"A lay Catholic perspective"

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François Beaulieu

by Caroline & Rod Lorenz


T HAT THE CATHOLIC Faith was planted among the Dene Nations is due not only to the heroic efforts of the missionaries, but also to a remarkable man named Francois Beaulieu. His life has become a legend in the north. More than anyone else, it was he who opened the door to the Gospel of Christ. The people called him, 'Old Man Beaulieu'.

Francois Beaulieu was born in the 1770's, in the Great Slave area. His father, a French trapper, had settled and married among the Chipewyans. As Francois later told Father Petitot, "I am the son of a Frenchman. My mother was a Chipewyan; my grandmother a Cree: there are three bloods in my veins."

He was raised according to the ways of the Chipewyans. It was a hard life in a land with bitterly cold winters that lasted over half the year. Hunger and starvation were never very far away. There was constant warfare with the neighbouring Dog Rib people.

It was not until he was fifteen that young Francois saw men from the outside world. As an old man he recalled, "I remember it as though it was yesterday. I was living with my parents. One day we heard that white people were coming. There were lots of them. My uncle called all the Indians from the Great Slave area to meet with them."

Francois grew to be a big, powerful and fearless man. He was respected for his intelligence and courage, and feared for his strength and impulsive temper. He was also a natural leader and had the authority of a chief among his people.

The fur trade

In those days life revolved around the fur trade. This trade supplied the people with goods that made life a little easier. When the North West Company opened a trading post on Bear Lake, Francois was hired as an interpreter. He soon became the company's chief bully.

The Hudson's Bay Company was their main competition and rivalry was fierce. Once when a North West trader drowned, Beaulieu suspected the Hudson's Bay man of being responsible for his death. He took his rifle and shot him dead. Before he could reload his gun he was seized and bound.

But he was too valuable a captive to be killed. The HBC could make use of a man like him. His captors gave him a choice. If he agreed to work for them as their main enforcer, he could name his price. Otherwise he could join the trader he had shot. Francois decided to spend some time working for the Company.

The life of the people

Over the years Francois and his clan lived as wanderers, hunting, fishing, and trapping as they went. They journeyed by canoe, on foot, or by dog team over vast distances, travelling as far north as the Arctic Ocean, and occasionally as far south as Winnipeg. Though back then it was only a tiny settlement called Red River.

Among some of the northern tribes, life's harsh demands had led to harsh practices. There was little pity for the old, the sick, and the crippled. Even aged parents who could not travel were often simply abandoned. Women were not highly regarded and had few rights. It was not unusual for them to be beaten and killed when their husbands tired of them. Life in this cold and unforgiving land was haunted by dark fears, and constant danger from real or suspected enemies.

The hidden treasure

Francois knew nothing of the Christian way. He had several wives, as was the custom of the people, sometimes seven, and never less than three. But Christ was preparing to make big changes in his life. He was about to make himself known to Francois Beaulieu.

In the spring of 1848, there came to Fort Resolution a young man named Dubrueil. He was sent to work under Beaulieu. This quiet and good-natured man was a devout Catholic. Though Dubrueil was not a preacher, his way of life soon drew the interest of his boss.

Every morning and evening he would kneel down, reverently make the sign of the cross and pray. Never before had Beaulieu seen behavior like this. He was curious to know what it was all about. This young man seemed to have something, a kind of inner peace that was missing from his own life.

Francois wanted to learn about God and asked Dubrueil to explain what he was doing. Dubrueil told him a little about the Christian teaching and suggested, "You ought to go to the priest at Portage La Loche. He will teach you what you have to do to serve God." Beaulieu made immediate plans to leave.

Never in his life had Beaulieu seen a priest. Missionaries had only recently arrived and they were few. Beaulieu took his wives and his children in his largest canoe, and along with many Indian followers went to Portage La Loche.

There he learned about Christ, and how he had founded a great family of faith called the Church, and how Jesus wanted everyone to be part of it. Francois accepted this teaching with great joy and asked to be baptised.

But there was a problem. A Christian man must have only one wife. In order to follow Christ he would have to give up all his wives except one. It must have been a difficult decision. Finally he decided to keep his oldest wife Catherine and gave up the others.

Godfather of the faith

After his baptism he settled down at Salt River. Many families settled around him. The Spirit he received in baptism gave him a deep desire to spread the Gospel among his people. In 1852, he brought the first priest to Fort Resolution. He marked the event in a special way. Fr. Faraud wrote, "As we were passing an island on our way, he said, "We have islands, rivers and lakes, and they are all named after foreign people who just went through this country. This island, the biggest and most beautiful has not yet been named. Let us call it 'Priest Island'." To celebrate the occasion we sang a Chippewyan hymn."

Old Man Beaulieu was a pillar of support for the Church of the North. His home was always open to the missionaries. He helped them to make Christ known throughout the whole area, and to bring peace to the tribes. Priests often went to stay at Salt River to learn the Chipewyan language.

Father Grandin, who was there in the winter of 1856 wrote, "I was welcomed by Beaulieu and his people like I was an angel. He gave me his own house during my stay amongst them. He and his family moved into another house that was much poorer and colder."

When Grandin returned six years later as a bishop, Beaulieu greeted him with the words, "You are a 'great priest' now; it is the first time a bishop has come to this country and I have only sucker fish to feed you..."

A new life

Bishop Grandin discovered that the house where he lived and celebrated Mass six years before was now a 'prayer house' — a church. It was decorated with holy pictures and there was an altar.

The Catholic faith was alive and strong in the settlement. Each Friday, Sunday and feast day, the people gathered to sing hymns and pray the rosary. And it was Old Man Beaulieu who would preach to them!

He had become a man of prayer. Every day, even in the coldest weather, he would kneel down bareheaded before an outdoor cross that Bishop Grandin had erected. He would pray the rosary for the dead of his family and tribe. Most of all he would pray for all those whom he had wronged.

The new faith was having its effect. Old attitudes were beginning to change. Beaulieu led the way by caring for the poor and raising up many orphans. As his end drew near he travelled to the places where in his younger days he had done wrong. By his words and example he made up for the misdeeds of his past. He died a holy death in November, 1872.