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Michael Dawe: Irish-born cleric made his mark supporting Indigenous peoples

Next Tuesday, people in Red Deer and across North America will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, regardless of whether they are actually of Irish descent.
Father Constantine Scollen, 1873

Next Tuesday, people in Red Deer and across North America will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, regardless of whether they are actually of Irish descent.

It is therefore ironic that one of the Irish Canadians who accomplished a great deal in central and southern Alberta has been largely forgotten. That is Father Constantine Scollen.

Scollen was born on Galloon Island, in County Fermanagh, (Northern) Ireland on April 4, 1841. His first language was Erse (Irish Gaelic).

His mother died in 1847 during the devastating Great Famine. His father later moved to England with the family in the hopes of securing work.

Scollen was able to secure an education at Ushaw College, a Roman Catholic institution near Durham, England.

He later became a brother with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. In 1862, he came to Western Canada, and lived at St. Albert and Fort Edmonton. Father Albert Lacombe became his mentor and friend.

Fort Edmonton was at its height of wealth and influence as the major fur trade centre. Scollen established an English language school for the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1862.

His training for the priesthood was frequently delayed by his work on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay and his time living with the Prairie First Nations.

During this period, he became fluent in Cree, Chippewa (Ojibway), Sarcee, Assiniboine (Stoney) and Blackfoot, in addition to his fluency in Erse, English, French, Italian, German, Greek and Latin.

In 1870, he and Father Lacombe wrote a dictionary and grammar book in Cree while at Rocky Mountain House.

However, it is indicative of how much Scollen’s work was overshadowed by that of Lacombe that the book is generally only attributed to the latter.

Finally, Father Scollen was ordained by Bishop Grandin of St. Albert on Easter Saturday, 1873.

He immediately headed south to live and work amongst the Blackfoot.

His tiny rustic mission house was the first building in what is now Calgary.

Father Scollen continued to work very hard, often exhausting himself with long days and rugged conditions. He was stricken by cholera in 1882.

It was probably Father Scollen, and not Father Lacombe, who built the log mission house south of Red Deer along the trail between Fort Calgary and Fort Edmonton. The site is now remembered with the adjacent Mission Hill subdivision in Red Deer County.

Father Scollen was a translator during treaty negotiations. Later, he was a witness for treaties 6 (Plains Cree) and 7 (Blackfoot Confederacy). In 1883, he wrote a Blackfoot dictionary and grammar book.

He also wrote the music for a number of Blackfoot language hymns.

Father Scollen became increasingly vocal about the escalating destitution among the First Nations and Metis and the many broken government promises.

He vigorously went after the Edmonton Literary Society for suggesting government food aid to First Nations could be cut back.

He wrote if it saw the destitution and starvation at such communities as Tail Creek on the Red Deer River, it would not be so philosophical about such matters.

He also clashed with Rev. Leonard Gaetz, who suggested his store at Red Deer had been robbed by Crees during the North West (Riel) Rebellion in the spring of 1885.

Scollen turned out to be right. The perpetrators were scouts with the Alberta Field Force (Canadian militia) looking for supplies.

Father Scollen increasingly clashed with his religious superiors.

In July 1885, he resigned as an oblate and became a secular priest. He moved for a while to Duck Lake and St. Laurent in Saskatchewan.

However, in 1887, he moved to the United States and became an American citizen.

While working among the Arapaho and Shoshoni First Nations, he wrote the first publication in Arapaho.

With his health increasingly poor, he was forced to leave his First Nations work.

He lived in New England for a while, and ultimately in Dayton, Ohio. Shortly before his death, Archbishop Adelard Langevin of St. Boniface, Man., made Scollen an honorary member of the oblates, in recognition of his work and as reconciliation over past difficulties with the church and order.

Father Scollen died in Dayton on Nov. 2, 1902, largely as a result of tuberculosis.

His Christian name and birthdate on his tombstone are both incorrect. A correction has now been placed next to the grave marker.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.