A mysterious white horse, a well-known Métis leader of Scottish and Cree descent and the second-oldest Roman Catholic parish on the Prairies all have something in common -- they are all part of the story behind the historic community of St. François Xavier.
Standing at the junction of Highways 1 and 26, west of Headingley, is the striking monument of a beautiful horse that commemorates one of the most famous legends in the history of Manitoba. So haunting was the legend of love between members of two warring tribes, their murder and the escape of their mystical white horse that continued to roam the Prairies for years afterwards, that the area soon became known as the White Horse Plains.
A Métis settlement founded by Cuthbert Grant in 1824 sprang up along the banks of the winding Assiniboine River and in that settlement was established the second-oldest Roman Catholic parish in Western Canada, the historic St. François Xavier Parish.
To the right of the horse off Highway 26, the town originally known as Grantown in honour of its founder, and now known as St. François Xavier, comes slowly into view. Once home to Cree and Sioux tribes, the area provided a rich supply of bison used for food and fur. Grant, having received a grant of land in the area, brought many colonists from Pembina, mostly of Métis origin, many of them his relatives, to settle on the river lots there.
The Métis leader placed the settlement under the patronage of St. François Xavier, a Spanish priest born in 1506 who helped bring Christianity to India and Japan. Bison hunting was the main occupation then, although farming was practised in later years as well.
After leading the North West Company forces in the battle of Seven Oaks, Grant began to work for the Hudson's Bay Company, founded Grantown and became Warden of the Plains in 1828, defending the Red River settlement from the Sioux. He began to be looked upon as the leader of the Métis.
Until 1827, Grantown was served by the missionary Father Destroismaisons. According to community history, the first church services were held in Grant's home. Eventually, the first chapel was built in 1828.
Liber Historicus, a parish journal written in French and dated 1824 to 1931, was discovered in the attic of the current church by parishioners some 80 years later. It was recently painstakingly translated from old French to modern Canadian French and then to English.
The journal, written by parish priests, contained a record of religious events, civil events and personal reflections on the times, stretching from 1824 through the First World War and ending abruptly on June 7, 1931.
According to the journal, compiled by Odile Thibert, the first church became too small and a larger church was built in 1832. The first Christmas mass was celebrated in 1833 and in 1834 a register was begun for baptisms, marriages and burials. The mission was granted parish status in 1834.
Several sisters of the Grey Nuns of Montreal arrived in the community at the request of Bishop Provencher in 1850 in order to look after the education of the children of the parish. A monument in memory of the Grey Nuns stands in the churchyard today.
The mission was served by various priests over the years until the arrival of one particularly well-loved and popular priest in 1866. Father François Xavier Kavanagh of Quebec became the residential priest of the parish in 1869 and served in that post for the next 40 years. At that time, the parish consisted of about 400 Métis families. A humble, quiet man, Father Kavanagh was loved for his devotion to the people and to the parish as well as for his remarkable faith.
The Historicus notes that when Archbishop Langevin made his second pastoral visit to the mission, he found the church to be in a "very dilapidated state" and consequently Father Kavanagh was entrusted with overseeing the building of an impressive new brick church.
Designed by the architect M. Sénécal of St. Boniface, the church was completed in 1900 and blessed by Archbishop Langevin on Dec. 4, 1900.
The journal states that "a long line of sleighs awaited the visitors at the station of The White Horse Plains. On approaching the village, rifle shots were fired to express the joy of the parishioners, all grouped around the church. A magnificent French flag waved graciously near the rectory."
The "new" brick church with its soaring spire sits in the peaceful pastoral setting of St. François Xavier and continues to serve the modern community today. The parish is now 186 years old.
Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.