The bells tolled for Archbishop Tache — “no ordinary man — he was a man among millions”

by Bruce Cherney

Just after 6:08 a.m. on June 22, 1894, the bells of St. Boniface Cathedral began to ring — not to signal the celebration of the expected golden jubilee of the Grey Nuns, but as an expression of the profound sorrow then enveloping the community. A triumphal arch over Tache Boulevard meant to mark the golden jubilee was instead used to symbolize the sadness overtaking St. Boniface. Also that morning, every flag in Winnipeg and St. Boniface was lowered to half mast out of respect for the man for whom the bells tolled.

The death knell was for one of the larger-than-life figures of Western Canadian history — Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tache.

“By his death an ancient landmark of the early history of the Northwest has disappeared, and the blank is created which time alone can fill,” reported the Daily Nor’Wester on June 22. “The career of Archbishop Tache is identical with the growth of this country ... his name will live forever in the great Northwest.”

As the archbishop lay dying, Grey Nun Sisters wept at his bedside in St. Boniface Academy. In an attempt to soothe their anguish, the dying archbishop turned to the weeping sisters and said, “Pardon me for all the injuries I have done you: forgive me for the troubles I may have caused you: pray for me.”

At 6:07, he turned to everyone in the chamber and said in French, “Adieu! au ciel! Priez Dieu pour moi (Farewell, I go to heaven; pray to God for me).” He then smiled “a sweet angelic smile, looked his last look upon them, and raising his eyes heavenward, he breathed forth his soul in peace and joy.”

The archbishop had his first serious bout with illness in 1887 when he was warned that without an operation he faced the prospect of the hand of death claiming him. Tache would not give his consent. “What for?” he replied. “I know my trouble and the art can do nothing for it.”

He only gave his approval when it was too late and his kidney illness had worsened. A week before his death, the archbishop underwent a three-hour 

operation. The doctors claimed the 

operation was a success from “a medical standpoint,” but was unsuccessful in warding off death.

A day later, as the body of Archbishop Tache lay in state in St. Boniface Cathedral’s vestry, 10,000 people from Winnipeg crossed the Red River, joining those from St. Boniface.

“As they crossed from the city they beheld up on Tache street the funeral arch, their eyes saw the heavy drapings of sorrow all around, they listened to the doleful pealing of the bells, they knew alas that the hour had come when a fond farewell would be said to the missionary who for half a century had labored for them,” reported the Nor’Wester.

Catholics and “brethren of every denomination (were) all deeply impressed at the sight and filled with most tender recollections of the venerable old man, so calm and peaceful in death.”

The pews at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 355 St. Mary’s Avenue, in Winnipeg, were filled with people who did not cross the river but still wanted to pay their respects to the archbishop. The attending priest told the congregation that Tache was: “A man of genius, a man of broad views, a man of the keenest insight into the future of things, a man of almost unparalleled self denial, a man who devoted the best of his life in the temporal and spiritual welfare of all ... His Grace Archbishop Tache of Manitoba was no ordinary man — he was a man among millions.”

In another church, Rev. Hugh Pedley reminded his parishioners of the deep divide between Congregationalists and Catholics, but said the West had “lost by death a man who has been prominently connected with its life, civic and religious, for the last 50 years ... 

“Whatever objections we may have to his political record ... towards the ecclesiastical system to which he belonged, we ought not to fail in sympathy and admiration when the romantic story of his missionary life is before us,” added Pedley. 

On Tuesday evening, the bells of St. Boniface rang the funeral knell in homage to Tache as thousands of “all classes and creeds” made their way to St. Boniface Cathedral to hear the funeral oration delivered by Archbishop Duhammel of Ottawa.

“It is my duty tonight to put on record the deep sorrow manifested by the people ... itself an eloquent tribute to a devoted, a useful and noble life.”

An editorial in the Nor’Wester on June 22 said that too often great men living in close proximity are “unappreciated during life, and not until death makes that gap, which is so hard to fill, do we realize and value their actual worth ... The history and labours of Archbishop Tache is the history of the Northwest.”

Of all the tributes afforded the archbishop, it could not be disputed that he had witnessed and participated in some of the great events that marked the era. Among the more important historical events were the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, the transfer of vast northwest territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada, the creation of the new province of Manitoba and  the Manitoba School Question.

Tache was born at Riviere du Loup below Quebec City on July 23, 1823, the third child of Charles Tache and Genevieve Michon, members of illustrious Quebec families. Tache was educated at Ste. Hyacinth College and later took his religious education at the Oblates of Ste. Mary Immaculate near Montreal where he became a priest.

On June 24, 1845, in the company of Father Peter Aubert and two Grey Nuns — Sisters Whitman and Cusson — Brother Tache left for the Red River Settlement as a missionary.

After a journey of 62 days, the two young missionaries were welcomed at St. Boniface by Bishop Joseph-Norbert Provencher. Although Provencher was not immediately impressed by Tache, writing that he had asked “for a missionary and they have sent me, a mere boy,” he would soon come to rely upon the “mere boy” who would become his co-adjutor bishop within five years.

Brother Tache would be ordained a priest at age 22 and become Father Tache.  His first mission was at Ile a la Crosse (northern Saskatchewan) in the Athabasca territory where he arrived after a two month journey in 1846. From this mission, he would embark on numerous trips across the north to convert the first nations people of the region.

“Although the heart which so often rebels against right reason, not only in the case of the untutored child of the forest,” he later wrote, “but also of him born and nurtured in the midst of civilization still offered its practical objections to the full Christianization of these Indians, nevertheless the triumph of faith was secured at Athabasca. It is now one of the chief centres of Christianity in North Western America.”

In 1849, Provencher’s health was failing and Louis-Francois Richer Lafleche, whom he intended to appoint as a co-adjutor, instead told the bishop 

to consider Tache. Lafleche told Provencher that Tache was young and strong as well as familiar with the territory “and has succeeded well beyond our fondest hopes.” So at age 27, Tache was elevated to Bishop of Arath, the name given by the Catholic Church for the vast northern region with its base at Red River.

The new bishop was invited to Marseille, France — the first of many journeys he would make to Europe — for the consecration ceremony by the Bishop of France. After his consecration on November 23, 1851, he proceeded to Rome, hoping to have Pope Pius IX change the name of the Northwest diocese in  the New World to St. Boniface — he was successful — which had been the wish of Provencher.

Tache returned to Red River on June 27, 1852. Provencher died on June 7, 1853 at age 66 and Tache at age 30 became the sole Bishop of St. Boniface.

During his tenure, remarkable changes were occurring in the Red River Settlement such as the arrival of the Anson Northup on June 10, 1859, the first steamboat to reach the community, as well as the establishment of the Nor’Wester, the community’s first newspaper. Tache applauded all these changes, welcoming Red River’s entry into the modern world.

In 1868, news was reaching Red River that negotiations were being held in London involving the transfer of the HBC’s holdings in the Northwest to Canada. Tache and McTavish asked Ottawa to appoint two administrators for Red River — one representing the English-speaking and the other the French-speaking settlers — to smooth the way for the land transfer.

If their advice had been followed, it is quite possible the troubles that subsequently befell Red River may have been adverted. But the Canadian government had its own agenda and prematurely sent surveyors westward, raising anxiety among the Metis who questioned whether their land titles would be honoured by the new administration. 

Compounding the local anxiety was the hasty appointment of William McDougall by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald to the position of lieutenant governor, despite Canada not yet obtaining title over the HBC territory. Because they had not been consulted about the government’s intentions, the Metis barred McDougall from entering Red River and subsequently formed a provisional government. 

The provisional government was opposed by the so-called Canadian  Party that was comprised mainly of recent settlers from Ontario and led by Dr. John Christian Schultz. Because of their armed opposition, Schultz and his associates were captured by provisional government forces and imprisoned.  

While all this was occurring in Red River, Tache was attending the 1869 Ecumenical Council at the Vatican. Alarmed by what was happening in 

the West, the Canadian government pleaded for him to return to Red River and intervene in the name of peace. In Ottawa, he was apparently assured that Louis Riel and other prominent members of the provisional government — by this time formed with equal representation from both the English and French communities — would be granted a full amnesty 

for their role in staging the armed 


Soon events took a dramatic turn for the worse in Red River. While the Canadian Party continued to plague the provisional government — Riel should have realized they were only a mild irritant — they lacked widespread support in Red River and held little sway in Ottawa. 

With the execution of Thomas Scott on March 4, 1870, the Metis leader turned a minor irritation into a cause celebre. Ontario Protestants were stirred into a rage during public meetings staged on behalf of the “refugees” from Red River. The frenzy resulted in hundreds joining the militia seeking to avenge Scott’s execution and hang the “traitor” and “murderer” Riel.

Alexander Begg (1839-97), a Red River merchant and historian, whose journal provides a first-hand account of the events of 1869-70, wrote that the archbishop’s return would help to calm the anxiety in the settlement. In particular, Tache had great influence over Riel whom he regarded as a protégé; sending Riel to Montreal to further his education. 

“People here believe in the existence of an organized plan, prepared without the knowledge of the (Canadian) Government — but which it ought to have foreseen and known — with the object of driving out of the country, or at least of reducing to a species of servitude within it, the French Canadian half-breeds of the Red River and the whole Northwest,” wrote Tache in a March 1870 letter to federal secretary of state for the provinces,  Joseph Howe.

In a journal entry for March 9, 1870, Begg wrote that Tache was finally in Red River, but inexplicably the archbishop went into seclusion, further feeding the local rumour mill. 

It wasn’t until March 13 that Tache preached at St. Boniface Cathedral for the first time since his return. His message was that the community should act together and that Canada had assured the just treatment of everyone in Red River.

Because of Tache’s assurances, Riel sent three delegates east to negotiate the settlement’s entry into Canada.

Tache’s intervention also included informing Riel that the British regulars and Canadian militia on their way to Red River were only coming as peacekeepers. Up to this point, Riel had been contemplating armed opposition to the troops’ entry into Red River.

In addition, the archbishop urged that all Canadian Party prisoners being held at Fort Garry be released, which Riel granted and occurred in stages. 

“Bishop Tache has been very much wronged in being accused of being a mover in the present & past troubles (primarily by the anti-Catholic Canadian Party who said Tache’s absence had given Riel and the Metis the courage to oppose Canada),” wrote Begg on March 19. “He is a staunch loyal gentleman and a firm friend of Canada but at the same time a true friend to his own people in Red River. Had the government of Canada taken his advice at the outset, it would have been more fortunate here.”

In later years, Tache was unable to shake accusations that he had been a pawn of the Canadian government. This was especially felt after the much-promised amnesty for Riel and the provisional government leadership failed to materialize.

But his only sin was that he was too trusting and accepted at face value the word of Ottawa politicians rather than insisting upon a written confirmation of the amnesty. 

Tache wrote Howe that he had accepted the word of the “different members of the Cabinet in Ottawa,” and in turn, “solemnly gave my word of honour, and promised even in the name of the Canadian  Government ... that all the irregularities of the past will be totally overlooked and forgiven ... In a word that a complete and entire amnesty — if not already bestowed — will assuredly be granted before the arrival of the troops, so that every one may remain quiet, and induce others to do the same.”

He could not have known that Prime Minister Macdonald had his own political agenda which included keeping Ontario voters happy. In the absence of a written agreement, Macdonald conveniently denied having made any promise of an amnesty. 

Believing that calm had been restored, Tache on June 28 left Red River for Eastern Canada on church business as well as to report to government officials on the state of the settlement.

The peaceful nature of the settlement continued until the arrival of the force led by Col. Garnet Wolseley in August. Riel fled Fort Garry before the troops marched into the fort. The order that had kept the settlement at peace evaporated and violence broke out between the militia and Metis which Eastern newspapers called a “reign of terror.”  

The uncertainty hanging ominously over the new province only ended when Ontario settlers swamped the original Metis inhabitants and transformed Manitoba’s government and institutions into a reflection of their home province. 

In September 1871, Tache was elevated to Archbishop of St. Boniface. Under this title, he continued his fight for Metis rights and resolution of the amnesty question, but he had essentially lost this battle with the triumph of Ontario settlers in Manitoba.

One way he hoped to offset the power wielded by the Ontario settlers was to convince Quebecers to settle in Manitoba, but the Quebec settlers never approached the numbers arriving daily from Ontario.

Still, Tache was accused in newspapers, such as the Manitoba Liberal owned by Schultz, of conspiring with Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald to stack the new legislature with members originally from Quebec. 

“Scarcely had Bishop Tache and he (Archibald) reached the country ere they appointed strangers to the most important offices, to the exclusion of the natives and the old settlers,” said Stewart Mulvey, the editor of the Liberal, in a speech reported on November 10, 1871. “A gentleman named Clarke, whom you all know, was appointed Attorney-general — from Quebec. He was never heard of in this province until the time the officers’ baggage arrived ... Mr. (Thomas) Howard was appointed to the Public Works Department — from Quebec — Captain Villiers, of the police force — from Quebec ...” 

Yet historians have noted that Archibald had to make appointments from new arrivals simply because they were the only people with political experience.

In fact, the lawyers and politicians from Quebec were sent west by Sir George Cartier, Prime Minister Macdonald’s Quebec lieutenant, and not recruited by Tache, though he cheered their arrival.

“Messrs. (Marc Amable) Girard, (Joseph) Dubuc, (Joseph) Royal and (Henry) Clarke have come to us from Canada, and, with such good elements as we already have, we can hope for representation in our local legislature that will be credible and probably 

superior,” said Tache, “so that for the present we are not in an inferior 

position, and throughout the four years of the first Parliament (in Manitoba) we will be able to secure favourable laws.”

The power that Archibald wielded was not the result of intervention by Tache, but through the expressed 

orders of Macdonald and Cartier in 

Ottawa to “preserve public peace.”

While he did seek the council of Tache, what Archibald sought above all was the marshalling of the moderates in Manitoba as a method of working toward conciliation.

It could be said that Schultz and his followers were suffering from a severe case of “sour grapes,” since they were soundly defeated at the polls in the first provincial election on December 30, 1870 — Schultz and most of his “Loyal” men failed to win seats, while the candidates supported by Archibald became the majority in the government.

Another Liberal article dated February 2, 1872, accused Tache of resolving “to wipe Ontario out of existence, and Ontarians from Manitoba,” and using the claims of Metis children (under the Manitoba Act 1.2-million acres of land was reserved for the children) to further the interests of the Catholic church.

The fact that Tache was directly involved in the negotiations with Macdonald to send Riel and Ambroise Lepine to safety in the United States became another contentious issue with the “Loyalist” who clamoured for the arrest of Riel and Lepine for the murder of Scott.

Eventually an agreement was reached between Tache and Archibald on behalf of Ottawa which paid Riel and Lepine $1,600 each to go into exile in the U.S.

In 1890, the Manitoba government under Thomas Greenway enacted bills which ended publicly-funded separate Catholic and Protestant schools in favour of a public school system based upon the Ontario model.

The resulting Manitoba School Question became a national and international issue involving Catholics, Protestants, local and federal governments as well as the courts in London, England.

On April 7, 1890,  Archbishop Tache, in his capacity as president of the Catholic section of the board of education, asked the federal government to use its power to disallow the Manitoba legislation.

Tache said he felt betrayed by the Greenway government whom he claimed had promised to keep the religious-based education system and maintain language rights. On the other hand, Greenway understood the promise was made in exchange for public support by Tache for Liberal candidates during the 1888 provincial election. Tache believed the promise was that he “would do nothing against his (Greenway’s) administration.”

Without an open commitment from Tache, Greenway felt he could proceed unhindered with the new legislation and placate the Protestant majority in the province. It was the second time that a promise made to Tache went unfulfilled because of political expediency.

The Privy Council in London, England — then the final court authority for Canada — decided in favour of the Manitoba government and the legislation was allowed. A latter court decision gave Ottawa authority to enact its own remedial legislation to restore Catholic school rights as found in the 1870 Manitoba Act. (It should be noted that it was Tache who pressed Riel to have denominational schools included in the act.)

The Conservative government of Sir John Thompson in Ottawa promised to pass a remedial bill in 1895. Before the bill was passed, the Conservatives lost the 1896 federal election to the Liberals under Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The Laurier-Greenway Compromise was reached between Ottawa and Manitoba two years after Tache’s death. The compromise maintained taxpayer funding of public schools only and failed to make a real accommodation for French and Catholic schools. 

Less than a year before his death, Father Adelard Langevin arrived in St. Boniface from Ottawa on July 1, 1893, to become a co-adjutor with Tache. 

Langevin’s arrival was timely as Tache was worn out from years of fighting sometimes futile causes — even when he was right, he often failed. 

Fraser Rae in his 1881 book, Newfoundland to Manitoba, quoted a pastoral letter from Tache which outlined that it was the responsibility of priests, as citizens, to take part in elections and to support a well-constituted legislature.

“He insists on the value of every vote in a Legislative Assembly, seeing that single vote may turn the scale for good and evil,” wrote Rae, “and he contends that this consideration ought to be borne in mind in choosing representatives.”

Tache warned against lying, drunkenness, venality and violence during elections and denounced bribery — all of which were common — as a stain that creates “bad citizens.” 

Rae said Tache’s guidelines and counsel for elections justified him “in asserting that if other dignitaries of his Church displayed such tact and good taste there would never be any cause for protesting against priestly interference at elections.”

While Tache had great success in founding new missions, schools and expanding the reach of the Roman Catholic Church in the West, he could not claim similar political success. In the world of politics, he was too honest and too easily manipulated by politicians who had contrary agendas not subject to the same honour system that he followed. 

During Tache’s funeral service, Langevin said others may reproach Tache for showing too much confidence in Canada’s political leadership, but he countered this by quoting the archbishop, who said, “I would rather 1,000 times be accused of excess of candor than distrust.”

“It was not his fault; his heart was too big, too loyal to believe that he could be deceived,” added Langevin.