Celebrating Ste. Jean Baptiste Day in Red Deer

Yesterday, June 24th, was an important holiday/day of celebration for a significant number of Canadians.

It was Ste. Jean Baptiste Day, the feast day for the patron saint for Canadian francophones and also a major nationalist holiday in the province of Quebec (La Fête Nationale).

Francophones have been an integral part of the history of this part of the country for at least two centuries.

Many of the earliest people involved in the fur trade were French-speaking. In the late 1860s and 1870s, there were large Métis settlements east of Red Deer at Tail Creek and Boss Hill.

These settlements largely depended upon buffalo hunting, but were early transportation and trading centres as well.

In the late 1870s, another smaller Métis settlement developed at the confluence of the Blindman and Red Deer Rivers.

Unfortunately, there are only spotty records of this early settlement.

In the early 1880s, Pascal Bonhomme McGillis took up residency at the Red Deer River Crossing on one of the first farms in the district.

In 1882, a sizeable group of settlers from Headingly, Manitoba, established a sawmill, farms, threshing business and other ventures east of Red Deer along the River. Many of the Headingly settlers were anglophones (more accurately known as country-born than Métis), but some such as William Beauchemin, son of Jean Baptiste Beauchemin, were French-speaking Métis.

Another early family who settled in North Red Deer and in the Burnt Lake district west of Red Deer was the Narcisse and Marie Marion family.

In February 1910, Narcisse was honoured at first annual banquet of the Waskasoo (Red Deer) Old Timers’ Association as the earliest resident in attendance.

Some of his descendants still live in Red Deer.

In August 1904, Abbé Jean Isodore Gaire, a French lay priest, brought 15 French families to Red Deer. The local Alberta Advocate newspaper reported that these were ‘of the better class’ of settler and encouraged local merchants to put French signs in the windows to help greet them to the community.

Many of these settlers soon moved eastwards to the new hamlet of Content (northeast of the current site of Delburne) as well as the Ewing Lake district east of the Red Deer River.

However, Abbé Gaire built a small store in North Red Deer to provide supplies for the new colonists.

Also in 1904, the Péres de Ste. Marie de Tinchebray established a large missionary district extending across much of Central Alberta from the Battle River south to Crossfield.

Originally, the priests established their headquarters in Innisfail, but in 1907-1908 established a new headquarters and missionary centre on the brow of the North Hill in Red Deer.

In the fall of 1908, the Tinchebray Fathers were joined by the Filles de la Sagesse (Daughters of Wisdom).

The Sisters built the large St. Joseph Convent, which also served as a school and boarding centre, as part of the mission complex on the hill.

In 1909, Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church was constructed between the Tinchebray Fathers’ Presbytery and St. Joseph Convent.

With the large Roman Catholic mission centre on the North Hill, many Catholic francophone families settled in North Red Deer and surrounding districts. Some were Québécois and Acadian, while others came from France, Belgium and Switzerland.

The outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914 brought an end to this influx of settlers.

A great many of French and Belgians rushed back to their homelands to defend them against the invading German armies.

Later, many more men enlisted in the Canadian military. Unfortunately, several never returned.

Over the succeeding decades, the francophone community remained small.

The Ste. Jean Baptiste celebrations were almost always held at the local Roman Catholic Church. However, in the 1930s and 1940s, some local families traveled to such places as Edmonton, St. Paul and Calgary for the larger Ste. Jean Baptiste festivities that were organized in those communities.

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