Alberta's Oblate Community: Poetic Vignettes
The Oblates of Mary Immaculate were a Roman Catholic congregation founded in southern France in the early 19th century. The word "oblate" comes from the Latin oblatus meaning "offered," or "dedicated." The Oblates were not meditative religious figures but rather missionaries and men of action. Their congregation was created initially to help those who had suffered the most as a direct result of the French Revolution, i.e., the poor. Later, their objectives were extended to help the deprived in other areas of the world, and to bring Christianity to them. Their motto was Evangelizare pauperibus misit me: 'He sent me to evangelize the poor.' The Oblate therefore had to be filled with apostolic zealousness and be ready to exile himself in foreign lands (Notice 7-10).
As Robert Choquette has observed:
Oblate missionaries were to the nineteenth century what Jesuits had been to the sixteenth and seventeenth. They were the quintessential product of a new mood in Catholicism, a new militancy, a new urge to conquer the world for Christ and his Church...[They] understood the world in simple categories. The world and society was the devil's playground, liberalism was virtue's hearse, and the duty of true Catholics was to become Christ's soldiers (Choquette 2).
The first Oblates came to Canada as a direct result of a recruitment trip to Europe by Bishop Bourget of Montreal. When the six missionaries, four priests and two brothers, landed in Montreal on 2 December 1841, they were the first religious figures to set foot in Canada since the English conquest (Simard, 10). Four years later, Western Canada saw its first Oblates when Fathers Pierre Aubert and Alexandre Taché arrived in Saint-Boniface (Manitoba) on 25 August 1845.
As for Alberta, the Oblate presence dates from 1854, when Father René Rémas was assigned to the Lac-Sainte-Anne mission which at the time was being run by secular clergy. The mission was officially transferred to the Oblate congregation in 1856, when the 29-year-old priest in charge, Albert Lacombe, pronounced his perpetual vows, and became an Oblate (Levasseur 55). Up until that time, Lacombe, a native Quebecer, had first served as a secular priest at Pembina (North Dakota), and Berthier (Quebec), then at Edmonton, and, from 1853, at Lac Sainte-Anne. In the following years, Lacombe would leave an impressive and memorable record in the annals of the future province of Alberta. Historically then, cultural convergences between Alberta and Quebec began a century and a half ago as French-speaking Oblates traveled westward, first to evangelize the indigenous populations, and later to serve the white communities which were rapidly forming.
The Oblate historian Adrien-Gabriel Morice has suggested that the creation of the Canadian West depended on two primary elements: the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Oblates (Huel, 15). The latter were the principal Roman Catholic presence in the West, and aggressively pursued their goal of converting Amerindians and Métis. Later, as Eastern Canadians and European settlers moved into the area, the Oblates were instrumental in establishing schools and hospitals, founding newspapers, and fighting for the linguistic and religious rights of French-speaking Catholics. I would surmise that most Canadians are not aware of the role played by the Oblates in their country's history. A quick survey of geographical place names would rectify this perception. Since places are often named after individuals who were instrumental in their founding, the congregation's influence becomes evident. Gaston Carrière, another Oblate historian, counted 323 Canadian locations named after Oblates including 31 in Alberta (Huel 16-17) such as Leduc, Legal, Lacombe, and Vegreville.
I have chosen to discuss five such Oblates who served in Alberta at various times during the 20th century. All were either born or educated in Quebec and brought with them their religion, culture, and scholarship that they would share with French-speaking Albertans. The five are buried in the Oblate cemetery in Saint-Albert. My perspective will be non sectarian and I will mention only briefly their formal duties to their congregation and to their church. My main focus will be on their literary pastime; all five were amateur poets, an aspect of their lives that has, until now, not been studied.
Why have I chosen this particular slant when looking at the Oblates' contribution to our country's heritage? During the time I spent editing Louis Riel's poetry, I noted that when Riel was composing verse, it enabled him to express a part of his inner being that would not have been expressed otherwise. It showed him in his private, personal moments. It was sometimes a cathartic experience that allowed him to exteriorize his emotions or define his aspirations (Campbell xliii-xlv). It is for this same reason that I am now researching the poetic works of Canadian-based Oblates, and especially those who served in the West. I believe that it will show another, more intimate side of these individuals who left indelible imprints in the historic fabric of our country. I have thus far found pertinent documents in the Archives Deschâtelets in Ottawa, the Archives of the Société Historique de Saint-Boniface, the Province of St. Mary's Archives in Saskatoon, and the Provincial Archives of Alberta in Edmonton. For biographical details presented in this study, I have relied heavily on Gaston Carrière's Dictionnaire biographique des Oblats de Marie Immaculée au Canada, and Brian Owens and Claude Roberto's Guide to the Archives of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Province of Alberta-Saskatchewan. The poetry excerpts that I will present below come from both published and unpublished sources:
Louis Simard, o.m.i. (Born 1878 in Hull, QC, died 1961 in Saint-Albert)
Louis Simard studied in Ottawa, Lachine (Quebec), and in Italy. He was ordained in Rome in 1903. He served as a teacher at the Scolasticat Saint-Joseph in Ottawa before arriving in Alberta in 1909. He taught in the Saint-Albert Seminary (1909-11), then at the Juniorat Saint-Jean (1911-13), before returning to Saint-Albert where he served as vicar of the cathedral from 1913 to 1920. For the next three years, he was vicar at Saint-Paul, and then came back to Edmonton where he taught again at Saint-Jean until 1926. For the next 34 years, he served in various charges in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, with one stint in Saint-Albert, in charge of the noviciate, from 1936 to 1945. He remained on active service until age 82 when he retired to Saint-Albert. He died there in 1961.
In his obituary published in La Survivance of 15 November 1961, we read the following:
Endowed with a superior intelligence, as worthy a priest as he was zealous, an exemplary religious figure, tireless defender of French-language rights in the provinces of Western Canada, Reverend Father Louis Simard, just like the Divine Master, "did good deeds everywhere he went [my translation]."
In 1916, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society of Edmonton met to honour Canada's missionaries, and to celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Oblate congregation. In a speech delivered to the Society on this special occasion, Louis Simard gave a summary of what the Oblates had accomplished in those hundred years. When his remarks were published in Le Canadien-Français, they were accompanied by a poem entitled "Au Fondateur." Although Simard's name is not attached to the poem, I have assumed, rightly or wrongly, that he was its author. The composition honours the Oblate's Founder, Eugène de Mazenod, a "noble son of France" who wished to minister, through his missionaries, to the world's poor and disinherited. The poem is in two parts: the first furnishes the reader with historical background on the Oblates, the "zealous cross-bearers" who have sailed to all corners of the globe, bringing love to captive souls. The second is in the form of a prayer in which the poet asks God's blessing on the Oblates and their missions:
Mazenod's dream started in Provence, carried to Quebec, was also being realized in Alberta.
Alexis Tétreault (Born 1903 in Vegreville, died 1961 in Edmonton)
Educated at Saint-Jean in Edmonton and in the Noviciate at Lachine (Quebec), Tétreault was ordained in 1927 and served in numerous charges in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Alberta postings were in Saint-Paul, Cluny, Edmonton where he was chaplain at the Misericordia Hospital, Saint-Albert, and finally at Lac Sainte-Anne where he served as director of the mission.
Thus far, I have uncovered a dozen manuscript pages of Tétreault's poetry. The subject matter is largely autobiographical in nature, the "je" of the poet directing the poetic flow of the verses. In one poem, Tétreault talks about the day he makes the decision to enter the priesthood. In another, he describes his feelings as he takes his perpetual vows. Some of the compositions are dedicated to specific individuals: to his niece, to his brother Georges, also an Oblate, to a fellow seminarist congratulating him on a sermon he has just delivered, or to his Superior on the 25th anniversary of his religious service.
The verse that I have selected is taken from a 16-line poem entitled "Amour de la race." It was written on 3 March 1926, the year after Tétreault took his perpetual vows in Edmonton, and the year before his ordination in Lebret (Saskatchewan):
Tétreault's personal convictions are manifest. Such fervour for his race, faith, and language could only strengthen the French-Canadian presence in Alberta. It is also clearly evident that Roman Catholicism is inextricably linked in his mind to the French language. As Raymond Huel points out, these themes also characterize the Oblate mission in Western Canada. The missionaries, whether from France or Quebec, believed they were carrying out the historic mandate of the mother country:
Thus, Gesta Dei per Francos, the deeds of God through the actions of the French, came to reinforce and stimulate the primary goal of continuing Christ's great commission to instruct and baptize all nations. [...] For generations of French Canadians after 1760 [the English Conquest] Roman Catholicism became associated with ethnic survival and, consequently, the Catholic religion and the French language virtually became synonymous. Whether it was on the missionary frontier among the First Nations or in the midst of French-speaking minorities on the western plains this cultural and religious patrimony directed and determined the parameters of the Oblate apostolate (Huel, 18-19).
At the same time that Tétreault was penning these verses, another Oblate, Georges Boileau, was writing, at the Collège Mathieu in Gravelbourg (Saskatchewan), patriotic songs with similar motifs. As early as 1921, Collège Mathieu began publishing these works so it is possible that Tétreault's composition was influenced by Boileau's songs.
Georges Crépeau (Born 1911 in Sorel, QC, died 1981 in Hafford, SK)
Georges Crépeau studied at the Juniorat Sacré-Coeur in Ottawa, then entered the noviciate, and professed his faith at Ville-La-Salle (Quebec) before heading to Western Canada. Like both Simard and Tétreault, he served various charges throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Edmonton, he taught at Saint-Jean for two years (1935-7), then was assigned to La Survivance (the original name of today's Le Franco), the newspaper of the Association Canadienne-francaise de l'Alberta, established in 1928, and in whose creation the Oblates had been strongly involved (Huel 22). He then worked on Saskatchewan's Le Patriote de l'Ouest, another Oblate newspaper. From 1938 to 1946, he served in Alberta, first in the parish at Saint-Albert and then taught in the Indian schools at Cardston and Brocket. After that, he ministered in several missions in Saskatchewan until his death in 1981.
The lines quoted below are the refrain from an undated patriotic song "Jusqu'au bout," with lyrics by Georges Crépeau, and music by Théodore Botrel. I found the song amongst the Louis Simard papers in the Oblate collection of the Provincial Archives of Alberta. It had been printed in an unidentified source. The original hand-written copy has not been found:
As with Tétreault's poem, once again the race-faith-language interdependency is clearly apparent, and the theme of survival of French-Canada comes to the fore. We, French-Canadians, Crépeau goes on to say, are descendants of a proud race, and the warlike fervour of our ancestors has made us a triumphant people.
It is possible that Crépeau was influenced by the thematically similar song "Reviens Dollard…combattre 'Jusqu'au bout!'," composed by Georges Boileau, with music by E. H. Chatillon, and published by the Collège de Gravelbourg in 1924. Just like our hero Dollard des Ormeaux, says Crépeau, we will fight "jusqu'au bout" to defend our faith and our language.
Paul-Émile Breton (Born 1902 in St. Hyacinthe, QC, died 1964 in Edmonton)
Ordained in 1930, Paul-Émile Breton served various charges in the east, including seven years in a number of parishes in Quebec, before he arrived in Edmonton in 1939 to become editor of La Survivance, a post he filled for 14 years. Later, he was secretary of both Radio Edmonton Limited, and the Association canadienne-francaise de l'Alberta. He founded the French-speaking radio station CHFA, and was archivist of the Oblates' Provincial Archives. He authored books on his Oblate colleagues Antoine Kowalczyk, Albert Lacombe, Vital Grandin, and J. Patrick Kearney as well as one on the Indian mission at Hobbema. Obviously, he was a man who enjoyed biographical scholarship, and one who was not without a sense of humour as we see in the lines quoted below.
The poem was composed in 1962 in reaction to a questionnaire sent to him, and presumably to others as well, by the Oblate Provincial Superior asking about the automobile he drove: the make, the year, the car's mileage, etc. Wishing to respond to the request, and at the same time wanting to please the Superior, he has furnished the required information in poetic form. Here are the two final verses of the 11-verse poem in which he sums up the condition of the "vehicle," apparently in very good shape for one that is 60 years old!:
Émile Tardif (born 1903 in Ottawa, died 1971 in Edmonton)
His early education completed in Ottawa, with his noviciate undertaken at Ville-La-Salle (Quebec), Émile Tardif was ordained in Saskatchewan in 1931. He ministered in the West for 39 years. Except for an eight-year stint at Meadow Lake (Saskatchewan), all of his charges were in Alberta: Saint- Albert, Pincher Creek and Brocket, and in Edmonton where he began and ended his service, firstly as a teacher at Saint-Jean, and lastly, as Provincial Archivist. Tardif penned poems to his father, his brothers and sisters, and his friends. In one composition, he reflected on his poetic muse and his flagging inspiration. In a couple of others, including the lines I have quoted below, which were written in 1967, he meditated on the effect that long absences and separations have on friendships:
Tardif is undoubtedly the most introspective of the Oblate writers selected for this discussion. His creative imagination seems to be the most natural, his verses flowing spontaneously from inner impulses. The reader is, in turn, genuinely touched by the emotivity woven into the poetic fabric.Conclusion
The poetic compositions authored by these five Oblates is of varying quality. Some of their works have certain degrees of artistic merit; others are of little consequence. Although great poetic inspiration is lacking overall, I would say that they are, in general, technically adequate poets. Most of the verse could be categorized as occasional, poems written about, or addressed to, specific individuals for particular occasions. The study of this poetry will not revolutionize our perception of the Oblates' role in history. It may however help us to gain a better understanding of their personal beliefs, their distinctive personalities, and why they acted or reacted they way they did to events which are of historical interest to us.
There is no doubt that these five men left their mark on Alberta. In their roles as missionaries, educators, publishers, and historians, they formed part of the elite of the societies in which they lived. As a natural consequence of their status, they wielded considerable power in the shaping of their communities, and in influencing the political and cultural climate. They played a significant role in seeking guarantees for francophone minority rights in the province. In more recent years, they were instrumental in petitioning for radio and television services in the French language. That they achieved success in these endeavours is undeniable.
It is likely that many of the unpublished documents I have found in archival dossiers are copies, and that the originals were circulated amongst family, friends, and members of the community. In this way, Quebec-Alberta convergences were realized on a more personal level, as well as publicly through the widespread dissemination of some of the poetry. Alberta was enriched by the presence of the Oblates within its boundaries, and the province, in its turn, enriched the lives of these men who had offered to it their religious services and cultural experiences.
Breton, Paul-Émile, o.m.i., Personal Papers, Provincial Archives of Alberta, 71.200 / 148 / 6323.
Campbell, Glen, The Collected Writings of Louis Riel (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1985).
Carrière, Gaston, o.m.i., Dictionnaire biographique des Oblats de Marie Immaculée au Canada, 3 volumes (Ottawa: Éditions de l'Université d'Ottawa, 1976-9).
Choquette, Robert, The Oblate Assault on Canada's Northwest (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1995).
Crépeau, Georges, o.m.i., "Jusqu'au bout," Louis Simard Personal Papers, Provincial Archives of Alberta, 84.400 / 1324.
Huel, Raymond, "The Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Canadian North West: Reflections on 150 Years of Service, 1845-1995." Proceedings of the fourth symposium on the history of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada (Edmonton: Western Canadian Publishers, 1996), pp. 15-45.
Levasseur, Donat, o.m.i., Les Oblats de Marie-Immaculée dans l'Ouest et le Nord du Canada, 1845-1967 (Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press / Western Canadian Publishers, 1995).
Owens, Brian and Claude Roberto, A Guide to the Archives of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Edmonton: The Missionary Oblates. Grandin Province, 1989).
Simard, Louis, o.m.i., "Aperçu de l'oeuvre des Oblats," pp. 9-16, "Au Fondateur," p. 16, Le Canadien-Français, Edmonton,1916.
Tardif, Émile, o.m.i., Personal Papers, Provincial Archives of Alberta, 71.200 / 7427.
Tétreault, Alexis, o.m.i., Personal Papers, Provincial Archives of Alberta, 71.200 / 193 / 7473.
Notice sur la congrégation des Missionaires oblats de Marie Immaculée. (Québec: Laflamme Proulx, 1909).
La Survivance, Edmonton, 15 November 1961.
Campbell, Glen (2000). Alberta's Oblate Community Poetic Vignettes Confluence: 1, 1 [iuicode: http://www.icaap.org/iuicode?..1.1.8]