Manitou! Do your eyes behold the approaching strangers? Manitou! Their eyes are not of this world. Who are these people, and why do they come? For many years our people have dwelt alongside the "White" man. He has given us trade goods in return for our fur hunt. At times he has been kind in his giving of presents. He has taken for his wife, my sister. Yet he has not tried to take my gods or my world. As each left, all that went with him were the furs. We kept our sisters, their children, and the stories that have come to us during the years we shared together. Often we spoke of the "Black Robes," and of the amazing places that exist beyond this earth. Can these men be the "Black Robes?" Their words flow in a graceful river. Happiness never seems to leave their eyes. Let us welcome these men and share what we can. All are Manitou's children.
The Barge on Lake Ile-a-la-Crosse
(PA 44527 Public Archives of Canada)
The barge! Thirteen paddlers eased the long flat vessel alongside the Hudson's Bay Dock at the Ile-a-la-Crosse Fort. The Factor, Mr. Roderick MacKenzie (Alexander MacKenzie's cousin), now 72 years of age, was attended by his son and two strangers. Dressed in the "Black Robes" of voyageur folklore, the two men surveyed all around them with wide eyes. This day, the afternoon of September 10th, 1846, welcomed Fathers LaFleche and Tache.
Mr. MacKenzie eyed these "Missionaries" with distaste. Nothing but trouble and pain would result from their intrusion into this unspoiled country. Unable to remain silent he utters his feeling, "They'll ruin my Indians." Yet as a gentleman, he could not but be civil and even helpful to these "men of God". The season being late, Mr. MacKenzie offered his own building for their winter habitation. Together they would pass the winter in companionship. Willingly he taught these dream - filled youngsters the language of the north. They were apt students. Cree, they studied in the morning. Chipewyan, was learned in the afternoons. Before long, the youngest, Tache took to the winter trails in his northern education, but, enough is enough; in the spring we'll help them build their own buildings. Such must be the will of God.
Chateau Saint-Jean, Ile-a-la-Crosse, 1860
(Courtesy: Ile-a-la-Crosse Mission)
Within a decade, the mission, which had been called "Chateau Saint-Jean," grew in size. The need for more hands to offer the services of a remote mission called for the request of woman's hands. Young Tache left the post to become Bishop of this north country in the Red River settlement. Seeing the able work carried on by the "Sisters of Charity", he prepared the path for their services in Ile-a-la-Crosse.
The year, 1860, another barge bore new people to Ile-a-la-Crosse. Sisters Agnes, Pepin, and Boucher rode in anticipation of the wonders told to them by their pastor, Father Grandin. On October 4th, at five o'clock in the morning, the barge entered Lake Ile-a-la-Crosse. By noon the settlement came into view. Little by little the nuns could distinguish the church, the cross, and the houses. Men, women, and children came from all directions to welcome the barge. Finally, the barge docked.
On the sixth of October they opened the doors of their convent called "Saint-Bruno," and before long received their first medical patient, a small boy named Phillipe. By the 26th of November, these "Sisters of Charity" opened their school for twenty-five boarding students. The girls used the classroom for their sleeping quarters, and the boys stayed in the rectory with the priests. At last, now the "Christenizing" of the Indians would begin in earnest through the hearts and minds of the young.
The journey to Catholicism was not to be smooth. A young warrior and trapper of the Chipewyan peoples had a dream. This vision commanded him as the "true Son of God" to lead his people. His followers obeyed his commands knowing the power of visions and the true strength of their ancient gods. Dogs were destroyed, possessions burned. The man "Saskhe," attacked Father Grandin who left in haste for his canoe. Returning to his mission he wisely left the followers of Saskhe to retire from the self-styled "Son of God," and to eventually turn to the teachings of the church.
Sister Sara Riel became a member of the Ile-a-la-Crosse Mission in 1871, and served in the school and hospital to her untimely death at the age of 34 in the year of 1883.
The mission lived by the grace of the inhabitants. They fed these religious people: donated of their scanty means, momentarily and with goods; assisted in all manner of physical labour. Old man Malboeuf assisted by supplying the mission with fish caught in his nets. The Voyageurs, Canadian and Metis, gave of their salaries and their spare hours. In time the mission prospered.
Not only by the fruits of labour did people give, also they gave their trust, faith and friendship. One older Cree, "Oppikokiw". would at times sing of his legends and the songs of his ancestors. Of great interest were the songs of "Windigo". Oppikokiw had a daughter-in-law, Marie-Rose Piwapiskus, whose family had come from the prairies of the south.
Marie-Rose soon lost her husband and never remarried at the request of her mother. She turned to Father Legeard to find a purpose and path for her remaining life's work. He lead her to the idea of teaching. As "Maitresse d'ecole-Okiskinohamakew"-she taught the children Catechism and the writing of Cree syllabics. In 1931 at the age of over 90 she died in the hospital. Her grave guards her remains at Canoe Lake.
People came from many miles to celebrate mass. In 1883, in July, Francois Maurice traveled through the night hours to assist at the Mass. His son, Magloire, who was then twenty, had traveled with him. Tired, Magloire sought sleep. However, Francois berated his son to forego sleep to attend the services of the Mass. It is people like Francois who were the heart and blood of this mission.
Trouble again arose with the news of Riel's warring with the "White" man. On April 28th, 1885, a messenger arrived from Green Lake with the frightening news of rebellion. Perhaps he would come here? The thought raced through the missionaries. A retreat was planned. Boarding a barge, the mission staff and the "White traders went down the lake and took refuge on a small island. On May 24th, the party erected a cross on the island to remind all passers-by. An inscription reads:"
"In this island, the priests, the brothers, the sisters and the Bourgeois stayed during the menacing approach of the rebelling Cree Persecutors, here we sought refuge among the faithful Chipewyans."
On May 29th, the fear faded away, so the party returned to Ile-a-la-Crosse to continue their lives in their respective duties.
The turn of the century saw bad times come. High water flooded the mission from 1900 to 1905. Unable to work in the weakened buildings any longer, the sisters prepared to leave Ile-a-la-Crosse. On September 7th, they boarded a barge of the Revillon Freres, a new concern at Ile-a-la-Crosse and bidding goodbye to the children, left Ile-a-la-Crosse.
In 1911, a newcomer came to Ile-a-la-Crosse. Father Marius Rossignol came to be pastor for the mission Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Father Rossignol decided that he would direct his zeal towards destroying the last strongholds of paganism at Waterhen Lake. He spoke and preached to these people exhorting them.
"What is this religion of yours? It is nothing but superstitions - the worship of all that is not God!"
Not only did he war against paganism, he also tried to do away with the "Protestant houses of commerce" who pushed the native people to buy liquor and encouraged them to drink. Father Rossignol even records incidents of people being forced to drink. Once a young man had his mouth forced open and the contents poured from a bottle into his mouth. He was happy when, in 1915, a provincial law was passed prohibiting the sale of liquor-the source of much misery.
Marie-Rose, la Maitresse d'ecole.
(Photo Courtesy, Ile-a-la-Crosse Mission)
(Photo Courtesy, Ile-a-la-Crosse Mission)
The "Grey Nuns" returned in 1917 to occupy the posts of medical workers and teachers. The sisters returning numbered four. Sister Saint-Nazaire, Sisters Martel, Nadeau, and Sephora. They now had a larger convent on high ground. However, they never found peace from tragedy. On the evening of April 1st, 1920, while at evening prayers, a glow on the chapel windows told of another mishap-fire was consuming the convent. It wasn't until October 24th of the following year that they could enter a new convent.
While waiting for the reconstruction of the convent, a new pupil arrived. Therese Arcand of Green Lake was placed in the care of the Sisters by her mother on Christmas Eve, 1920, along with her younger brother. Therese already had two brothers enrolled in the school. One day several years later-September 29th, 1923-another tragedy visited the mission. While returning from a berry-picking picnic, a canoe carrying Sister Nadeau and seven boys capsized. Sister Nadeau and three of the boys died. Therese's brother was one of the victims. Again in 1925, fire razed the convent, and again it was rebuilt.
In 1929, the years of work bore fruit. Therese Arcand departed from the mission school in March, bound for St. Albert, Alberta, to become the first Metis graduate from Ile-a-la-Crosse to enter the order of the Sisters of Charity.
Life now assumed a peaceful pattern with occasional visits of church dignitaries. The end of the century of work came with a huge three - day celebration. July, 1946, saw a centennial party honoring the men and women who gave of themselves in the service of God.
School Days-1930s, Ile-a-la-Crosse
(Photo Courtesy, Ile-a-la-Crosse Mission)