Description of Historic Place
The Lac La Biche Mission Site is a Roman Catholic mission located in a rural setting on the south shore of Lac La Biche, approximately 16 kilometres northwest of the Town of Lac La Biche. The historically-significant buildings extant on the site include a convent built in 1894, a church constructed in the early 1920s, and several ancillary wood-frame buildings, including a wash house, garage, and chicken coop. Complementary features of the site include a cemetery and grotto, landscape features, and the archaeological remains of previous structures, including a gristmill (later converted into a sawmill), warehouse, and ice house.
The heritage value of the Lac La Biche Mission Site lies in its association with the early establishment of religious life in Alberta, its connection with pioneering achievements in the province, and its nineteenth-century French-Canadian missionary architecture.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Hudson's Bay Company, facing stiff competition from the growing ranks of free traders, decided to expand its northern operations and established a new trading post at Lac La Biche in 1853. Recognizing the post's strategic access to both the Churchill and Mackenzie drainage basins and appreciating the wealth of proselytizing opportunities afforded by the area's mixed population of Metis, Natives, and Euro-Canadians, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate founded the Notre-Dame des Victoires mission at Lac La Biche the same year. Shortly after the founding of Notre-Dame des Victoires, concerns about the feasibility of the site and the corrupting influences of the trading post prompted the Oblates to relocate the mission to its present site on the south shore of Lac La Biche. Over the following decades, the Lac La Biche Mission Site would become the heart of the Oblates' territory in the province's north, a vital entrepot integrated into a vast river and land transportation network. The mission's importance to Oblate operations was reflected in its selection as the Episcopal seat of Bishop Henri Faraud of the Athabasca District between 1877 and 1889. After Faraud's departure and the relocation of the Oblates main depot in present-day northern Alberta to Athabasca Landing the Lac La Biche Mission Site rapidly declined in importance.
Notre-Dame des Victoires' historic significance was not limited to its religious importance. Indeed, the site bore witness to several pioneering educational, agricultural, and technological developments in Alberta's history, among them the establishment of the province's first residential school, the arrival of the first printing press, and the development of one of Alberta's first commercial wheat operations. The first water-powered gristmill was also erected on this site. Constructed in 1863 to process the new wheat crop, the mill employed grindstones and other instruments brought from St. Boniface by Father Lacombe and was powered by a canal approximately 200 metres long. In 1871, the Oblates modified the gristmill and the canal to create Alberta's first water-powered sawmill; the missionaries used the new sawmill to construct some of the earliest sawn lumber buildings in Alberta. The sawmill was dismantled in 1898.
Two historically-significant buildings remain at the Lac La Biche Mission Site: a convent built in 1894 and a church constructed in the early 1920s. Originally built as a rectory and later converted into a residence for the Filles de Jesus, the convent is a good example of the type of mission building erected across the prairies by the Roman Catholic Church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its massing, symmetrical fenestration pattern, front gable roof with cross gables, and interior layout are distinctive, recognizable, and recall contemporaneous convents built in Quebec. The church was built in the early 1920s to replace an earlier church completed in 1885 and destroyed by a cyclone in 1921. The church resembles its predecessor in certain features, including wood frame construction and horizontal drop siding, but it also strongly reflects traditional French-Canadian parish church designs, with its distinctive elements, including central steeple in the gable-fronted facade, round-arched windows on the front and sides of the church, and internal arrangement of nave, sanctuary and choir loft. The wooden galerie on three sides of the rectory also expresses the French-Canadian architectural vision.
Source: Alberta Culture, Historic Resources Management Branch (File: Des. 761 and 1509)
The character-defining elements of the Lac La Biche Mission Site include:
- form, scale and massing;
- restored exterior siding and wood sheathing;
- gable dormers;
- fenestration pattern, including symmetrical placement of double-hung sash windows with wooden mullions;
- front gable roof with wood shingles, cross gables, and white cross crowning building;
- main entrance with flat transom, fanlight and sidelights, side entrances with sidelights, and door on second floor previously used for balcony;
- interior layout of dining rooms, community rooms, bedrooms.
- rectangular form, scale and massing including nave and bell tower;
- restored horizontal wood drop siding;
- two-storey sacristy;
- wood rafters and shingles;
- fenestration pattern, including tall and narrow window openings with semi-circular head shape;
- interior elements including altar, statues, pews, confessionals, cabinets, furnishings, and choir loft;
- painted walls, ceiling and floor;
- vaulted wood ceiling with simple cornice;
- wainscoting and hardwood floors.
Ancillary wood-frame buildings, including a wash house, garage, and chicken coop:
- mass, form, and scale;
- extant historic materials and design features.
- spatial relationships between buildings, structures, and remains;
- archaeological remains of gristmill/sawmill, warehouse, and icehouse;
- cemetery, grotto, wharf, and wheat-field;
- restored chicken coop fence and reconstructed portion of the historic wood walkways;
- location on Lac La Biche with viewscapes to the lake.