Memorable Manitobans: Joseph Norbert Provencher (1787-1853)
Born at Nicolet, Quebec, on 12 February 1787, and educated at the Nicolet College Classique and the Quebec Seminary. He was ordained priest on 21 December 1811, thereafter serving in various Quebec parishes. In 1818 the Bishop of Quebec, J. O. Plessis, requested Provencher to go to Red River as a missionary priest, financed by a subscription campaign throughout Lower Canada.
Accompanied by J. V. S. Dumoulin and William Edge, Provencher left Montreal on 19 May 1818. On 18 July the two priests arrived at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, opening a mission at St. Boniface. Provencher was a big man, standing six feet four inches tall, and dressed in his clerical garb he created a great stir among the inhabitants. Large numbers were baptized, and many assisted in building a house that would serve as chapel and residence. He was appointed an auxiliary bishop and suffragan for the new territory in 1820, finally agreeing to serve as titular bishop of Juliopolis in 1821. He was consecrated in 1822. As bishop, Provencher took the lead in providing education for the local inhabitants, in supporting agriculture, and in converting both Europeans and Native peoples. He got on well with the Anglican missionaries and, after some initial problems, with the HBC directors as well.
In 1835 Bishop Provencher visited London, Paris and Rome to raise funds for his work in the West, and the Pope extended his jurisdiction to the Pacific Coast. He became a member of the Council of Assiniboia in June 1837. He toured Lower Canada in 1843 to recruit more priests and raise more money. In 1847 he was made Bishop of the North-West and Bishop of St. Boniface in 1852. During his episcopacy the Grey Nuns and the Oblates were brought to the North-West, throughout which a network of Roman Catholic missions was established. In later years he fought for a Coadjutor Bishop (finally getting Taché in 1851). His early correspondence, edited by Grace Nute, was published in English as Documents Relating to Northwest Missions, 1815-1827 (1942).
He died at St. Boniface on 6 June 1853 and was buried in the St. Boniface Cathedral Cemetery. He is commemorated by Provencher Boulevard in Winnipeg and the Provencher Monument in the St. Boniface Cathedral Cemetery. Most of his papers are in the Archives of the Archdiocese of Quebec, but some copies are in the Archives of Manitoba.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
Dictionary of Manitoba Biography by John M. “Jack” Bumsted, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 19 November 2020