Roman Catholics

The history of Roman Catholicism in Saskatchewan goes back to the early French explorers and fur traders who brought their Catholic faith with them to the Canadian North-West. The first Roman Catholic mission to serve the Métis and Native peoples of the region was established by the French Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Ile-à-la-Crosse in 1846 (see Taché, Roman Catholic Missions in the North-West and Saskatchewan). In the following decades, Oblates and groups of women religious arrived to set up churches, schools and hospitals in the newly formed communities. Catholic schools established in the early years became the basis for Catholic education rights set out in the Saskatchewan Act of 1905 (see Separate School Divisions). During the settlement period at the end of the 19th and in the early part of the 20th centuries, many Catholics were among homesteaders and other settlers who arrived in what is now Saskatchewan from Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes, Britain, and continental Europe. Soon there was a pressing need for more dioceses and bishops, priests and sisters to serve the religious, educational and health-care needs of the Catholic communities. As more newcomers arrived, the ethnic make-up of the Catholic population shifted from mainly French- and English-speaking to include also German, Polish, Ukrainian and other groups.

Many of the Catholics who came to the Canadian west settled together in formal or informal bloc settlements or colonies, and their shared culture, language and religious faith helped to form strong communal identities during those difficult early years. For these groups, it was important to have priests and sisters who could speak the same language. In the case of German- and Polish-speaking people from eastern Europe, Oblate priests were recruited from Germany and Poland. The German Catholics who came from Minnesota and settled in St. Peter’s Colony were served in their own language by the Benedictines of St. Peter’s Abbey. As for the English-speaking Roman Catholics from eastern Canada and Britain, there were requests from them for English-speaking priests and bishops as well. Over the years, even as English became the common language of all Catholic immigrant groups, including those arriving more recently from other parts of the world, the Saskatchewan Catholic Church has taken on a distinctly western Canadian, multicultural flavour. Much of the early work of the Catholic Church in Saskatchewan involved establishing Catholic institutions such as schools, hospitals and orphanages, and these works were taken up by congregations of women and men religious. Catholic lay people became involved as well in various works within the Church and in the larger community (see Catholic Women’s League, Knights of Columbus).

In the area of Catholic higher education, the first idea of the Saskatchewan French bishops had been to follow the model of Quebec and establish classical colleges in various regions of the province, with studies to be carried out in the mother tongue of the local community. These colleges would offer high school/secondary schooling as well as first- and second-year university-level courses; students would then go on to what western bishops eventually hoped to establish as one Catholic university for western Canada. In accordance with this plan, in the years following World War I, Catholic classical colleges were established in Regina (English), Gravelbourg (French), St. Peter’s Colony (German), and Yorkton (Ukrainian). Because of the perception that the attendance of Catholic students at the new non-denominational University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon would undermine the one-Catholic-university plan and might be a threat to the faith of the Catholic students, it took several years before there was a Catholic presence at the University (1926), and ten more years before a Catholic federated college was established (1936). At the present time, there are two federated Catholic colleges in Saskatchewan: Campion College at the University of Regina, and St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.

During the province’s settlement years and following, a great many parish churches and shrines were constructed throughout the province. The Catholic people participated in devotions and pilgrimages which complemented their Sunday worship and other parish-based gatherings. A significant development for the Catholics of Saskatchewan, as for the rest of the Catholic world, was the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of 1962–65. Vatican II heralded changes in the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself and its relationship with the modern world and other faith traditions. In the forty years since then, the Council has had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of Catholic life: changes can be seen, for example, in the relationship between the Saskatchewan Catholic Church and First Nations peoples, in the relationship of Catholics with people of other Christian denominations and non-Christian faith traditions (see Prairie Centre for Ecumenism), and in the increased awareness of the need for Catholics to become involved in working for the common good of the larger community—not only through works of charity, but also through involvement in social justice concerns at home and in the developing world. According to the 2001 Canadian Census, there were at that time 286,815 Roman Catholics in Saskatchewan, representing 29.8% of the total population of the province.

Margaret Sanche

Further Reading

Fay, T.J. 2002. A History of Canadian Catholics: Gallicanism, Romanism and Canadianism. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.