CATHOLIC MISSION OF SAINT-BONIFACE
Fur traders and European mercenaries hired by Lord Selkirk to protect his fledgling Red River Colony were among the area's first settlers. With the founding of a Roman Catholic mission (1818), St Boniface began its role in Canadian religious, political and cultural history - as mother parish for many French settlements in Western Canada; as the birthplace of Louis Riel and fellow Métis who struggled to obtain favourable terms for Manitoba's entry into Confederation.
The principal events in the history of the archdiocese of St. Boniface are intimately connected with the lives of its bishops.
On July 16 1818 Father Provencher together with Father Dumoulin 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. The first chapel was constructed in 1818. 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. Once appointed bishop, the second church was built that also became the first cathedral in 1825, also known as the Mother Church of Western Canada.
Situated across the Red River from the Hudson's Bay Company's trading post, Provencher's facility became the nucleus of francophone St. Boniface and of Roman Catholic missionary activity in the Red River Settlement and beyond to the Pacific and Arctic coasts.
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 and clearly succeeded in his mission. Through the years, St Boniface was built into a thriving community and gave it schools. Msgr Provencher recruited outstanding priests like Belcourt and Tache to assist him in reaching his goals and succeeded in his mission in a 35 year period.
St. Boniface commenced its official existence as the vicariate-apostolic of the north-west in 1844, though Bishop Provencher, its titular, had been there with episcopal rank since 1822. At that time it comprised the entire territory west of the Great Lakes and as far north as the Pole. The same circumscription became a diocese without changing name on 4 June, 1847, but received in 1852 the title of Diocese of St. Boniface. Provencher died on June 7 1853, at age 66 of apoplexy. During his time as bishop in the diocese of St. Boniface 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.
In 1853, when Mgr Taché succeeded Bishop Provencher, the entire diocese, vast as it then was, counted but two parishes with as many unorganized annexes, and three Indian missions with resident priests, Besides the bishop, 4 secular and 7 Oblate priests attended to the spiritual needs of the Catholic population. In May, 1862, the entire territory tributary to the Arctic Sea was detached therefrom and made into the Vicariate-Apostolic of Athabasca-Mackenzie. On 22 Sept., 1871, the See of St. Boniface was raised to the rank of an archbishopric.
On October 4th 1908, in the presence of a dozen bishops from Canada and the United States, Mgr. Adélard Langevin (1895-1915) inaugurated the 4th St. Boniface Cathedral to the faithful. This majestic religious Cathedral was considered to be the most imposing in all of western Canada and the US, thus being identified as a ‘city-Cathedral’. Over 10,000 Catholics representing parishes and institutions paraded through the streets of Winnipeg to the Cathedral to take part in the ceremonies. During this era, the diocese was comprised of over 100,000 Catholics, 210 priests, 93 churches with resident priests, 43 mission chapels, etc. It was undoubtedly the center of the Catholic faith in Western Canada.
St. Boniface Cathedral was the largest and most elaborate Roman Catholic cathedral in Western Canada, as well as the best example of French Romanesque architecture in Manitoba. Although ravaged by fire in 1968, the cathedral's ruins remain an excellent example of the style, typified by round-arched openings and classical detailing. Designed by Montreal architects Marchand and Haskell, this was the third cathedral (and fifth church) built on the site where in 1818 Father Joseph-Norbert Provencher established the first permanent Roman Catholic mission west of the Great Lakes.
1968 commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Catholic Mission when Father Joseph Norbert Provencher (ordained bishop in 1820) became the first Catholic priest to reach St. Boniface. On July 22nd, at a few minutes past noon, the Basilica caught fire and fell to ruins, similarly to the first Cathedral erected in 1860. The monetary loss was estimated at $2,500,000.
In 1972 a church designed by Franco-Manitoban architect Etienne Gaboury was opened within the remains of the 1908 basilica. The complex juxtaposes old and new, with the basilica's heavy limestone facade, sacristy and walls providing a base for the modern building of wood, glass and weathering brown steel. This site also holds one of Western Canada's oldest and most historically significant Roman Catholic cemeteries.
1993 marked the 175th anniversary celebration of the St. Boniface Catholic Mission. The 100th anniversary of the 5th Cathedral of Saint-Boniface was celebrated on October 4, 2008 as part of a year-long celebration dedicated to highlighting the vision, passion and the City of Saint-Boniface. The archdiocese and the St. Boniface Cathedral parish look forward to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the St. Boniface Catholic Mission in 2018.