The Mission

Our Lady of the Visitation Church and the former St. Martin's Convent now a private residence in La Loche, Saskatchewan taken in 2015 (photo by Raymond Dauvin)

The history of the La Loche Mission began in 1845. 

The Mission Villages

The Portage La Loche Mission of Our Lady of the Visitation in 1895 included La Loche where the Mission buildings were located and the settlements of West La Loche, Bull's House, Garson Lake, Turnor Lake, three small hamlets in Alberta near the border (around the Janvier/Chard area of Alberta) and the winter hunting camps located up to 60 miles north of La Loche. One of the hunting camps was located at Descharme Lake (Swan Lake).

In 1922 Father Ducharme wrote that the La Loche Mission had 500 people. This would include most of the settlements mentioned above.  He would visit these places on a regular basis as part of his mission duties.  

The First Missionary

L'abbe Jean-Baptiste Thibault 

L'abbe Jean-Baptiste Thibault (b.1810-d.1879) came to the Portage in 1845. 
He is said to have baptized 211 people there. 
Father Thibault sent word that he would be coming to the Portage that year. 
Many of the people gathered there came specifically to see him. 
He writes the following as he is planning his trip. (translated from a French letter)

"I will leave the day after Easter to visit the Chipewyan of Ile a la Crosse and Portage La Loche and I hope to see a great number as I have sent word that I will be there at the arrival of the barges (York boats)." 

In Ile a la Crosse Thibault met with 80 Chipewyan families (about 400 people) who had gathered there from the surrounding areas. 
At Portage La Loche he met with over 211 Chipewyan. Most were from the La Loche area but
many had come from as far away as Fort Chipewyan to meet him.

About 350 people were camped at the Portage in 1845.

On returning from his trip Father Thibault strongly recommended that missions be established in the area. In 1846 a mission was founded at Ile a la Crosse.

On the left is a photo of  Father Thibault from SHSB.  

One of the people Thibault baptized at the Portage was:                                                
Louis Laferte dit Schmidt was "born 4 December 1844 at Old Fort, near
Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca and was baptized in July 1845 at Portage La Loche, Rupert's
Land by Reverend Jean-Baptiste Thibault."  
(from the book "French Canadians of the West by Peter Gagne (quintin publications) pg. 472")

Francois Beaulieu, a metis chief from Fort Providence, was baptized at Portage La Loche by
Father Tache in 1848. Beaulieu made the trip to the Portage with his three wives, his children
and some of his followers to see the priest. He was 77 years old at the time.(b. 1771-d. 1872)

The naming of the Mission 

In 1860 the mission of Portage La Loche was given its official name by Bishop Vital Grandin then residing in Ile a la Crosse.
"I have called this post "Mission de la Visitation de Marie"." he wrote on June 10, 1861 in his journal.
The mission was referred to simply as "La Visitation".

In 1895 Father Penard writes that the Mission was named in 1860 and called "Notre Dame de la Visitation". 

The Act of Taking Possession 

Taking possession of land for the Mission of La Loche seems to have been a formal and legal action. 
Father Prosper Legeard (b.1843-d.1879) describes this in a letter written in Ile a la Crosse on January 17, 1875. 
This is a history of the Ile a la Crosse Mission by Legeard written in the form of letters. 

"The spring mission completed, Father Legoff left by York boat to visit, as usual, the Chipewyan of the Grand-Portage La Loche. During his stay, the Father took possession of a nice spot on which to build a mission, when it was possible to do so. 
The act of taking possession was signed by two officials of the honorable Hudson's Bay Company and by many of the native residents.
There a good mission can be built as almost all the Chipewyan that reside there have made themselves nice little houses and
each house has a small field of potatoes. We had someone ask them, last spring, to build a larger house for the priest so he would not be forced to hold the mission activities in a tent........" (translation)

Note: Father Legoff must have taken possession of land in the village of La Loche for the Mission in 1875
as the Mission buildings were eventually built there. 
Although the Summer Missions were still being held in a tent at the Portage in 1873 according to Father Legeard, 
in 1880 Bishop Grandin held the Mission in a house (rectory) probably located in the village of La Loche.

The chapel on Big Point

The residents of Lac La Loche had been asking for a priest continually since 1847. 
Father Penard writes what happened in 1876:
"The priests of Ile a la Crosse continued to visit the people as often as possible, but without being able to do much more. 
This situation lasted till 1876. At this time, as the needs of the people became more pressing; we asked them to build
a chapel, then we would send them a priest. The chapel was built, standing sad and solitary at the end of the great
point where they had built it, but fell into ruins before it could be used." (translation)

The great point is the point across from the island. Perhaps it was built there because it was midway between the village of La Loche and the village of West La Loche (then called Portage La Loche) and a good place to hold the "Summer Missions".

Big Point: From the book "Canoeing the Churchill" page 103 (sources were Steer and Ducharme's Memoirs) comes this quotation: 

"Donald Steer also found evidence of more recent activity at Big Point. Besides cellar depressions left from late-nineteenth-century cabins, he identified the site of a Roman Catholic chapel built in 1877 by Oblate missionaries working out of Ile-a-la-Crosse. Although this chapel lasted until being torn down in 1891, it never actually had a resident priest and was in fact only used to give two "missions".

The archaeologist Donald Steer had also discovered the location of a North West Company post circa 1789-91 on the Big Point.

The churches of La Loche history written in 1953.

Bishop Grandin's Mission of 1880

"Thanks to a favorable wind we were able to arrive at the mission of the Grand-Portage on the 15 of June. This Mission is dedicated to the blessed Virgin under the title of the Visitation. It is frequented by about two hundred Dene who live on the shores of Lac La Loche and Whitefish Lake (Garson Lake). These people all live in houses. Father Legoff visits them regularly twice a year. The next day of my arrival, before my mass, I confessed a very sick man in his home. We then brought him to the house where he took communion, received the sacrament of confirmation and the last rites. I continued my day with confessions to prepare the residents for communion and the next day I confirmed 20. The next day I did the same until the 18 when I took the road back to Ile a La Crosse with the brigade." (translation)

Note: It appears that in 1880 there was a house (rectory) for the priest. It was probably located in the village of La Loche.

The first resident priest 

Father Jean-Marie Penard arrived to take up residency in the village of La Loche in 1895.
He described his church as a 25 foot by 20 foot wooden building with 7 windows. 
Four of the windows were partially covered with glass. The rest were boarded up waiting for glass. 
He stayed in a 10 foot by 10 foot addition attached to one of the local houses and had his meals with the family.

La Loche Mission in 1911  
The log building on the right could belong to the Revillon Freres Post.  The  building below the church may be the rectory. Another building is on the left of the photo.
Several tepees can be seen. The residents of La Loche are gathered on the shore to welcome their bishop Mgr. Ovide Charlebois.
The citizens welcomed Mgr. Charlebois by firing their rifles in the air. This was a common practice when dignitaries arrived and departed. 

The rectory in 1911
In 1911 Father Penard and Brother Pioget lived in this log house.  
These two photos were taken during the first official visit of Bishop Charlesbois. 
This rectory may had been previously been used as a church.
In 1912 a new rectory was built.....Book link

La Loche Mission 1912-1918  ( 
The rectory, the two story building in this picture, was built in 1912 and burned down in 1927.
Another rectory was built in 1928-1929. (Father Ducharme's letter of 1928).
A new church begun in 1918 and completed in 1920 replaced the 
church in this picture.

La Loche Mission and Revillon Freres Post 1935

La Loche Mission and Revillon Freres Post in 1935


La Loche Mission buildings in 1942
This early Roman Catholic Church in La Loche  was completed in 1920 by Father Ducharme. (photo from shsb)
The size of the church was 70 by 30 by 15 feet according to
Father Ducharme.  The convent on the left was under construction in 1942.
The rectory built in 1928-29 is on the right.

La Loche Mission church interior 1942.  The interior of the early church built in 1920.(shsb)

La Loche Mission 1953
The early church of La Loche in this photo is being dismantled. The new church in the foreground was completed in 1953. (photo from shsb)
This church is still in use today.

La Loche Mission church interior 1953  (from SHSB)

The missionaries
When missionaries came to the northwest they followed the fur trade routes and often chose sites 
near established fur trading posts to build their missions.                                                                                                                                      
Those who came to La Loche were french speaking oblate priests from France and Quebec.
Father Jean-Marie Penard, Father Pioget, Father Ducharme, Father Bourbonnais  and  Father Bertrand Mathieu
learned the local language and lived most of  their adult lives in their missions.  

Oblates in the 1940's
From left to right:  
standing are Brother Aurele Jean and Brother Joseph Cordeau, 
sitting are Father J.B. Ducharme, Bishop Lajeunesse, Father Joseph Bourbonnais, Father Jean-Paul Poirier
The photo was taken in 1942 in front of the rectory.
From left to right: Father Adrien Darveau, Father J.B. Ducharme, Bishop Martin Lajeunesse, Father Giovanni Bragaglia, Brother Dionne.
The photo was taken in front of the convent on August 17-24, 1945.

Grey Nun's in 1945
From left to right: Sister Gervais the cook, Sister Frechette the superior, Bishop Martin Lajeunesse, Sister Webber the nurse, Sister Arcand the teacher.
The photo was taken in front of the convent on August 17-24, 1945.

St. Martin's Hospital and St. Martin's Convent

As the Mission  in La Loche  grew in population the Grey Nuns were asked to come.   

The convent of St. Martin's built for them in 1943  housed a dispensary and had four beds for patients. 

In 1949 the new St.Martin's Hospital staffed by the nuns had ten beds for patients.The nuns taught at the school and worked at the dispensary. They also visited the sick at home. 
The Grey Nuns were in La Loche from 1943 until 1981.

Note: The photo shows the Grey Nun's stamp in 'Missae Defunctorum', a 1941 book in latin used in the chapel of the convent.