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Georges–Antoine Belcourt: A Tireless Priest

For the week of Monday May 26, 2008

On May 31, 1874, Georges-Antoine Belcourt died in Shediac, New Brunswick. He was a missionary who made his mark through his work in the West and his contribution to the social and economic progress of the Maritimes.

Georges-Antoine Belcourt
© Archives of Manitoba / Georges-Antoine Belcourt 1-1 (N16706)
Belcourt was born on April 22, 1803, in Saint-Antoine-de-la-Baie-du-Febvre in Lower Canada, now Quebec. He became a priest in 1827 after studying at Séminaire de Nicolet. His career began as a vicar in a number of small parishes in Lower Canada, until the Bishop of Quebec asked him to start a mission in the Red River area in the Western territories.

His missionary work began in Saint-Boniface in 1831. Then, in 1832-33, he moved near the Assiniboine River, where he established the Baie-Saint-Paul mission. After some disagreements with his superiors, he was forced to leave the West twice! He returned to Lower Canada the first time because of a quarrel about the methods he used to convert the Indians. Belcourt believed it was important to help them settle on the land and teach them about agriculture before beginning to evangelize them. After he returned to the West as an itinerant missionary, Belcourt continued to establish missions, one of which was Wabaseemoong. He was also actively involved in the fight against the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly over the Western territories. He encouraged the Métis to organize a resistance to protect their rights. This led to his second recall to Lower Canada. Belcourt, however, took advantage of the situation to go to the United States from 1848 to 1859 and establish a mission in the Pembina area. He continued his fight against the monopoly by the Hudson Bay Company from there.

The Farmer's Bank of Rustico
© Parks Canada / J. Butterill / 1994

In 1859, the Bishop of Quebec, upon a request from the Bishop of Charlottetown for a French-speaking priest, assigned him to a small parish in Rustico, Prince Edward Island. Belcourt launched projects that would contribute to the social and economic progress of this parish. Thus, in 1864, he established the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico, which allowed farmers to take out loans at reasonable rates. The Bank closed in 1894. It is believed that Alphonse Desjardins drew inspiration from this bank when he created the Caisses populaires.

In 1869, Belcourt settled on a farm in Shediac, New Brunswick, following health problems. He then became a parish priest in the Magdalen Islands from 1871 to 1874, until a final illness forced him to return to Shediac permanently. In 1959, Georges-Antoine Belcourt was designated a National Historic Person, and the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico was designated a National Historic Site.

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