Of all the Oblate missionaries, who for more than a century dedicated their lives to the service of the Amerindians in the Canadian Northwest Territories, we no longer know the exact number of those who drowned in the course of their travels to preach the Gospel in these remote missions. We could recall the names of Brothers Joseph Thouminet, who disappeared in 1880, Joseph Rio, in 1907, Emile Portelance and Alexandre Cadieux, in 1909, Auguste Weisch and Joseph Nicolas, in 1910, as well as Fathers Benoît Brémond and Joseph Brohan, 1908, François Frapsauce, 1920, and Honoré Pigeon, 1934. But this list is far from complete.
Father Elphège Allard
This is the story of a young missionary who disappeared tragically, at the age of 48, in dangerous rapids, and whose body was discovered miraculously, thanks to a special intervention of the Virgin Mary. Elphège Allard was born on June 11, 1891 at Saint-Simon-de-Bagot, in a family which would provide the Church with three Oblates and three Sisters of the Presentation of Mary. After his studies at the Seminary of Saint-Hyacinthe, Elphège followed his two older brothers Joseph and Odilon into the Oblate community. He was ordained to the Priesthood by Bishop J. H. Bruneault, of Nicolet. The following month, young Father Allard left for the missions in British Columbia. During seventeen years he showed an extraordinary zeal which produced an abundance of fruitful results. As an itinerant missionary along the railroad line, he visited numerous mining camps. He was entrusted with the missions of Telegraph Creek, McDame, Lower Post, and Stuart Lake. He built many churches, instructed and baptized hundreds of Amerindians. He even found time to take flying lessons, and in 1930, he was one of the first missionaries to obtain a pilot’s license.
A fatal accident
This daring apostle of Christ would unfortunately end his days tragically. On July 13, 1935, he was descending on the Dease River in the company of his bishop, Emile Bunoz. The small boat he was piloting was heavy with baggage, heaped up behind the bishop, who was sitting at the front. Suddenly, they were caught up in rapids and Father Allard was unable to avoid a low-lying branch extending over the river. He was violently thrown overboard and disappeared in the turbulent waters before the very eyes of his companion, who could nothing to help him. It was miraculous that the bishop survived. After two long days of waiting on the isolated bank, near the wreck, the prelate was finally rescued by a passing commercial vessel and brought to the closest Amerindian mission.
A providential sign
On receiving news of the tragedy, the police and a team of Amerindians left immediately to look for the missing missionary. For three weeks the river was carefully searched unsuccessfully. The group was about to leave when a policeman noticed a piece of paper dangling from a branch that was floating on the water, several kilometers from the wreck. Out of curiosity, he reached out for this unusual object. It was a picture of the Blessed Virgin. Where did it come from? Certainly from one of the packages that fell in the water with the priest. The search was resumed at that spot. Who knows? Could this be a sign from heaven? Soon after, as a matter of fact, the searchers retrieved from the water the precious mortal remains of the valiant missionary. His body had been held on the river bottom by a tree stump which had been uprooted from the bank.
Father Allard has never received the glorious crown of martyrdom, but, before God, his merit is just as great: that of having given his life for the salvation of the most abandoned souls. “His passing from this world was thought an affliction, but he is in peace.” (Wisdom 3:2)
André DORVAL, OMI