A Centennial House
by Rossel Vien
Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1965, Volume 10, Number 2
On a cold and stormy Sunday last December, the St. Boniface Historical Society played host to its members and friends at the Archbishop's house. The occasion was the centenary of the house, or at least, of the part of it facing Tache Street and the Red River.
Quite naturally, more attention has always been paid in St. Boniface to such buildings as the Cathedral, the Grey Nuns' house, the college and the hospital. Nevertheless, the residence built by Bishop Tache in 1864, with its stone walls 28 inches thick, has more than survived the cathedral erected just before it - "the third cathedral" (1863-1908).
Tache had to build everything anew, indeed, after the disaster of 1860. In December of that year, both the old church with the "turrets twain" erected by Bishop Provencher and the Bishopric had been razed by fire, through the imprudence of domestics preparing candles for Christmas. The new church was opened in 1863. When reporting the news, the Nor' Wester added: "We understand that the masons are busy preparing stone for the Bishop's palace . . . The more good buildings, the better for the Settlement as a whole, and we hope the palace may be finished by All Saints' Day, next year."
The word "palace", which has been used occasionally until recent times, can apply here only as a euphemism or in reference to ancient European traditions.
The main work of the new church having been completed by the fall of 1863, therefore, the building of the home was pushed ahead in 1864 and made habitable in April of the following year. Except for the top storey whose alterations were probably made when a brick building was added, around 1900, its appearance is the same as one hundred years ago when it could be seen from Fort Garry, the fortress then standing across the river.
More striking than the details of its construction and architecture are the troubles and hardships of the times from which it proceeds. The 1860's had seen a return of proverbial calamities in Red River - floods and grasshoppers. In the year 1864, gangs of Sioux Indians were wandering about the Settlement and could well have raided the "palace" as they did farms at Headingley and White Horse Plain. At the beginning of that year, about five hundred of them had taken refuge at Red River. Civil War was then raging in the United States and following the famous Sioux massacre of 1862 in Minnesota many sought escape north of the international boundary.
The Bishopric found itself in the midst of the disturbances of 1869-70 which resulted in the creation of the province of Manitoba. Among the few incidents of a military nature in which it was involved, suffice it to mention here one found in the Chronicles of the Grey Nuns'. Relating the movements of the "Portage party", in mid-February 1870, Sister Curran wrote: "They came warning us that the English are to come at night and take over the Cathedral and the Bishop's House to make up a fortified place for themselves ... Forty soldiers were mounting guard at the House and horsemen were riding around it in all directions ... "
In that house, Joseph Dubuc, who was to become chief justice of Manitoba, lived for a year after his arrival in the new province in 1870. Near that house, in the fall of 1871, Lieutenant-Governor Archibald reviewed the metis troops called to help prevent a Fenian invasion. In that same house, in 1872, Archbishop Tache convinced Louis Biel and Ambroise Lepine to leave the country, at the request of the federal government. Through the years, such men as Joseph Royal, M. A. Girard, Alphonse Lariviere, who played leading roles in the early governments of Manitoba, frequently stepped across the threshold of the archbishopric to meet with their friend.
In the decade of 1880-1890, which saw a vast movement of land-selling and immigration in the West, the prelate would receive visits from all kinds of people, including new settlers, Indians, missionaries, political personages. And in that same house, in the early 1890s now a sick man, he wrote his last pamphlets on the School Question.
Just at the end of 1899, following the addition of a wing of the same size as the stone house at the front - 60 by 40 feet - a big event was the installation of acetylene for lighting. At that time, long scientific articles on acetylene were appearing in the weekly paper Le Manitoba. The archbishop, who had died five years, earlier, did not see the new enlargement or the lights.
During his long and labouring life in the West, Tache went through many trials and disappointments. At least this sturdy-looking stone residence, now older than Manitoba as a province, remains to reflect something of his era.
Page revised: 18 July 2009