St. Albert – Just who is the City Named for Exactly?

A previous RETROactive post notes that the City of St. Albert is celebrating its Sesquicentennial (150th) Anniversary in 2011. Such anniversaries are rare in Alberta, so St. Albert’s big year is worth at least one more post. St. Albert is one of the oldest communities in Alberta. It received its current name in 1861. Most people believe that the city was named for Father Albert Lacombe, OMI, and it was…kind of.

Portrait of Father Lacombe, ca. 1900, (A2283, Provincial Archives of Alberta)

Albert Lacombe was born in 1827 at Saint-Sulpice, Lower Canada (now Quebec). He was ordained in 1849 and was sent to Pembina, Dakota Territorywhere he met with and accompanied the Métis on their hunts. After a short posting in Lower Canada in 1851/52, he was sent to the Red River Settlement to assist Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché, who sent him to the Lac Ste. Anne Mission northwest of Edmonton. Although Lac Ste. Anne would be his base for the next seven years, Lacombe travelled throughout Central and Northern Alberta ministering to the Métis and native people of those regions. Due to its poor agricultural prospects, Lac Ste Anne had been deemed unsuitable as a permanent mission site and a search was made for a more promising location. On January 14, 1861, Father Lacombe and Bishop Taché arrived at “Big Lake Settlement,” a Métis community immediately northwest of Fort Edmonton on the shores of, you guessed it, Big Lake. The surrounding lands seemed ideal for agriculture and the settlement’s proximity to Fort Edmonton made it much easier to minister to the Cree and Blackfoot peoples trading at the post. Climbing a nearby hilltop, where they ate a meal of tea and pemmican, Bishop Taché reportedly stuck his staff in the snow and declared to Lacombe, “You were right. This sight is magnificent. I choose it for a new mission and I want it to be called St. Albert, in honour of your patron saint. Here you will build a chapel.”

Albert Lacombe’s patron, or name saint, was Saint Albert of Louvain. In 1191, Albert of Louvain was chosen to be Bishop of Liege (in Belgium), but his appointment was disputed by Emperor Henri VI of the Holy Roman Empire, who had been excommunicated by Pope Celestine III for imprisoning Richard I of England. Henri VI appointed his own candidate to the bishopric of Liege. Albert appealed to the pope and to Archbishop William of Rheims. Although Albert’s appointment was confirmed, he was accosted and murdered by Henry VI’s supporters. Albert of Louvain was later canonized and his feast day is acknowledged on November 21.

Father Lacombe with Chiefs at Earnscliffe (home of Sir John A. Macdonald), Ottawa, October 1886. Front Row, L to R: North Ax (Piegan), One Spot (Blood) Middle Row, L to R: Three Bulls (Blackfoot), Crowfoot (Blackfoot), Red Crow (Blood) Back Row, L to R: Albert Lacombe, Jean L’Heureux (P200, Provincial Archives of Alberta)

So, was St. Albert named for Father Albert Lacombe? In a way it was, but it is more correct to say that the City of St. Albert and Father Albert Lacombe are both named for the same person – St. Albert of Louvain. Incidentally, for many years it was believed that Albert Lacombe’s patron saint was a different Albert, namely Albertus Magnus, or St. Albert the Great, who was Bishop of Regensburg (1260-1262) and an advocate for the harmonization of science and religion. However, Albert the Great was not canonized, or elevated to the sainthood, until 1931 – 15 years after Father Lacombe’s death and 70 years after the establishment of the mission, making it unlikely that either the mission or the missionary would have been named for Albert the Great.

Father Lacombe had a relatively short connection with the mission at St. Albert. He did build a chapel along with a flour mill, a bridge across the Sturgeon River and a school near Fort Edmonton, but his stay at the new mission site was short. By 1865, he was tasked with establishing an itinerant mission to the east and south, living with, working with and more directly influencing the Cree and Blackfoot people. Over the next seven years he would travel from Rocky Mountain House in the west, Fort Victoria (Pakan) in the east, St. Albert in the north and Fort Benton, Montana Territory and St. Louis, Missouri in the south. In 1872, he was reassigned to the Red River Settlement. Although he returned to the west in 1882, he was more closely associated with southern Alberta for the rest of his career and life. Albert Lacombe died in Midnapore, now part of Calgary, on December 12, 1916.

The community of St. Albert grew slowly in stature and population through the years. A post office was established in 1880. It was erected as a village in 1899 and as a town in 1904. By 1911, the population had reached approximately 600 people. By 1971, the population had reached 11,800. Six years later, on January 1, 1977, St. Albert became a city with a population of about 24,000 people. St. Albert is currently the province’s sixth largest city with 60,138 residents.

Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographical Names Program Coordinator

City’s Location

National Topographic System Map Sheet: 82 H/12 –St. Albert

Latitude/Longitude: 53° 38′ 13″ N & 113° 37′ 13″ W

Alberta Township System: Twp 25 Rge 25 W4

Description: Immediately north-west of Edmonton on the Sturgeon River.

Additional Resources

More information about Father Albert Lacombe, OMI can be found in:

Huel, Raymond, “Lacombe, Albert,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, edited by John English and Réal Bélanger, Vol. XIV, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=7501 (accessed 25 May 2011).

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