THE FATHER OF ST BONIFACE
by George Siamandas
Provencher was head of the Catholic Church in western Canada but Bishop Provencher slept on a block of oak as his pillow to show his self denial. Bishop Provencher is considered the father of St Boniface. Joseph Norbert Provencher had been born at Nicolet Lower Canada in 1787, the son of a farmer. He came from a large family of limited means and had to wait till he was 14 years old before he could begin to attend a free primary school. He was ordained in 1811 was sent by Bishop Plessis to help establish the Roman Catholic Church at Red River in 1818. Initially, Provencher did not wish to come to Red River, questioning whether he was the right man for the job.
On July 16 1818 Father Provencher together with Father Dumolin and seminarian Guilaume Etienne Edge arrived at Fort Douglas (now Point Douglas) to establish a mission east of the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Lord Selkirk who had encouraged the Catholics to send the missionaries, had set aside 25 acres opposite the Forks and an area of 4 by 5 miles (20 square miles) or 13,000 acres for a new Catholic mission.
Upon arrival the new-comers caused quite a stir. Standing a majestic 6' 4", in his long flowing robes, Provencher was described as a most handsome man of about 300 pounds. Provencher looked larger than life. Provencher's mission was to convert the Indian nations and to "morally improve" the delinquent Christians who had "adopted the ways of the Indians." They were to also to educate the young, and assist in colonization.
And most of all, the clerics had been warned by Plessis to stay out of the war between the HBC and the North West Co. There was a lot of work to be done. In the first two weeks the clerics performed 72 baptisms. Many of these were of the Indian women the French Canadians had taken as wives. Provencher was appointed the first bishop for the north west in 1822.
PLEADING FOR HELP
Bishop Provencher spent many years trying to interest various orders of nuns and priests to come to the new settlement. But most orders were too small or were intimidated by Red River's frontier conditions, as he himself had been. Provencher persisted and looked only for truly committed priests which priests he found among the Oblates. Provencher succeeded in attracting the Grey Nuns. By the 1840s after numerous trips to Quebec and to France, Provencher was generating enough funds to do his work.
EFFECTIVENESS OF PROVENCHER
He clearly succeeded in his mission. He built St Boniface into a thriving community. He gave it schools. He recruited other outstanding priests like Belcourt and Tache. Provencher looked after St Boniface's political needs as well. As the head of the churches, starting in 1835, Bishop Provencher sat on the HBC-run Council of Assiniboia and on its Finance Committee, with merchants like Andrew McDermot.
In 1838 Provencher established an industrial school for weaving that would use the wool of sheep and buffalo. Abuse of alcohol was rampant and Provencher tried to discourage the HBC's sale of liquor and beer to natives. He also railed against the conjugal lives of the settlers who took on "wives of convenience."
It was not until Father Belcourt came out to Red River in the spring of 1831 that the work amongst the natives began to bear fruit. Belcourt proved to be too independent and disagreed with Provencher and his HBC sympathies. In turn, Provencher feared Belcourt had gone too native.
This deeply moral man who believed in self denial, and had slept on a block of oak as his pillow, had succeeded in his mission during his 35 years here. Provencher had brought the Catholic church to life in Manitoba. By the time of his death they had baptised 4,309 Indians. There were 2,000 people in St Boniface of which 1,000 were Catholics. St Charles had 200, ST Norbert 900, Francis Xavier had 900, a community that had been transplanted from Pembina.
Provencher died on June 7 1853, at age 66 of apoplexy. He lies buried in a special tomb within the walls of St Boniface Cathedral. Provencher remains the spiritual father of St Boniface.