Today, June 24, is an important holiday and 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. Historically, the centre of francophone culture and activity in Red Deer was the Roman Catholic mission on the top of the North Hill.
The mission was originally the initiative of the Peres de Ste. Marie de Tinchebray, an order of priests from northern France. In 1904, they established a huge missionary district in Alberta, extending across much of central Alberta.
Originally, the Tinchebray Fathers established their headquarters in Innisfail. However, in 1906, they decided to relocate to Red Deer, as it was more central to the mission district. A substantial piece of land was purchased on the brow of the North Hill. In 1907-08, construction began on the mission complex.
Father Henri Voisin, the Alberta head of the order, approached the Filles de la Sagesse (Daughters of Wisdom, a congregation of nuns also from northern France) to build a convent and school as part of the mission.
In the fall of 1908, the nuns moved into the new St. Joseph Convent. In early 1909, they opened the first school for the new Red Deer Separate (Catholic) School District.
Meanwhile, the fathers built a substantial presbytery as a residence and headquarters for the priests. Over the next few years, the mission complex was expanded to include Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church, St. Mary’s College (an institution for the young men training for 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. Many of the employees were from the French-speaking parts of Quebec, Ontario and the northeastern United States.
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.
With the outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914, a great many of the local French and Belgians rushed back to the homelands to defend them against the invading German armies.
Their families soon followed them overseas. Later, many more local men, anglophone and francophone, enlisted in the Canadian military and left for active service in the war.
By the latter part of the First World War, Father Henri Voisin estimated that more than one-third of his francophone parishioners in Red Deer and Sylvan Lake had left, almost all of them permanently. The local French-speaking community was shattered.
In 1920, Archbishop Legal passed away and was replaced by Archbishop O’Leary. O’Leary decided to make a number of major changes to the Diocese of Edmonton, including changing the language of the church in a number of communities to English.
Red Deer, with the significant decrease in local francophones, was one of those communities.
The Tinchebray Fathers were unhappy with the decision and decided to relocate to Tisdale, Sask. The Daughters of Wisdom decided to stay and continue to operate the convent and school in Red Deer.
With the greatly diminished francophone presence in the community, St. Jean Baptiste celebrations were now limited to a small mass, usually at Sacred Heart, which had replaced the Our Lady of Sorrows Church 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 festivities on June 24.
In more recent years, the local francophone community has begun holding St. Jean Baptiste celebrations in Red Deer again.
Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.