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St. Bernard Mission (Church and Cemetery)

Grouard, Near

Other Names:
Grouard Mission Church

Statement of Significance

Description of Historic Place
St. Bernard Mission (Church and Cemetery) comprises a one-storey church built in 1902 and a cemetery dating from at least 1873. The church is a simple rectangular building with a gable roof, large engaged belfry, and arched windows. The cemetery is situated north of the church and contains the remains of four Roman Catholic bishops - included Bishop Grouard - and many other missionary pioneers. The mission is situated on 65 hectares of land in the Hamlet of Grouard.

Heritage Value
The heritage value of the St. Bernard Mission (Church and Cemetery) lies in its association with the establishment of Roman Catholic institutions in northern Alberta and its connection to the renowned missionary-pioneer Bishop Emile Grouard.

St. Bernard Mission was founded in 1872 near the Hudson's Bay Company post at Lesser Slave Lake. As a trade and transportation hub for northern Alberta with substantial populations of Cree and Metis, Lesser Slave Lake was perceived as a promising site for missionary work. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Roman Catholic religious order, established St. Bernard. By 1900, the mission had grown into one of the largest and most successful missions in the massive Athabasca-Mackenzie Vicariate encompassing all of northern Alberta. At its height, St. Bernard Mission featured a church, rectory, residence for nuns, boarding school, and an extensive farming operation. In 1901, the vicariate of Athabasca-Mackenzie was split into two separate jurisdictions. Missionary-pioneer Emile Grouard of the Oblates arrived to assume the role of Vicar Apostolic of Athabasca. The titular bishop of Ibora and a diligent evangelist in northern Alberta since the early 1860s, Bishop Grouard remained at St. Bernard Mission from the early 1900s until his death in 1931. In 1930, one year before he died, Grouard was appointed the Archbishop of the entire Athabasca-Mackenzie Diocese. A man of many talents and an indefatigable energy, he was a poet, musician, printer, author, painter, and linguist. Grouard profoundly influenced the religious life and social development of northern Alberta. Among his many achievements were his translation and printing of prayer books in Native syllabics and his role in encouraging the northern tribes to sign Treaty 8 with the government in 1899. In commemoration of Grouard's many accomplishments, the town was renamed in his honour in 1910 and the vicariate in 1927. He is buried in the cemetery north of the church.

The church at St. Bernard Mission was designed and built in 1902 by Brother Augustin Dumas to serve as Bishop Grouard's cathedral. The church manifests the influence of Thomas Baillarge, a French-Canadian church architect who injected the French-Canadian ecclesiastical style with eighteenth century French and British classicism. The traditional elements of the French-Canadian parish church are still evident in the church: the influence of the medieval French ecclesiastical style is seen in the tall central spire, while Baroque influences are embodied in the church's elaborate and elegant interior. Baillarge's classicist ideals are most clearly expressed in the round-arched classical windows, the more classical proportions - with a higher nave wall and a less steeply sloped roof - and the overall sense of balance and symmetry. The interior exhibits Grouard's considerable artistic talents, showcasing three of his original paintings executed on cloth, including the powerful image of the crucifixion situated behind the altar.

Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch (File: Des. 425)

Character-Defining Elements
The character-defining elements of St. Bernard Mission (Church and Cemetery) include such features as:

- gable roof;
- tall central belfry featuring lantern with round-arch openings, splayed eaves and a crowning cross;
- corbelled chimney over the sacristy;
- arrangement of doors;
- fenestration pattern and style, including circular window on front facade and round arch windows;
- interior structural system of arches, columns (with dentillated capitals), and barrel vault;
- cornice supported by embellished brackets;
- choir loft;
- original Grouard paintings on cloth;
- syllabic symbols on arch behind the altar;
- arches with wooden keystones above windows;
- original wooden trims, mouldings, flooring, panelling, doors, and decorative elements;
- original furnishings.

- spatial relation to church and Buffalo Bay;
- stone grave markers and wooden fencing;
- landscaping;
- sight lines to Buffalo Bay.


Street Address:
Community: Grouard, Near
Boundaries: Pt. Lot 35 in the south part of Lesser Slave Lake Settlement and Lot 1, Block 1, Plan 0122431
Contributing Resources: Buildings: 1
Landscape(s) or Landscape Feature(s): 1

ATS Legal Description:
Mer Rge Twp Sec LSD
10 (ptn.)

PBL Legal Description (Cadastral Reference):
Plan Block Lot Parcel
Lesser Slave Lake


Latitude Longitude CDT Datum Type
55.545018 -116.158544 GPS NAD 83

UTM Reference:
Northing Easting Zone CDT Datum Type


Recognition Authority: Province of Alberta
Designation Status: Provincial Historic Resource
Date of Designation: 1977/11/23

Historical Information

Built: 1902 to 1902
Period of Significance: N/A
Theme(s): Building Social and Community Life : Religious Institutions
Historic Function(s): Religion, Ritual and Funeral : Mortuary Site, Cemetery or Enclosure
Religion, Ritual and Funeral : Religious Facility or Place of Worship
Current Function(s): Education : Museum
Architect: Br. Augustin Dumas
Builder: Br. Augustin Dumas

The church and cemetery are all that remains of one of northern Alberta's oldest Catholic missions. St. Bernard's was established in 1872 near the Hudson's Bay Company post of Lesser Slave Lake. Lesser Slave Lake post was a major trade and transportation centre with a large Cree and Metis population living in the area. This good base of potential parishioners attracted the Oblates to the site, and the mission complex soon expanded to include a church, a rectory, a residence for nuns, a boarding school and an extensive farm operation. By the early 1900s, St. Bernard's Mission was one of the largest and most successful missions in northern Alberta. This significance is reflected in the surviving church which, despite a rather plain exterior, boasts a magnificent painted interior. Much of his painting was done by Bishop Grouard.

St. Bernard's serves as Bishop Grouard's main residence from 1902 to 1931. The significance of the site is therefore also based on its association with the Bishop. Bishop Grouard arrived in the north in 1863 as a missionary priest. He was an accomplished musician, printer and painter as well as an author of note. He wrote poetry, nonfiction and various religious works. He also set up a press to translate prayer books into the Cree and Beaver languages. He was made Bishop of the entire Athabasca-MacKenzie Diocese which included all of northern Alberta. The once booming town of Grouard was named in his honor. Bishop Grouard was buried in the nearby Mission Cemetery.


This cemetery is an integral part of a complex of historic resources associated with St. Bernard's Mission at Grouard. The mission church has been designated a Provincial Historic Resource in recognition of the significance of the site. This cemetery lies outside the bounds of the designated site but it clearly has a direct connection with the history of the mission and Grouard. In turn Grouard is one of the more significant settlements in northern Alberta. It was the location of the HBC's Lesser Slave Lake post, several mission and residential schools, a steamboat landing, NWMP post, as well as being the site of the initial signing of Treaty 8. Burials at this cemetery date back to 1873 and include many of the most prominent members of the First Nations, Metis, Iroquois and Euro-Canadian communities at Grouard. There may also be a number of burials of people who died prior to the establishment of the mission. Perhaps most interestingly, the cemetery reflects the connections between organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Hudson's Bay Company and the Aboriginal population of the Lesser Slave Lake area. For these reasons, this site clearly has a local and regional historical significance.

Additional Information

Object Number: 4665-0574
Designation File: DES 0425
Related Listing(s):
Heritage Survey File: HS 27909
Website Link:
Data Source: Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, Historic Resources Management Branch, Old St. Stephen's College, 8820 - 112 Street, Edmonton, AB T6G 2P8 (File: Des. 425)
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