Today (June 24th) is an important holiday/day of celebration in several parts of Canada.
It is St. Jean Baptiste Day, the feast day for the patron saint of Canadian francophones. The day has also taken on strong, secular symbolism and is the major nationalist holiday in Quebec (La Fete Nationale).
Francophones have been an integral part of the history of Central Alberta.
Many of the early fur traders, explorers, freighters and missionaries were French-speaking. In the early 1880s, a sizeable group of settlers from Manitoba established farms, a sawmill, ferry, threshing business and other ventures along the Red Deer and Blindman Rivers, east of Red Deer.
A number of these early settlers were French-speaking Metis.
In the fall of 1908, the Peres de Ste. Marie de Tinchebray, in collaboration with the Filles de la Sagesse (Daughters of Wisdom) built a large mission centre on the top of the North Hill.
This Roman Catholic mission complex included St. Joseph Convent, the presbytery for the Tinchebray priests, Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary’s College for young men who were planning on seeking the priesthood, and a small cottage hospital. The working language of this mission community was French.
The francophone population of North Red Deer was further bolstered by the establishment of the Great West Lumber Company on the north bank of the Red Deer River.
Many of the employees of the lumber company were from the French-speaking parts of Quebec, Ontario and the northeastern United States.
However, another Central Alberta community with a sizeable francophone population was Sylvan Lake.
The number of French-speaking people living at the Lake was large enough that the original Sylvan Lake Times newspaper was published half in French and half in English in 1913.
A number of families came out from Quebec, and were therefore very familiar with the St. Jean Baptiste tradition.
These included the Armeneaus, Dallaires, Vasseurs, Rousseaus and Monettes.
Several of the families who settled at Sylvan Lake had come out directly from France. These included the Archambaults, who started the Post Office and ran a hotel, the Ballus Loquets, Raymonds, and the LeSauniers. Rounding out the mix were Belgian and Swiss families such as the Rosses, Gerards and the Thevenez.
By 1912, it was evident that the number of Catholics had grown to the extent that a church was needed.
Moreover, with the free-wheeling pastimes often associated with a summer resort, Father Henri Voisin, head the priests of Ste. Marie de Tinchebray, wrote that, “The time had come to enliven the completely materialistic atmosphere by the salutary presence of a church.”
Our Lady of The Assumption Roman Catholic Church was consequently built on a piece of hillside land donated by Alexandre Loiselle.
Father P.J. Chauvin, one of the Tinchebray Fathers, was the first priest.
He was frequently assisted in his duties by Father Voisin and other members of the S.M.T. order.
With the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, a great many of the French and Belgians rushed back to the homelands to defend them against the invading Germany armies. Their families soon followed them overseas.
Later, many more men enlisted in the Canadian military and left for active service in the War.
By the later part of the First World War, Father Henri Voisin estimated that a full third of his francophone parishioners had left, almost all of them permanently.
The French-speaking community was shattered. For a great many years, Our Lady of the Assumption Church remained only a small fraction of the size it had enjoyed before the War.
Hence, St. John Baptiste celebrations were limited to a small mass at the local Catholic church, or in Red Deer.
By the 1930s and 1940s, some families had adopted the tradition of travelling to such places as Edmonton, St. Paul and Calgary as these larger Roman Catholic communities regularly organized annual festivities on June 24th.