In the late 19thcentury, a number of French-speaking families settled in Sturgeon County, just north of Edmonton. Along Highway 2 north of the capital is a corridor about 50 kilometres long running by St. Alberta, Morinville and Legal, where evidence of these francophone pioneers is in plain view. The oldest building in Alberta, the chapel built by missionary Albert Lacombe and Métis helpers in 1861, has been restored and is now an attraction in St. Albert. Displays at the local Musée Heritage Museum show how the French-speaking Métis and French Canadians contributed to the region’s development. The church and rectory in Morinville, and the nearby Notre-Dame Convent, designated Provincial Historic Resources, are wonderful examples of early 20thcentury French-Canadian architecture. In Legal, some forty murals depict significant events in the area’s francophone history, an attraction for which the town has been dubbed the “French Mural Capital of Canada”!
St. Albert, paying tribute to francophone pioneers
In the summer, interpreters at the Father Lacombe Chapel tell about the work of this diligent missionary, who founded the St. Albert pioneer mission with the help of the French-speaking Catholic Métis he ministered to. Under his supervision, they constructed a simple but solid squared-timber chapel that is now listed on the Register of Canada’s Historic Places, being the oldest building still standing in Alberta. FatherAlbert Lacombe and Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin are buried in the crypt of the St. Albert cathedral church, built in 1870 very near the chapel. Father Lacombe played a major role in dealings with the Cree and Blackfoot, who formed the majority of the population on the territory that is now Alberta. Because these Amerindians had “adopted” him and he was fluent in their language, he participated in discussions and gave them advice in the signing of treaties between them and the federal government.
Other local heritage attractions provide further evidence of the importance of the francophone pioneer community at St. Albert, which became the centre for Catholic missions in the Western Prairies and an Episcopal See. In 1863, the Grey Nuns opened a convent here that served as a hospital, school and orphanage. Between 1872 and 1878, Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin built an imposing rectory of three and a half storeys right beside the church, which was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 1977. Tours of the rectory and its splendid furnishings are available on request. The Founder’sWalk is an interpretive trail showcasing St. Albert’s history and culture. Beginning at the Father Lacombe Chapel, it passes by river lots 23 and 24, currently part of a major heritage project. On these lots, which were deeded before the Hudson’s Bay Company territories were transferred to Canada and are therefore divided in the French tradition into long rectangles with river access, rather than in the English tradition of square townships, sit a handful of historic buildings. One is the Chevigny house, a two-storey wood dwelling built in the 1880s by the Chevigny brothers from Quebec, which was occupied by their descendants until the 1960s. The neighbouring lot has been occupied by descendants of the same Métis family since the time of Father Lacombe.
The Michif Cultural Institute in St. Albert, founded by retired Métis Senator Thelma Chalifoux, is dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of the local French-Canadian Métis. By 1871, this mission had one of the largest Métis populations in the West. The earliest settlers had typically Métis names like Alexis Gladu, Louis Beaupré, Pierre L’Hirondelle, Olivier Laderoute, Félix Gabriel, Norbert Bellerose and Ferdinand Coulongérard. The offspring of French-Canadian voyageurs and First Nations women, Métis shared both cultures; they were farmers, bison hunters and traders. The decline and ultimate disappearance of the buffalo meant they had to focus more on cultivating the fertile lands along the Sturgeon River. The Michif Institute is located on Mission Avenue, in the Juneau House. Built in 1895, this was the residence of Dr. Arthur Giroux, the first mayor and doctor of St. Albert. Local heritage is also being preserved by the St. Albert Musée Heritage Museum, whose mission is to showcase and promote the community’shistory and historic diversity.
Morinville’s built heritage
Missionary and colonization agent Jean-Baptiste Morin, attached to the Canadian immigration office in Montreal, settled north of St. Albert in 1891, in what was to become Morinville, named in his honour. In a few short years, he persuaded several hundred Quebec families to relocate to Alberta, despite the resentment French Canadians had been feeling since the hanging of Métis leader Louis Riel in 1885.
Father Morin was responsible for the construction of the St. Jean Baptiste Church and Rectory, completed in 1912. The province listed these buildings for their significance in the francophone colonization of Alberta and for their architecture, marrying traditional French-Canadian influences with French and British classicism, in the style of Thomas Baillairgé, a renowned 19thcentury Quebec architect. Notre-Dame Convent (in French, Notre-Dame-de-la-Visitation), run by the Daughters of Jesus teaching order of nuns, was built in 1909 and is also on Canada’s Register of Historic Places for its value as one of the few remaining examples ofthe Baillairgé style from this era in Alberta. The convent and the adjacent church and rectory form a rich and harmonious heritage landmark. Since 2009, the convent has housed the Musée de Morinville Museum, established by the Morinville Historical and Cultural Society.
Legal – Telling francophone history in pictures
In 1997, the regional French-Canadian association of Alberta ACFA Centralta, launched a large-scale project to paint a series of murals on the town’s buildings illustrating the history of Legal’s past and present francophone residents. About a dozen artists, most of them local, set about depicting pioneer families (Pelletier, Auger, Maisonneuve and others), the Grey Nuns, agricultural scenes, the St. Arnaud general store, the Legal co-op and the 75thanniversary of ACFA. There are so many murals lining the streets of this town of about 1,400 inhabitants—more than 40—that it qualifies as the largest concentration of murals per capita in the world! This tidy, colourful town, where Francophones make up 15% of the population, was named “Alberta’s best small town” by journalist Robin Esrock in 2014. Every July, a celebration of francophone culture, Fête au village, is held in Citadel Park. Legal was named after Émile-Joseph Legal, who was made bishop of St. Albert in 1902. A great builder, he designed and drew plans for several religious institutions in Alberta.