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Father DeCorby

Of the pioneer missionaries who ministered to the spiritual needs of the natives and early white settlers in what is now eastern Saskatchwan and Fort Ellice area, there were none more widely known and more highly esteemed by both Catholics and Protestants than Father DeCorby. Reverend Father Jules DeCorby, OM.I., was born at Viviers, France, on May 3, 1841. His pious parents gave him a good education and at the age of 20 years he was entered at the Novitiate of the Oblate of Mary Immaculate at L'Osiers. Six years later, on May 3, 1867, he was ordained a Priest in the ancient town of Autun, which was the seat of a Seminary and the 12th century cathedral of St. Lazare. He set out at once for his mission field in Western Canada. From Montréal, Father DeCorby traveled by rail to St. Paul, Minnesota, and from there by ox team to Fargo, North Dakota. At Fargo he booked passage on a Red River boat and arrived at St. Boniface, Manitoba in October, 1867, where he remained for some months. During this period, he served the mission of St. Norbert in the absence of Father Richot. His real missionary work began in the autumn of 1868, when, with Archibishop Taché of St. Boniface, he went to the Qu'Appelle valley and founded the mission of St. Florent on the site of the present village of Lebret, Saskatchwan. He remained Superior of this mission for twelve years, assisted at various times by Father Lestanc. One of the first things Father DeCorby did upon his arrival on the Qu'Appelle was to erect a large cross on the hill above the site of his little log dwelling and chapel. Today a new cross occupies the same spot and is one of the objects of interest to be seen by those who visit the picturesque village of Lebret. Due to the effects of Father DeCorby and his colleagues, Father Lestanc, a number of nomadic Métis families were induced to establish themselves as ''habitants'' near the mission, and to engage in small-scale agriculture as a supplement to hunting and fishing. In this way it was hoped that the Métis would be less intrusive on the hunting grounds of the Indians, where the buffalo was rapidly disappearing. Father DeCorby worked ceaselessly for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the Indians and Métis. In 1874, he presented the claims of the Métis to the Hon. Davis Laird, then the Minister of the Interior, and had Father DeCorby's suggestions been heeded, it is possible that the tragic rebellion of 1885 might have been averted. There was little or no money in circulation in the West at that time. To overcome this difficulty, Father DeCorby issued little slips of paper marked ''Bon Pour'' (good for) the amount he wished to pay the bearer. When these slips were presented at the Hudson's Bay Company's store at Fort Ellice, they were honored and charged to his account. Father DeCorby was a tireless traveler, using dogs or ponies whichever best suited the nature of the journey. He visited the missions of Touchwood, Fort Ellice, Crooked Lake, Willowbunch, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Yorkton, Canora, Fort Pelly and many other points. If night overtook him on the way, he would seek out a sheltered spot, roll up in his blankets and continue his journey the following morning. He accompanied the Métis on their buffalo hunts and traveled to Fort Garry (Winnipeg) for supplies. On one occasion while crossing the plains west of Touchwood with a pony and cariole (a flat bottomed sleigh or ‘toboggan’’) he was overtaken by a fearful blizzard. He turned his horse loose, tipped the cariole over, and covered himself and his bag of provisions with his blankets and a canvas, and let the snow drift over him. On the third day, he crawled out of his icy bivouac and continued his journey. In 1880, Father DeCorby was transferred to Fort Ellice where he established the mission of St. Lazare in the beautiful valley near the forks of the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine Rivers. A contrast indeed was this little log mission in the wilderness to the familiar cathedral of the same name in sunny France. During this period many new settlers arrived in the area and served. Hence, in addition to the Indians and Métis, Father DeCorby was called upon to minister to such of the new-comers as were of the Catholic faith, and was friend and counselor of all, whether Catholic or Protestant. Ever traveling, he could be found in the most unexpected places and often arrived at a time when he could be of some pratical help to others. On one occasion, when he drove into the farmyard of McKenzies near St. Lazare, he noticed a fire in a shed in which a binder was stored. Father DeCorby immediately hitched his horse to the precious implement and extracted it from the burning building, and then beat out the flames with his cassock. The garment was ruined, but the building was saved. Father DeCorby was a great lover of horses and kept a large number of these animals near his missions. One team of ponies are said to have been so well trained that when he camped for the night on the prairie, they could be turned loose and would return at his whistle in the morning. In those days, horse trading was something of a sport, with its own code of ethics. While Father DeCorby sometimes made a present of a pony to a needy settler, it is said that when he met with a “professional” horse-trader, the good Father seldom got the worst of the deal. His skill as a horseman is illustrated by the following incident related by an old-timer of the Pelly district: “We were camped about 18 miles east of Yorkton and had a couple of unbroken broncos tied behind the wagon which we intended to hitch up the next morning. About sunset, Father DeCorby drove up with a big load of lumber for his mission near Fort Pelly. He unhitched and camped with us for the night. The next morning he helped us hitch up the broncos. We threw them, buckled on the harness and hitched them to the wagon, then let them up and away we went. I can still hear Father DeCorby laugh as we rattled off behind the careening broncos. He was the handiest man there, and we were no greenhorns. Had it been necessary, he would have done the job alone.” Father DeCorby was rather short in stature though of sturdy build, and was possessed of great energy and vitality, showing remarkable adaptability to the conditions under which he worked. Because he was called upon to minister to the Catholics of the many different races and tongues he was nicknamed “the little Father who speaks all languages”. HE spoke not only his native French, but also English, German and Bohemian, as well as the Indian languages – Cree, Blackfoot, Sioux and Saulteaux. The Ukranians called him “Staroushka” meaning “old loving one”. Father DeCorby was proud of his friendships with the Indians and Métis. On more than one occasion he took ailing children into his own home to care for them. To his parents in France he wrote “I sill have a young Sioux boy who was given to me by his parents at about tow years of age. He was so hungry; it took two months to satisfy his hunger. He is now nine years old, and it is time he had a horse of his own. Soon I will teach him to ride.” He also wrote, “Two little girls were given to me by their Saulteaux mother. She has no means of providing for them. One is a crippled; one leg is half as long as the other; he walk is not elegant. If I listened to the people, they would give me all their little children.” Amusing anecdotes are recorded. One day a naked Indian came into Father DeCorby’s chapel. Told that he should go and put something on, the Indian returned wearing bots and carrying an umbrella! While Father DeCorby cared little for his own comfort, he was always more considerate of others. On one occasion, he was expected at a certain home in the Yorkton district where he usually spent the night wile visiting that congregation. The hour grew late, the expected guest did not arrive, and the family retired. When they went to the stable the next morning, Father DeCorby emerged from a pile of hay where he spent the night! When asked why he did not go to the house, re replied he did not wish to disturb the family. One morning a friend in Kamsack gave Father DeCorby an overcoat which he needed. One can imagine the donor’s despair when, later in the day, he met an Indian wearing the overcoat! In 1879, during one of the last buffalo hunts in what is now Saskatchewan, Father DeCorby accompanied the hunters with the idea of taking some calves alive. Father DeCorby and his assistant Mr. Lepine, loaded the calves on Red River carts and transported them through 600 miles of wilderness to Winnipeg. In 1895, Father DeCorby was transferred to Fort Pelly where he established the mission of St. Philips. There he built a log chapel and an Indian day school. Six year later, the mission was moved four miles east where he founded an Indian Residential school, built a large church which is still in use, a rectory, a store and a post office. When the store was first opened, no scales were available. When an item of merchandise was sold by the pound, Father DeCorby hefted the package in his hand and judged the weight. His word was never doubted. To calculate the length of fabric, he would stretch it from the tip of his nose to the outstretched tip of his hand, and would then bite the selvage with his teeth, and rip the cloth with his hands. The modern Indian School of St. Philips, amongst the finest institutions of its kind in Saskatchewan, grew from the modest buildings first erected by Father DeCorby. A beautiful monument stands on the grounds in memory of its founder. Like many other great pioneers, Father DeCorby seems to have been oblivious of the fact that he was making history. His early records are the despair of historians; hastily scribbled on poor paper, often difficult to decipher. To him, it was the work that was important. In 1911, worn out by his strenuous missionary efforts, Father DeCorby retired to St. Laurent, Manitoba for a well earned rest. In 1913, he ministered for a short time to the members of his church at Cartier, Manitoba but his health gave way in 1914 and he was obliged to enter a hospital for treatment. Later, Father DeCorby went to the Juniorate in St. Boniface where he died peacefully on October 16, 1916 at the age of 75. His remains are interred in the Oblate Father’s plot in St. Boniface. Father DeCorby was one of the great pioneers of Western Canada. In 1951, a recommendation was made that a Saskatchwan lake, island or river be named in his honor. DeCorby Lake was officially approved June 7, 1951, by the Canadian Board of Geographical Names. It is located six miles east of Tall Pines; thirty miles east of Stenan, Saskatchewan. Because Father DeCorby was the founder of the mission in St Lazare (1880-1895), our first school was called “DeCorby School” in his honor. For the residents of the municipality Father DeCorby was an illustrious figure and also an outstanding Christian. We feel privileged to have had him as one of our pioneers.