George Anthony Belcourt, pioneer missionary of the Northwest
On this date, June 1, in 1848, Father George Antoine Belcourt arrived in Pembina.
Born April 22, 1803, in Quebec, Canada, Belcourt grew up in the Catholic Church and was ordained on March 10, 1827.
Early on, Belcourt was interested in missionary work and would spend three decades among the Indians on the plains. The call came in 1830 to the Red River Valley. He arrived on June 17 with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
To Christianize the Indians, Belcourt studied the Chippewa language, beginning instruction of them within a year. Two years later, he wrote to a friend, “I would rather write in Chippewa than in French.”
In 1832, Belcourt established the first mission for Indians at Prairie Fournier about 60 miles west of St. Boniface. He transferred the mission to Baie St. Paul, west of Fort Garry, in 1834 and taught the Indians farming, art and religion.
On land given by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Belcourt built a log chapel, with living quarters, and several small cabins for the Indians, along with land to cultivate.
During his first year, Belcourt had about 150 Indians attending religious instruction and baptized about 75. Not only did he believe a chapel was necessary to “transform” the Indians, but a school was also, which he started in 1834, though he had no textbooks or students.
He hired Angelique Nolan, who spoke the Chippewa language fluently, as teacher. In 1836, Belcourt had prepared five students for their First Communion, the first fruits of his three years at the mission.
By 1839, Belcourt had compiled a Chippewa dictionary, but couldn’t find a publisher in Quebec. Invaluable to learning the language, it was eventually published by Father Lacombe, who studied under Belcourt.
Belcourt spent most of each year traveling from Rainy Lake to the Saskatchewan River, starting missions, building chapels, and saying masses, returning each winter to Baie St. Paul, where he taught the other priests the Chippewa language.
In the spring of 1846, Belcourt went with the Indians on their semi-annual buffalo hunt, serving as physician. He replenished his medical supply at the Fort Berthold Mandan village on the Missouri River and preached, baptized and instructed.
By 1847, the Hudson’s Bay Company blamed Belcourt for stirring up the natives about the fur trade monopoly and their questionable dealings with the Indians. He was arrested on invalid charges, but was soon found innocent.
Despite that, however, Belcourt was recalled from the Red River. Eventually, the Archbishop allowed him to continue his missionary work. Belcourt refused to return to anywhere but Pembina. On June 1, 1848, he resumed the work of Father Dumoulin, who had left Pembina in 1823.
Belcourt soon realized how poor the mission was, being forced to live on just $200. He had 50 children in school, and the instruction was in Chippewa. In 1853, Belcourt moved his residence about 30 miles to the west to St. Joseph (now Walhalla), where he built a church, school and presbytery and the first flour mill in North Dakota.
He had great plans for St. Joseph, a prosperous mission of 1,500 Indians, with a school run by the Sisters of the Propagation of the Faith, a religious community of Indians founded by Belcourt in 1857. From there, he traveled and evangelized most of the Turtle Mountain region.
Bishop Shanley of Fargo once said, “If any Catholic priest more than another had done meritorious and lasting work for the benefit of the state, George Anthony Joseph Belcourt was the man.” He ministered in what is now North Dakota until March 1859.
by Cathy A. Langemo