Father Henri Voisin’s early work in Central Alberta

On Oct. 28th, 2014, the new Father Henri Voisin School in Clearview North in Red Deer was officially opened and blessed.

The man after whom the school is named was the priest who founded the first Roman Catholic parish in Red Deer and was also the person who was most responsible for starting the formal Roman Catholic education system in the community.

Henri Voisin was born in LeHarve France in June 1875. He was educated by the Fathers of Ste. Marie of Tinchebray. After getting his B.A. and M.A. degrees, and spending one year of service in the military, he decided to become a member of the Tinchebray congregation.

In the early 1900s, a secular government began to seriously restrict the activities of religious congregations in France. The Tinchebray fathers decided to start new missions in western Canada. In 1904, Father Voisin was made the head of those missions and arrived in the Alberta to begin this work.

Initially, he chose Innisfail as his headquarters.

From there, he criss-crossed Central Alberta, covering the Red Deer, Trochu, Eckville and Castor districts. Much of the travel was by horseback, or by foot, often under very arduous conditions.

On one occasion, Father Voisin was caught in the middle of a terrible prairie fire.

He managed to escape by reaching a nearby creek. On another occasion, he had a very bad runaway with his horse. He lay unconscious on the prairie for a considerable length of time and was severely bruised.

In 1905, Father Voisin decided to have a small church constructed in Red Deer on Alexander (48th) St. and Gaetz Ave.

A shortage of funds meant that much of the interior was left unfinished. Also, because his helpers were nervous about working on the building’s steep roof, Father Voisin had to do much of shingling himself.

On June 10, 1906, Bishop Legal formally blessed the new little church that was named ‘Sacred Heart’. Although the local Catholic community was still small, more than 90 people turned out for the dedication ceremony.

In 1907, Father Voisin and the Tinchebray fathers decided that since Red Deer was now growing rapidly, it would be the preferred location for the mission centre. Land was purchased on the brow of the North Hill. Father Voisin went back to France to raise funds and to persuade a congregation of nuns, the Filles de la Sagesse (Daughters of Wisdom), to build a convent and boarding school on the new mission hill.

The convent and a presbytery for the priests were completed in 1908.

The following year, a decision was made to construct a new church nearby. Due to shortages of funds, it was a ‘basement’ church, with a peaked roof overtop. It was hoped that an above ground sanctuary could be constructed later. This new church was named Our Lady of Sorrows, and continued to be used until 1924.

Father Voisin continued his very active missionary work.

He assigned and assisted priests from his congregation in the Castor, Stettler, Carstairs, Trochu, Olds, Three Hills, Delburne, Rocky Mountain House, Nordegg and Sylvan Lake areas. He helped start a school for young boys, St. Mary’s Apostolic College, as part of the mission complex in North Red Deer.

One of the hopes was that at least some of the students would later commence training for the priesthood.

Father Voisin also became active in the community. Being very fond of music, he became an active member of the Red Deer Community Band. He started what was probably Red Deer’s first clothing bank. During the First World War, he was an active member of the Patriotic Fund that provided assistance to the families of men serving overseas.

In the early 1920s, Father Voisin got into a serious disagreement with the new Bishop of Edmonton. In 1924, he and the other Tinchebray priests decided to relocate to Tisdale, Saskatchewan.

The Daughters of Wisdom, however, decided to keep their convent and school in North Red Deer.

Father Voisin’s health began to deteriorate after the move to Saskatchewan. He passed away in June 1934 in Tisdale. He was 59 years of age.

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