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Catholics In The Red River Valley


Kathy Ohmann


Religion has always been an important part of man's life. The Roman Catholic religion is the oldest religion still in use today. It was introduced to the Red River Valley more than a century ago and isstill in use today.

The village of Pembina on the Red River, existed since1797, a strange mixture of two races, white and Indian, with a third nationalgroup, the Metis (1), coming up. A town belonging to two countries andstubbornly ignoring such insignificant details as the forty-ninth parallel. Pembina lay close enough to the big buffalo herds to become the headquartersof various hunting parties. Many hunter and their families spent the winterat Pembina, leaving early in the spring for the prairies. Pembina thusgrew into an important meat market.

The growth of the Pembina settlement meant that soon apriest would be needed to serve the community and the people clamored forone. In 1818, the Catholic Bishop of Quebec, Joseph Octave Plessis, respondedfavorably to recommendations and petitions for a mission in the Selkirkarea, his own interest the warmer because such an effort might strengthenthe move toward official British recognition of the Catholic Church in thedomain of an expanding Canada. The effort to establish a mission had thesupport of Lord Selkirk and of government officials. As early as 1816,Fathers Joseph Provencher and Seve Joseph Norbert Dumoulin were sent toFort Douglas, as St. Boniface was then called, and after grasshoppers haddestroyed the crops, the settlers went in large numbers to Pembina. FatherProvencher stayed in Fort Douglas and sent Father Dumoulin in September1818, to minister to the spiritual wants of the colonists, with instructionsto spend the winter at Pembina.

The month of September 1818 marks the birth of the CatholicChurch in North Dakota.

The venture was quite successful and for a time, Pembinabecame more important than St. Boniface itself, the name by which the oldFort Douglas has been known ever since. In fact, St. Boniface was almostabandoned. Both Companies soon built forts in Pembina and trade was booming.

In January 1819, Father Provencher visited the new missionto see for himself. He found everything in excellent order. A school withsome sixty pupils was being operated by William Edge, the catechist, andmaterials were ready for the construction of the chapel and rectory by spring. Since his arrival, only five months before, Father Dumoulin had baptizedfifty-two persons and had validated a large number of marriages. His parishnumber about three hundred souls.

The Pembina mission was built about two miles from thepresent church in Pembina. The land was donated by Lord Selkirk. He haddonated twenty-five acres of his property for the mission plant and an additionaltract of land, four by five miles in size. Two contracts for the newlyacquired property were drawn in Quebec, and signed by Lord Selkirk, BishopPlessis, Provencher, Dumoulin, and others.

In June 1819, Father Dumoulin went to Rainy Lake to preacha mission for the voyageurs from Athabasca. Returning to Pembina in August,he learned that the grasshoppers had again destroyed the fields around St.Boniface.

The second disaster had outdone the first one. All thevegetation for miles around was destroyed even to the bark of trees.

Despite such material setbacks, the missions and schoolscontinued to flourish. Most of the children attending school in Pembinaknew how to read and write and were able to recite large portions of theCatechism. At St. Boniface, Father Provencher even had a class in Latin.

The poverty at St. Boniface forced Father Provencher toleave for Pembina and spend the winter of 1819 - 1820 with his assistant. The following summer, when Father Dumoulin left for a pastoral visitationof the Hudson Bay region, Provencher remained in charge of both Pembinaand St. Boniface. On August 7, 1820, another missionary, Father ThomasDestroismaisons, accompanied by a catechist, Mr. Thomas Sauve, arrived inQuebec to present a personal report on the state of the mission to BishopPlessis.

Just a few days before his departure, he saw the colonydestroyed the third time by grasshoppers. The blow was so much the hardersince the crop had looked very good. They were grown from expensive seedthat had to be shipped in from Prairie du Chien, in the present state ofWisconsin. Now everything was lost and some settlers were ready to quittheir claims and return east.

On May 12, 1822, Father Provencher was made a Bishop atThree Rivers. He had devoted the previous two years to establishing publicrelations and securing missionary replacements. the Red River mission hadto be known and supported by the Catholic hinterland. However, the drivefor missionary replacements was quite disappointing. Only one seminarianhad pledged his service to the Red River country. He was John Harper ofthe Quebec Seminary, then twenty-one years of age. Later, Harper traveledwest and was ordained priest at St. Boniface by Bishop Provencher on November1, 1824, the first ordination in the Northwest. Father Harper remainedin the mission diocese over six and a half years and did excellent work.

When Bishop Provencher reached St. Boniface on August 7,1822, he had to face a new and unexpected trouble.

The death of Lord Selkirk deprived the country of a greatman and the Catholic Church of a very true friend. The executor of Selkirk'swill, Mr. Halkett, visited the colony in the spring of 1822. He left forHudson Bay just a few days before the bishop's return. However, he lefta letter in which he demanded that the mission in Pembina be abandoned andthe priest withdrawn, since the town was on American soil. He even saidthat by dividing their energy the priests were guilty of disregard for Selkirk'swishes.

Bishop Provencher took these insults with dignity. In January,1823, he went to Pembina and announced to the people that he was forcedto recall Father Dumoulin and that they had to remain without a priest. The reaction was overwhelming. The people were astonished. Many Catholicfamilies left. Some went north to Canadian territory, other to Fort Snellingin Minnesota, and still others decided to stay and tough it out.

Father Dumoulin, broken-hearted at the ruin of his labors,obtained permission to leave on a vacation in eastern Canada. He left inAugust, 1823, but never returned. Thirty years later, he died in his homeland,revered by all as a fine priest.

The departure of Father Dumoulin for Quebec left BishopProvencher only one priest for the vast territory. He was Father Destroismaisons. The care of the Pembina flock was not given up altogether. Father Destroismaisonscontinued to visit there at times, and in the spring, Harper, who was stilla seminarian, came along and accompanied the buffalo hunters, wherever theymoved.

In August 1830, Bishop Provencher left again for the Eastto recruit more priests and collect funds toward the building of a cathedral. Young Father Harper was left in charge of the entire mission territory. This time, the Bishop did not stay long. He was back in St. Boniface bynext June, accompanied by Father George Belcourt, who was eventually tobecome the second residential priest of North Dakota.

Father Harper returned to Quebec, but soon other priestsarrived to help push the cart. In 1833, Fathers Charles Poire and JohnBaptist Thibault were ordained in St. Boniface. In 1841, another priestappeared on the scene, a talented and zealous worker, Father John E. Darveau. Unfortunately, his missionary work was short-lived, as he was drowned inJune 1844, in Lake Manitoba.

All these clergymen attended the Pembina mission at times,until 1848, when Father Belcourt became the second resident priest of theAssumption Church.

That same year saw the arrival of the first Sister's community. A group of Gray Nuns landed in St. Boniface on June 21, 1844, accompaniedby two missionary priests, Fathers Lafleche and Bourassa.

The Red River mission passed its critical stage and theEast began to take it seriously. There was no doubt about it, the missionwas here to stay.

Father Belcourt, the energetic French-Canadian priest,was in his forties, a veteran of the Western postulate. He had worked amongthe Canadian Chippewas for more than fifteen years and spoke fluently severalIndian dialects. His inborn leadership made him an ideal choice for thejob.

Father Belcourt got to work right away. With a few primitivetools and some native help, he built a log chapel and a cabin close by. He began to instruct the children and their parents. An old French copyof the Borromean Catechism was his textbook, and he translated it with ingenuityinto English and Indian. Besides the three R's, he taught many handicrafts,and soon made his first converts. There was a warm spot in Father Belcourt'sheart for the half-breeds who looked up to him as their ancestors had tothe medicine men.

The first winter at Pembina was severe with much snow andsome killing blizzards. When spring came, everybody watched the risinglevel of the Red River with concern. Almost every year, the river wouldflood some of its sections. Father Belcourt wrote home after one of thosedisasters: "I am so hard up that if I didn't have something of my own- - animals, implements, my own hands - I would die of hunger." Andthere was no respite. For as long as two years he did not get one singleMass stipend.

Another cause of worry was his strained relations withthe powerful Hudson Bay Company. Father Belcourt hated the arrogance ofsome of its representatives. They had no jurisdiction south of the borderyet they kept on entering American territory and applied their policy ofthe big stick to the ignorant natives.

Meanwhile, the tribes grew hostile toward all settlersand even suspected the missionaries of foul play. During that outburstof hate, Father Belcourt himself almost became the victim of Indian revenge.

One of the wives of a polygamous chief wanted to becomea Catholic and had left her husband. The proud Indian took this as anothercase of white treachery and swore to kill the priest. He would not attackhim openly, though, and conceived a scheme to drown the "white magician"in the swollen river. He bored a hole into the bottom of Father's canoeand camouflaged it. When in midstream, the boat would have sunk. The plotwas discovered in time, however, and the missionary managed to reach safety.

Father Belcourt had a great plan of expansion and he decidedto found a mission close to Pembina. During his many trips across the plains,he had found an ideal spot some thirty miles west of his headquarters. He called it the Mission of St. Joseph, and persuaded some of his parishionersto move there.

In early 1850, a train of carts moved west of Pembina overa muddy trail, marked with buffalo herds. The building of the new missionstarted shortly afterward and by 1853 the plant of St. Joseph's was enclosedby solid palisade. The school was started with Sisters of the Propagationof the Faith. (2) Three years later, the missionary built a flour millon the Pembina River, a crude affair, yet an exciting addition to the futuretown of Walhalla.

However, there was a tragic undertone to these accomplishments. The missionary's strength was failing and, though he drove himself to thelimits of human endurance, the unpredictable half-breeds grew restive anddrifted apart. They would not accept the responsibilities of mature citizensand parishioners.

On the first Sunday after a young priest, Father Goiffon,had arrived to assist the pastor of St. Joseph's, the rebellion of the peoplebecame evident. Father Belcourt asked in his usual manner for volunteerhelp to build an addition to the church. Whereas, on other occasions theresponse had been enthusiastic, this time the congregation remained strangelysilent. Only one hand went up.

"We need many, many more," insisted the missionaryas his deepset eyes searched over the rows of sagging heads. A few peopleleft hastily while the others stood in silence.

In earlier days, Father Belcourt would have taken sucha setback calmly, but now it came as a terrible shock. He felt desertedby his own, and fell into a deep melancholy. From then on, it was onlya matter of time.

In 1859, the exhausted old man left for eastern Canadaand spent there the last years of his life. (3)

There is no doubt that Father Belcourt was fitted by DivineProvidence for a special task and that he had accomplished it. He was thePaul Bunyan of North Dakota missions, with an explosive personality thateventually wore him out. But the groundwork that he laid had proven solid. Bishop Shanley calls him "North Dakota's greatest pioneer priest,"and he continues: "Wherever hard work and total sacrifices were needed,there Belcourt was sent, and there he gladly went. A true soldier of theCross, he never questioned the command of his superiors."

After the departure of Father Belcourt, the pastoral setupof the Pembina-St.Joseph mission area was reshuffled. In September 1859,Father Goiffon moved the parish back to Pembina to which he attached St.Joseph's as a mission.

The present Assumption Church building was built in Pembinain 1960, because of the damage caused by the flood of 1950.

Since 1818, the Red River Valley has undergone a strikingchange and the men who helped to make that change were the blackrobes ofthe Red River missions.

Perhaps we know still too little of their work to graspits full meaning. Yet, one thing is certain, we owe them an immense debtof gratitude.

(1) Half Indian and half white people.

(2) A religious community which Father Belcourt had founded.

(3) Father Belcourt had a great devotion to the BlessedVirgin. This explains why he changed the name of the Pembina mission from"St. Francis Xavier Church" to "Assumption Church."


Catholic Encyclopedia, The. Volumes X, XI, Robert AppletonCo., New York

Shanley, Bishop John, "Blackrobes of the Red River,"2nd ed., Assumption Parish, Pembina, North Dakota, 1958





T SIZE=+1>Shanley, Bishop John, "Blackrobes of the Red River,"2nd ed., Assumption Parish, Pembina, North Dakota, 1958