The adventures of Father Joseph Hugonard

Leith Knight
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Father Joseph Hugonard of Lebret has been described as a legendary and heroic figure of western Canadian history.
A native of Normandy in France, Fr. Hugonard came to the Qu'Appelle Valley in 1874 as a young Oblate priest to take charge of a mission situated on the shore of a large lake that would later be called Mission Lake, some five or six miles east of the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Qu'Appelle. The site of the mission was called Lebret in honour of one of the early missionaries.
The Lebret mission was one of the earliest missions in what would become Saskatchewan. It was the main centre of Catholicism for MÉtis and First Nations, and its Oblate priests travelled the southern Prairies to Moose Jaw Creek, Wood Mountain and the Cypress Hills. In 1863 there were some 120 lodges of the Plains Cree along Moose Jaw Creek.
No stranger in this far-flung parish, Fr. Hugonard, with the help of MÉtis families, built a church at Wood Mountain.
Its windows were covered with animal skins and the door was a buffalo robe. The stove was two large pails riveted together but it was still so cold in the church that communion wine iced in the chalice.
The missionaries' first church at Lebret wasn't much better. It was built of logs in 1866 and burned down four years later.
The second church soon became too small for the growing population and was replaced by a fieldstone, Gothic-style structure which still stands alongside the 1866 rectory which is one of the oldest buildings in Saskatchewan.
Maria Albina Hamilton, wife of Zachary Macaulay Hamilton, an early author and journalist, came to the Prairies as a child even before there was a railroad. She recalled: "Father Hugonard . . . was a frequent visitor at our house in Regina during the first years."
Her father had a number of people working for him on railway construction. "When the grade reached Pile O'Bones (Regina) he arranged with Fr. Hugonard to come from his mission and celebrate mass for the benefit of his work(ers). This was unquestionably the first religious service to be held on the Regina townsite."
Fr, Hugonard was credited with preventing Starblanket, chief of the File Hills band, from going on the warpath during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. Starblanket had brought his braves to the valley where their war cries and drumming were alarming the settlers.
When Fr. Hugonard heard about the ruckus, "he girded up his soutane (cassock) and strode down the valley to Star Blanket's teepee."
The chief was defiant and placed his hand on his knife and half drew it from the scabbard. Instantly Hugonard seize Starblanket, turned him over to his people and told them to take the warrior back to the reserve.
Star Blanket's warriors concluded that if their chief had been vanquished by a "black robe" (a priest), he was not the person to lead them to war, and they gathered up their belongings and went home.
The last recorded sighting of buffalo at Moose Jaw was in 1881 near The Turn by Fr. Hugonard and his friend, buffalo hunter Joseph Delorme.
The two men were returning to Lebret from Wood Mountain when they saw a few buffalo feeding on a patch of grass which had escaped a recent prairie fire.
The disturbed animals bolted, but Delorme, mounted on a swift buffalo runner gave chase and brought down two bulls which were dressed on the spot and carted back to Lebret.
One of Fr. Hugonard's last visits to Moose Jaw was in December 1907, when he came with Archbishop Langevin and acted as his assistant at the dedication and blessing of the newly-acquired Catholic church. (The church still stands and is now St. Mark's Presbyterian Church.)
When Fr. Hugonard died in February 1916, he was buried in the little churchyard beside his church and rectory. First Nations people and settlers came to mourn, and high-placed officials from the prime minister down sent messages of sympathy.
Six years later, in 1924, a First Nations pageant and celebration was held at the mission to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Fr. Hugonard's arrival in the valley and to honour his memory.
Aboriginals from adjacent reserves came in their traditional costumes and there was a large gathering of visitors, including Marie and Zachary Hamilton.
The Hamiltons recorded a conversation with Pekutch, a Cree elder: "Last night, some of our people went to the mission and asked the Archbishop to pray for fine weather today as there had been a threat of rain.
They think that is how they got the fine day. But I fixed it. I know that wherever Fr. Hugonard had gone, he was sure to have influence with those who control the weather, and if he knew about it, he would arrange things so that we would have a fine day for our celebrations.
"So, I just beat my drum to wake him up in the graveyard down by the little church, and right away the rain clouds began to roll back from the edge of the valley."

Organizations: First Nations, Hudson's Bay Company, Catholic church Presbyterian Church

Geographic location: Moose Jaw, Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan Regina Normandy France Qu'Appelle Valley Mission Lake Fort Qu'Appelle Southern Prairies Northwest Rebellion

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