolated areas that CMIC funds to this day. We owe them a great debt of gratitude.

The Formation of an Archdiocese

Grouard is a town that sits on a hill looking over the prairie, which sprawls out before it. There’s a fascinating history that is based on whom the town is named after. You may have wondered at some point how the early Church in Canada came to be formed. What were the mechanisms and the individuals involved? What was happening in the new country of Canada and how did the Church expand in it? How are names of dioceses chosen? I want to tell you the story. That story centers on a specific man.

The newly erected Apostolic Vicariate of Athabasca Mackenzie was split off from the Diocese of St. Boniface in 1862 becoming a suffragan of Edmonton. An Apostolic Vicariate can be understood as a missionary region which is reasonably expected to increase in population and financial self-support so as to become a diocese at some future time. Henri Joseph Faraud, O.M.I., was appointed the first Apostolic Vicar.

After retiring in 1890, Faraud was replaced by Émile Grouard, O.M.I, as Vicar, also being named a Titular Bishop. In 1898 the Oblates had begun sending priests into the Yukon, which was part of Grouard’s vicariate, but was largely a Church of England preserve. He asked that it be divided due to the vast expanse and the difficulties associated with reaching distant missions. In 1901 the Vatican responded by creating the separate vicariates of Mackenzie and Athabasca and removing the Mackenzie and Yukon basins from his jurisdiction. In 1902 the diocesan headquarters was transferred to St Bernard’s Mission at the west end of Lesser Slave Lake. The community was named after the bishop in 1909, and two years later it was incorporated as a village. Then, in 1927, the name of the Vicariate was changed to Grouard.

Bishop Langlois later transferred the seat of the Vicariate from Grouard to McLennan in 1946 when the Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway built its new line south of Lesser Slave Lake instead of going through Grouard. The majority of Grouard’s population moved to High Prairie, the newly established town on the railway. Shortly after, Langlois built his new Cathedral dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in McLennan. As a gift for Canada’s Centenial in 1967, all the Apostolic Vicariates in northern Canada were elevated to dioceses. The Vicariate of Grouard, however, was made an Archdiocese with the name of Grouard—McLennan, thus reflecting its history, and made the Metropolitan See with the newly elevated Mackenzie-Fort Smith and Whitehorse Dioceses as suffragans.

An Energetic and Dynamic Missionary Bishop

Born in Brûlon, France, 1840, Émile Jean-Baptiste Marie Grouard emigrated in 1860 to “the Canadas” to finish his studies at the the Grand Séminaire de Québec and Laval University. After being ordained a priest in 1862, he went to St Boniface (Winnipeg) to begin his Oblate noviciate. He completed his formation at Fort Chipewyan (AB) and made final vows at Providence mission (Fort Providence, NT) in 1863.

Relationships between whites and aboriginal populations were challenging, to say the least, but Grouard learned their intricacies. He adapted quickly by growing a beard because it made him look older and wiser to the community. He discovered their admiration of music and hymns and gained a reputation as a skilled linguist; during Holy Week services in 1863, he preached his first sermon in Montagnais without an interpreter. As a true missionary, he learned the Cree, Denesuline (Chipewyan) and Dane-zaa (Beaver) languages. Acquiring a printing press, he produced religious texts and hymns in these languages.

Temporarily losing his voice, he returned to France in 1874. There he took painting lessons and printed a Bible that had been translated into Montagnais. Upon returning to Canada in 1876, Grouard was sent to Lac La Biche (Alta), the centre of trans-shipment and supply for the Mackenzie basin missions. At Lac La Biche he installed the first printing press in the present province of Alberta and, utilizing his philological skills and employing syllabic type, he published works in Cree, Montagnais, Beaver, and Loucheux. In 1883 Grouard was sent to Fort Dunvegan (Alta), where he ministered to the Beaver and Iroquois-Métis of the Peace River region. Five years later he was made superior of La Nativité mission (Fort Chipewyan) and instructed to undertake visitations on behalf of his bishop, Henri Faraud. As mentioned, he replaced Faraud in 1890 as bishop.

As a missionary, Grouard was concerned with the disruption brought about by the arrival of settlers. The presence of survey parties and land speculation in Dunvegan in 1883 and Fort Vermilion the following year troubled him. The growing number of settlers in Grouard’s vicariate eventually necessitated a treaty with the Aboriginals. In 1899 federal Indian commissioner David Laird invited Grouard to participate in its negotiation. He was not optimistic about the outcome and suspected the true motive of the government was colonization.

St. Bernard Mission

A word needs to said about St. Bernard Mission. What became the Town of Grouard was founded in 1872 near the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Lesser Slave Lake, a promising site for missionary work. By 1900, the mission had grown into one of the largest and most successful missions in the massive Athabasca-Mackenzie Vicariate encompassing all of northern Alberta. At its height, St. Bernard Mission featured a church, rectory, residence for nuns, boarding school, and an extensive farming operation. St. Bernard Mission (church and cemetery) comprised a one-storey church built in 1902 (designated a provincial historic resource in 1977), and a cemetery dating from at least 1873. The church is a simple rectangular building with a gable roof, large engaged belfry, and arched windows. The cemetery is situated north of the church and contains the remains of four Roman Catholic bishops—included Bishop Grouard—and many other missionary pioneers.

The interior of St. Bernard Church exhibits Grouard’s considerable artistic talents, showcasing three of his original paintings executed on cloth, including the powerful image of the crucifixion situated behind the altar. This beautiful church is one of three that he had constructed in the north. Examples of the Bishop’s art can be seen gracing the wall behind the altar. It also houses an excellent collection of early vestments, ecclesiastical objects such as chalices, and incense burners that are displayed in the vestry.

St. Bernard Mission played an important role in the development of northern Alberta. This site was a crucial gathering place for settlers travelling to the western part of Canada. It was the economic centre of Alberta with a population exceeding 4,000, being larger than Fort Edmonton.

In 1923, Grouard published his memoirs, Souvenirs de mes soixante ans d’apostolat dans l’Athabaska-Mackenzie. The following year the French government made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He died in 1931.

From Vicariate to Archdiocese. From Athabasca-Mackenzie to Athabasca to Grouard to Grouard McLennan, there was a lot of change in a short time in a country that was changing rapidly. The mover and shaker of the change centered on Bishop Grouard. He is a Canadian historical figure who was a pioneering missionary from France who joined the Oblates to serve as priest and bishop. Where would we be today without him? Who are the Grouards of today? The North is waiting for them.

He was a man I’d be happy to model after.

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