Saint Gabriel's  Roman Catholic Parish

 Biggar, Saskatchewan, Canada
Mission: Our Lady of Fatima in Landis

                           Saint Gabriel's Roman Catholic Parish                                          

There is a long-standing bond between this parish and St. Josephís Colony.  Before the present site of Biggar, about 55 miles due west  of  Saskatoon, was even a village Frs. Laufer and Schweers used to com from the colony to visit the early settlers as early as 1905.

            Mass was celebrated in the parlor of the Biggar Hotel and was always well attended. Thus it was not long before the need of a proper place of worship became evident. During the summer of 1909 the parishioners banded together and built the first church. Like most of the early structures it was simple, no basement and no foundation. It was instead, built on timersóideal for cold floor! There was no insulation, no storm windows nor entrance porch. It was so cold that a few years later when Fr. Schweers was a temporary replacement he had to wear his coonskin coat over his vestments!

            The first resident priest was Fr. Simon, a native of France, who came to
Biggar in 1910. He first lived at the Biggar Hotel until later in the year when he was able to build a rectory. Fr. Simon established a mission at Cochery in 1900 and visited several other outposts around Biggar. It was on one of these visits in January 1912 that he died suddenly.

            After Fr. Simonís death and before the appointment of Fr. Matther Collins in Septembger 1913, Fr. Schweers looked after St. Gabrielís. It was during Fr. Collinsís pastorate that Bishop Pascal paid his only visit to Biggar  on 15th of August 1915. He dedicated the church and new rectory and confirmed some 35 candidates. Fr. M. Miard was the next priest to come. His stay was for only two years and he left in the fall of 1919.

            With the appointment of Fr. J. M. Drapeau the parish experienced an era of real development. Ordained in France, Fr. Drapeau served in the United States then came to the Archdiocese of Regina. For a time he was parish priest for Weyburn then he transferred to the Diocese of Prince Albert. Following appointments to Duck Lake and Rosthern he came to St. Gabrielís. Fr. Drapeau  was a great builder of churches, schools and hospitals. The minute one project was concluded he launched another. In 1920 trees were planted around the church property and a year later he began improvements to the church and rectory. In 1922 a building was acquired and turned into a recreation centreóthe following year it became a hospital! In 1924preparations were made to estabhlish a separate school district. Construction of St. Theresaís Academy as well as a new church started in 1925. Two years later these buildings were blessed by Bishop Prudíhomme and classes commenced. Then in 1930 seminary classes were started (in conjunction with the academy). Of all Fr. Drapeauís works this one was not to succeed and after about two years the project was abandoned.

The rationale for the establishment of these classes is not entirely clear. Obviously Fr. Drapeau had a dream of a diocesan seminary with Biggar as its location. It appears that Bishop Prudíhomme was somewhat sceptical and had serious reservations about the project. But he agreed to go along with the plan on a trial basis.  Those parishes in the diocese which agreed with the idea (not all of them by any means) were to make financial contributions on a per capita basis. Additionally, the parishes which had candidates were expected to pay all costs for these men whilst attending the seminary. The diocese was to make up any deficit.

            The old church was remodelled. Temporary bedrooms were constructed, with the tops and bottoms of the walls left open for the circulation of heat from a pipeless furnace in the center of the building. No water works or sanitary facilities  except for two dry closets located in the entrance porch! The seminarians attended classes and ate their meals in the Academy.

            It was not long before sounds of discontent were heard in the participating parishes. Following a visit by representatives of some of these parishes a report was made to the bishop, outlining the primitive conditions and associated inconveniences.  This time Bishop Prudíhomme acted speedily and the seminary was closed.

            Fr. Drapeau, in addition to his building and development programs, looked after an impressive number of missions. Best known among these were Cochery, Dodsland, Loverna, Arelee and the Clunie school. Still others were Herschel, Stranraer and Plenty. When he left Biggar in April 1933 there was real chain of monuments to his zeal.

            Fr. J.E. Provost, a native of Quebec, was appointed administrator of the parish. Fr. Armand Tombu, who had been Fr. Drapeauís assistant, remained in  Biggar. To him fell the task of settling parish debts and clearing up all manner of outstanding problems connected with the somewhat ill-starred seminary and farm. This task occupied his time for several years even after he succeeded Fr. Provost in 1935.

            Fr. Tombu had to guide the affairs of the parish during the worst years of the depression. When he came to Canada from his native Belgium (where he had been severely gassed in the Great War) he first farmed in the Aberdeen district. His calling to the priesthood came later. While in Biggar he was very influential in convincing authorities of the need for a new hospital in spite of wartime restrictions on building materials. The new St. Margaretís Hospital opened in 1943. 

            The energetic priest added three new missions to those already served. The first of these in July 1951 was in Valley Centre, the hub of a community of Czechs, most of whom were Roman Catholics. Fr. Tombu said Mass for them in Marriott School, Klamath Hall and the Czech Hall. At the same time sisters came from Biggar to teach catechism. An unused school was converted into a church. This was later moved to a location on No. 4 Highway, half way between Biggar and Rosetown, and served the people until the early 1960ís. at the time of writing it is still there although now it serves as a granary! This Czech community was also served from Rosetown on occasion.

            In March 1952 Fr. Tombu  opened missions at Cando (named St, Margaretís in memory of Mrs. Margaret Guidinger) and Perdue. This latter mission (Holy Rosary) was closed in the 1960ís, but St. Margaretís is still active. And in 1960 Fr. Tombu was elevated to the rank of monsignor and was name Vicar General of the diocese by Bishop Klein. By this time he was feeling the effects of his age and in 1962 Fr. A. Pich was appointed administrator of the parish. To him fell the task of supervising the building a a new church and rectory. The first sod was turned by Bishop Klein in July 1964 and a year later he blessed the new complex.

            Shortly after this event Monsignor Tombu retired to a home for the aged in St. Boniface. Here at the age of 87 he died on 17 April 1969. his body was returned to Biggar for the funeral and buried in Saskatoon.

            1966 was the year in which the first parish council was formed. In 1969 the first parish convention was held. This event was under the overall direction of Fr. R. Kleiter who had succeeded Fr. Pich in 1967. Fr. Kleiter left Biggar in 1970. During his three-year tenure he had been responsible for changes in the liturgy and laying the ground work for a new separate school. This latter project was completed in 1971 while Fr. La Freniere was parish priest.

            It was during Fr. La Freniereís time that the mission of St. Hilaryís at Cochery was closed, in 1971. in fact no Masses had been said there since 1961. this closure was rather unique in that after the church ornaments and furnishings were removed, the building was put to the torch! All in accordance with a motion by the Parish Council and the Bishopís approval.

            Priests who served St. Gabrielís after Fr. La Freniere were Frs. Jerome Ell (1975-77), Francis Roach (1977-79) and Francis Kolla.



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Monday, 19 January 2009