Manitoba History: The Fatima Pioneers

by Marie-Claire Granger
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 80, Spring 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The community of Fatima was located an hour northeast of Winnipeg, seven miles east of the village of Stead and eleven miles southwest of St-Georges. Known informally as “Grand Prairie,” a map of the area from 1908 shows on the north end flat marshy country covered with tamarack and willow. Farther south going east is rolling country covered with white poplar, some small tamarack and black spruce. At one time a fire swept across the area and cleared a large opening.

The natives who had trapped and hunted there informed the local farmers from St-Georges about this burned area. Alphonse Vincent heard about this large prairie which was ideal for the harvesting of wild hay. In the summertime, he and his son Philorum and the Chevrefils (Etienne) harvested the hay. They travelled across the muskeg, from St-Georges to Grande Prairie, cut hay and stacked it, living in tents, and in the winter after the swamps were frozen hauled it by sleighs with horse teams to their farms for feed. In 1934, several families from St-Georges started talking about buying government land in Grande Prairie. Eméric Bouvier, Oscar Vincent and other local farmers built a road to Grande Prairie in the mid-1930s. They worked on it when they were on their way to Grande Prairie. When needed they built corduroy roads to get through and dug ditches for drainage.

Rémi Vincent came to Grande Prairie in the late 1930s or early 1940s and squatted on land there. He ploughed around a quarter-acre, marking his land. In 1940, a group of people from around St-Georges asked the government to open up the land at Grande Prairie. It has been said Lucien Lussier was the first to live in Grande Prairie in 1940. Some of the settlers kept sheep. From 1940 to 1944, some Leclerc brothers and Eméric Bouvier operated a sawmill. There was no church so, in the early 1940s, Rev. Pierre Picton came to celebrate mass at Elphege and Marthe Beaudry’s home.

Sometimes wells ran dry, which meant having to melt snow for household use and for the farm animals. In the spring, the land would flood because there were no drainage ditches. There was no schoolhouse for the children so they were home-schooled and some students took correspondence courses. There were enough kids to merit a school, but with the Second World War being fought, this was not a priority. Some residents moved away so their children could attend school.

Through the mid-1940s, some people stayed with the belief that things would change for the better soon. Some said they would leave and possibly come back when things got better. In 1947 an Oblate Father, Jean Méthé, was recruiting French Canadians to buy land at Fatima to settle the area. In 1948, when the settlers were allowed to choose their quarter-sections, they wasted no time staking claims. The province had decided to grant title to the settlers. Rémi Vincent paid $800 for his quarter-section. Some squatters left, not wanting to buy. The available land was quickly bought up. Shacks were going up and it was starting to look like a good place to settle. Priests from surrounding areas were now pushing people to move there. They promised roads and a school—these were not to be for another few years. Many farmers who resided elsewhere and had land in Fatima would build a shack and stay in the summertime while working the land. The landowners from St-Georges who lived closer would come and do their work for a few days and then return home.

My dad Hercule Emile Granger purchased property at Notre Dame de Fatima in 1949, the same year that a new parish was founded by the St-Boniface Diocese. In time, the Granger family at Fatima consisted of my grandfather Zotique (born 1892) and grandmother Juliette Barnabé (1894), their sons Marc (1939) and Henri (1917), their daughter Aline (1924) and husband Gérard Gentes and children Charles (1943), Colette (1945), Juliette (1949), and Gisele (1953), and my parents Hercule (1925) and Cécile (1932) and their eleven children: Lucienne (1956), Robert (1957), Emile (1958), Alphonse (1960), Marie-Claire (1961), Henriette (1962), Juliette (1963), Louis (1964), Monique (1967), Joseph (1968), and Cécile (1970).

The Granger farm, 1955

The Granger farm, 1955
Source: Marie-Claire Granger

Dad purchased a quarter-section because it was affordable but he found it tough for growing crops. There was not enough drainage. It was hard to work as it was all buffalo grass and other wild grasses. It was full of moss, three to four feet of it, in some places up to six feet deep. Dad burned the moss so he could plant crops. Before there was a road, Dad had to carry a big stick while walking to Stead before freeze-up. There was a bog three to four miles long on the way. It would move under his feet as he walked. He could not stop walking or he would sink.

Dad, my grandparents, and their youngest son Marc lived in the third building my dad had built in the summer of 1953. The previous two buildings were shacks. Zotique went to Fatima to help Dad. He also wanted to farm, as opposed to doing carpentry and odd jobs in Letellier. During the early years of my grandparents’ time at Fatima, they had considered opening a store and post office along the main road. In 1953, Jules, another brother of Dad’s, spent one winter with him, the grandparents and Marc. Jules did not want to live in Fatima. He says it was too hard to earn a living there and he did not want to farm. Grandma wanted to leave Fatima because she found it difficult living there, but Grandpa wanted to stay. In 1959, my grandparents moved to St-Boniface.

In the late 1940s, the first school classes at Fatima were taught by Mme Desbiens in Adélard Chevrefils’ home. In 1949, a shack that was on the Desbiens property began to be used as the school and church services on Sundays, while money was raised for a new school/church building. People would have house parties and card games and charge admission or ask for donations. Some business owners donated large sums. Adélard Chevrefils offered a portion of his property for the building.

Construction of the church/school started on 12 September 1952. The building was built by the settlers themselves, using timber they had cut and sawed into boards. Msg Maurice Beaudoux, the Archbishop of St-Boniface, officiated at the opening mass on 7 December 1952 attended by more than 100 people from Stead, St-Georges, Pine Falls, St-Boniface, St-Eustache, and Elie. The new school/church building was also used as a community centre where movies were shown and card games were played. Through the years, my dad sang and directed at church and helped with the liturgy. Zotique did as well when he was there. The school opened in January 1953.

The Fatima church and school benediction, 7 December 1952

The Fatima church and school benediction, 7 December 1952
Source: Marie-Claire Granger

The railway line to Pine Falls had a siding north of Fatima at Mile 12 near the rice paddy. In the late 1940s, work started on the Main Drain after a study by engineers in 1946-1947. In 1950, all the roads in the Fatima area were dirt. They were gravelled in 1951. There was a trail going all the way from Stead to St-Georges. In 1953 a road was built and gravelled. (It was still gravel when we moved in 1973.) Electricity came to Stead in 1952 and it was connected to our house the following year. In 1954, the only social organization in Fatima was the Farmers’ Union. They held monthly meetings. The telephone line came to our house in 1964.

My mom Cécile Grégoire St-Vincent, a French and Métis woman, joined the Grangers at Fatima after she and Hercule, a Frenchman, married on 11 June 1955. No relatives lived close by; therefore we rarely saw them. For the most part they came over as opposed to us going there.

Income to support the family came from selling cream, vegetables, cattle, pigs, and grain. Dad worked in the fields for Robert Thomson and Steve Roman. He also did some painting and helped with rough carpentry for the Thomsons and Hieberts. When he worked enough hours for someone else, he was able to collect Unemployment Insurance, as it was called at the time. Once a year in the fall, dad made the mortgage and tax payments. Many men from the area worked in the bush to supplement their income. The women stayed home when their husbands left to go work in the bush camps. They looked after everything: the home, children, and farm.

The highest population at Fatima was in 1962 with approximately 100 residents. The Fatima school closed that summer, as parents felt their children would get a better education in St-Georges. When the Fatima school closed, we rode the bus with some students from Stead who went to school in Powerview. Lucienne, the first born in my family, did not speak English when she started school in St-Georges. She learned it there, as did the first few older kids.

Many families left Fatima in the mid-1960s and some moved to British Columbia to work in gold exploration, fishing, and forestry. They left for a variety of reasons. Some were unable to get good drinking water or any water at all from their wells. Some were looking for new opportunities and an easier life in bigger towns and cities where there were jobs and conveniences. Some of the farmers left because they could not afford to buy much land. The majority of the land in the area was good for agriculture but they would have needed more of it to make a better living. Some said there was too much peat moss.

There were 86 Catholic parishioners at Fatima in 1964. This number had dropped to 58 in 1965 and 26 in 1966. The last church mass was held in June 1966. The church building was sold that winter to an Evangelist settlement at Black River for $1200. Three graves in the Fatima cemetery were moved. After the church closed, we attended mass at Powerview or St-Georges, or occasionally Stead. We picked up our mail and bought groceries and gas at Stead, seven miles away. For big shopping trips, we went to Pine Falls, Beausejour, or Selkirk.

Hercule Granger (1925–1978) standing in his wheat crop

Hercule Granger (1925–1978) standing in his wheat crop
Source: Marie-Claire Granger

Wild Rice Developments Limited purchased several sections of land at Fatima in 1963. They operated a rice paddy by around 1967, although the rice did not grow well in peat. The business went for about three years. In the late 1960s, many businesses in the area started growing sod. Stead is known as the “sod capital” of Manitoba.

Mom and Dad both developed health problems in the early 1970s. Sometime along the way in 1973, a decision had been made to move. We left on 17 November of that year. I am very proud of my parents Hercule and Cécile. They sure worked hard! And they took the time to make and enjoy special moments. Fatima and the people there have influenced me greatly, in many good ways. I am very grateful to have lived there for my first almost 13 years of life. I have talked to many people about their time in Fatima. They obviously all had different experiences.

The relocated portion of PR 304 was constructed in the early 1990s and surfaced in 1993. Part of this highway was the dirt road that ran behind our property with grass growing down the middle, the road we travelled after church in St-Georges to check on the crop. It became a highway that goes to Powerview from Beaconia. When the Pine Falls paper mill closed permanently in 2009, the railroad track was removed in 2012.

Present landowners in the Fatima area grow seed canola, soybeans, and wheat. Some sell sod, peat moss, topsoil, vegetables, and hand-made crafts. Other businesses included two marijuana grow-ops which were shut down between 2000 and 2006. Recently, Hutterites have begun to buy up land in the area. The majority of landowners are now from the Stead area. There were five households at Fatima as of the winter of 2014.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Fatima School No. 2334 (RM of Alexander)

Page revised: 9 May 2023