Two hundred years ago the French aristocrat Eugene de Mazenod gathered a few priests into a kind of evangelical gang in southeastern France. They went into neglected, impoverished parishes preaching in the local dialect of Provençal, not French, sharing their lives and the Gospel with poor people who had been left behind by modern France.
This was not long after the French Revolution. The old order, the ancien regime, had been expelled, humiliated and murdered. But in Provence, people lived on the land just as they had in the high Middle Ages — suspended halfway between the old pagan gods and practices and a Christianity that had arrived but never really made a home.
De Mazenod’s gang decided this would be their home. Provençal would be their language. These poor, forgotten people would be their mission, their work, their life.
“We give ourselves to the Father in obedience even unto death and dedicate ourselves to God’s people in unselfish love,” reads the Oblate Constitutions and Rules. “Our apostolic zeal is sustained by the unreserved gift we make of ourselves in our oblation — an offering constantly renewed by the challenges of our mission.”
The young nobleman and priest behind this enterprise was most certainly turning his back on revolutionary France and on Napoleon’s anti-clerical, anti-Roman administration. The pope had been imprisoned in Fontainebleau (not a bad prison, as prisons go) and de Mazenod had grown up a refugee in Venice and Palermo.
The unexpected twist in this history was that de Mazenod’s royalist, anti-revolutionary, ultramontane priests would become the instrument for opening up and evangelizing Canada’s western and northern frontiers.
By 1826 the de Mazenod group had taken on the name Oblates of Mary Immaculate and received papal approval for their congregation. By 1841 they had come to Montreal — their first foreign mission. By 1845 they were in Manitoba learning to speak and preach in Cree.
It turns out you can’t just turn your back on something without turning toward something new. Canada, along with Sri Lanka at almost the exact same time, was a whole new direction for the Oblates — new and even unexpected. The order was not born dreaming of foreign frontiers and the adventure of carrying the Gospel to new cultures. Foreign missions were again a new concept in 19th-century France, which had turned inward after the age of Jesuit exploration and evangelization a century earlier. De Mazenod was not a natural innovator. He was a man of tradition — a natural conservative.
But his conservative, even reactionary, religious order wanted to go to the wild and unexplored extremities of North America. It made sense for men who wanted their lives to be an offering, an oblation. And as the Oblates get set to celebrate their 200th anniversary on Jan. 25 — it still does.
“For me, it’s a question of trying to look at the same zeal that inspired St. Eugene de Mazenod originally — to have a heart as big as the world,” said Oblate Lacombe Province superior Rev. Ken Forster.
When Forster looks at Oblate history, he sees that being an Oblate is about taking on challenges.
“To be able to really have the heart and the courage to take on difficult missions — I think that’s something we Oblates have really been known for, especially out west and in the north. We were pioneers in many of those areas,” he said.
The pioneering is the most common way in which Oblate history is understood today, said University of Lethbridge historian Raymond Huel.
“If you went by today’s standards, you would probably not even consider their religious work,” said Huel, the author of Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. “Our society doesn’t seem to put too much emphasis on that. They think you’re kind of stealing cultures from people and making them little clones of yourself.”
But that was certainly not how Alexandre Taché, Albert Lacombe, Emile Grouard or Valentin Vegreville, or any of the other pioneering Oblates of Canada’s West, understood what they were doing. They weren’t interested in making little French men out of the Dene, the Bloods, the Pegan, the Blackfoot and the Cree. They learned their languages — wrote them down in dictionaries and grammars that are still used today — so they could preach the Gospel to them in their own words; so they could bring their cultures into an encounter with Christ.
In Alberta, Oblate Father Jean-Marie Lestanc both honoured and Christianized Aboriginal culture beginning in 1889 by promoting an annual summer pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne, which had been a sacred site before Christianity arrived. In native spirituality, honouring the grandmother of Jesus made sense, pilgrimage made sense and the sacredness of water and nature made sense. It still does and the annual pilgrimage attracts more than 30,000 people every year.
“They (Oblates) contributed to preserving Native languages,” notes Huel. “Not for the reasons we would do it today, but because they associated the English language with Protestantism.”
Look at a map of Western Canada and you will find Oblate names attached to towns, rivers and lakes because they were the men who built hospitals, schools and churches in those places. When the CPR came through the railway had to ask Father Lacombe where they could lay their tracks. The railway and the government needed a peaceful frontier and they relied on Lacombe to negotiate a treaty with Blackfoot leader Crowfoot. Later Lacombe persuaded Crowfoot to keep his fighters out of the Northwest Rebellion, thus keeping the West in Canada.
“They were explorers, they were discoverers . . . they influenced government to extend treaty, especially in the Athabasca region,” said Huel.
But it wasn’t just a mission to Aboriginal Canadians. The Oblates were there when waves of German, Ukrainian, Polish and other immigrants arrived in the West. Partly to protect them from the protestantizing influence of English, the Oblates found ways to honour and protect these languages by publishing newspapers, magazines and books — launching the whole tradition of the ethnic press in Winnipeg.
Having established dioceses, parishes, schools and more long before the diocesan, secular clergy arrived in the West, the Oblates became part of Canada’s Catholic DNA. There were Oblates everywhere — from the Arctic to the big cities. By 1861 the Oblates took over the College of Bytown, renamed it College of Ottawa and began its evolution into the University of Ottawa under the motto Deus scientiarum dominus est (God is the Lord of wisdom). When the U of O became a government enterprise in 1965, the Oblates hived off Saint Paul Pontifical University.
During the depression, it was Oblate professors at the University of Ottawa, principally Rev. André Guay, who brought the community together to figure out how to help families survive. They called their group of priests and laypeople the Catholic Centre. It’s aim was to hold families together and keep them close to the church. The Catholic Centre became Novalis, Canada’s Catholic publishing house in English and French which still produces liturgical and pastoral materials with the same goal.
There were once as many as 2,000 Oblate priests in Canada, almost four times as many as there are now. Oblate numbers along with their institutions and experience in missionary work became the basis for a Canadian, Catholic missionary outreach to the world.
In 1920 it was Canadian Oblates, along with some Germans, who established the Oblate province in Poland — today one of the largest, youngest and strongest branches of the global order.
Today, those Polish Oblates have boomeranged back as missionaries in Canada. Bishop Tony Krotki of Churchill-Hudson Bay extends pastoral support to the Inuit of Nunavut with the assistance of priests named Gregory Oszust, Lukasz Zajac and Daniel Szwarc.
The Assumption Province of mostly Polish Oblates serves immigrant communities from Vancouver to Ottawa, including Mississauga’s giant St. Maximillian Kolbe Polish Parish. The 54 members of Assumption Province are all a good 10 to 15 years younger than the average priest in Canada. Their average age is 51.6.
They’ve come to a rich country to serve the poor, but their sense of poverty goes deeper than the material, provincial superior Rev. Marian Gil told The Catholic Register. Gil senses a kind of cultural poverty that has devalued family life and pushed families out of the mainstream.
“Who are the poor in today’s society?” Gil asks. “Our founder founded this congregation serving the poor, the most abandoned.”
To Gil, the poor are young people who are never told they are loved by God or that they belong inside a global communion in Christ, that crosses borders and spans generations. He sees poverty in well-to-do families who lack a faith that will hold them together — a faith that will allow them to see their families both as blessed by God and as a pathway to God.
Along with Rev. Paul Ratajczak, currently completing his PhD at the Gregorian University in Rome, Gil wants to transform the Our Lady Queen of Apostles Renewal Centre in Mississauga into a centre for families. Under Ratajczak’s leadership, the retreat centre will continue to do what it has done since Oblate Father Michael Smith started it in 1963 — offer opportunities for families and couples to grow closer together and closer to Christ. But it will also become a platform for serious study of the issues modern families face.
“These are real challenges, real poor people who live around us. If we forget about them then we are not doing our ministry,” said Gil.
Gil believes in parishes and believes they can do more to support Christian life.
“To respond to challenges of our society, we cannot just do one single part of the needs of today’s family. We need to respond in many different ways,” he said. “The best way to respond to the poor and the challenges is based on parish outreach.”
But Gil won’t restrict his province to parish work. He would like Assumption Province to be more involved in university and high school chaplaincy, to fill what he sees as an absence of spiritual formation in Canadian education. He also wants to send his men out to other parishes to preach retreats and missions.
“We don’t have personnel at the present time to accept this challenge, but this is something that we are looking at in the future,” he said.
Among the Oblates who find themselves grateful for Oblate history in Canada is Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Bishop Doug Crosby.
“The Oblates today are still trying to proclaim the Gospel, trying to reach out to the poor in one way or another,” the bishop of Hamilton said.
Crosby recalls how, when he first became a bishop serving the communities in western Newfoundland and Labrador, he inherited a legacy from Oblate Bishop Lionel Sheffer — the man who gave his name to Shefferville. Crosby was aware that by 1997, when he became bishop, he could fly into Shefferville. But even in 1966 Bishop Sheffer spent weeks on a boat getting from Ottawa to his diocese.
“You know, these guys made a major, major personal commitment. It came out of their faith and it came out of their formation that they got with the Oblates,” said Crosby.
The Oblates are still a part of Canada, but it’s not the same Canada that it was even two generations ago.
“The Oblates are changing. The Oblate community is older. So they have to make decisions about the kinds of ministry they can undertake. And they are doing that,” said Crosby. “And I think doing it courageously. I think they are making some good decisions about how they can continue their ministry into the future. It takes courage to do that as you get older. There might be some fear about what the future holds. But they’re not acting out of fear. They’re acting out of faith.”
This kind of sacrifice doesn’t get old. It resonates today in the church of Pope Francis.
“Pope Francis has a love for the poor and so did Eugene de Mazenod. Pope Francis wants the poor to know that they are loved by God, and I think so did Eugene de Mazenod. His (de Mazenod’s) preaching was directed to them that way, so they could understand it, so they could receive it,” said Crosby. “So, there might be some comparisons (with Francis).”
Perhaps the greatest disservice the Canadian church has done to the Oblates is to turn their name into a kind of brand — a word without any meaning, like Sony, Kodak, Twitter or Kia. But the Oblates do mean to make their lives a sacrificial offering. And they offer themselves in the name of Mary, a mother not only to Jesus but to the church and to all people. The mother these Oblates claim is pure, elemental, immaculate.
The Oblates were not just pioneers in Canada; not just linguists or teachers or leaders. They are all these things to us and for us in the name of our mother, Mary, and in the hope that their lives would be a worthy sacrifice patterned after the sacrifice of Christ.