Father Le Jeune: remembering a language pioneer and caring pastoral worker


Father Le Jeune: remembering a language pioneer and caring pastoral worker

An 1890 photo at St. Mary’s Mission shows Father Jean-Marie Le Jeune, back row, tall priest fourth from the right. Father Le Jeune made it possible for First Nations members to rend and write in the Chinook shorthand he developed. Also in the photo are, front row, left to right, Father Albert Ouellette, Father Albert Lacombe, Bishop John Nicholas, Bishop Paul Durieu, Father John Welch, Father Patrick Fay, and Father Charles Marchal. In back row, left to right, are Father Gustav Donchel (Donkele), Father Fredrick Guertin, Father Leon Doucet, Father Jean-Marie Lejacq, Father M.M. Ronden, Father Le Jeune, Father Oliver Cornellier, Father Alexander MacDonald (future Bishop of Victoria), and Father Adrien Gabriel Morice. (B.C. Catholic archive photo)

About a three-hour drive from the Lower Mainland, between Kamloops and Merritt, is the beautiful Lac Le Jeune Provincial Park. Thousands of people drive by it each year, and hundreds visit and enjoy swimming, fishing, hiking, boating, and nature, but only a few have any idea why the park and the lakeside resort community of Lac Le Jeune are named for Father Jean-Marie Raphael Le Jeune, Oblate of Mary Immaculate.

Father Jean-Marie Raphael Le Jeune, OMI, arrived in B.C. from his native France in 1879 with Bishop Durieu and served in New Westminster, St. Mary’s Mission, East Kootenays, Williams Lake, and finally at Kamloops. He is remembered for his faithful service as an Oblate, but even more, for two unusual accomplishments.

His primary mission was the conversion of the First Nations in the region, and he followed the Oblate belief that when converting natives, one could “better speak to their hearts by appealing to their eyes.”

As a result of that conviction, he strongly encouraged the construction of chapels and was deeply involved in retreats which were often attended by 2,000 to 3,000 natives. The Oblates organized elaborate visual spectacles featuring exhibitions of Christ’s Passion enacted by First Nations people, penitential parades, expositions of the Eucharist, and First Communions.

Undated photo of Father Le Jeune’s grave at the Oblate Cemetery in Mission, BC.

In 1892, there was a retreat at St. Mary’s mission that Father Le Jeune and Bishop Durieu had started planning two years earlier. Their correspondence underlines the organization such an event required: transportation of natives had to be arranged, each band’s food had to be gathered and transported “so that our meetings will not be potlatches,” and decorations and props had to be acquired or built.

An account in The Vancouver Daily World of the events in 1897 celebrating the Jubilee of Queen Victoria refers to “the Empire bonfire on Mount St. Paul, lighted by the Indians under the direction of Rev. Father Le Jeune, OMI. This illumination increased in brilliancy during the grand display of fireworks, rockets, shooting stars, illuminated balloons, etc. … Long after the supply of these artificials was exhausted, this burning crater on Mount St. Paul was still shooting out its fiery tongue, lighting up, as it were, the pathway of the participants and spectators on their return to rest after the enjoyment of a day never to be forgotten in Kamloops.”

Father Le Jeune also single-handedly made it possible for members of the local First Nations to read and write English or any language written in the Chinook shorthand he developed. Early in his career, Father Le Jeune set out to master the various Interior Salish dialects in his district and eventually was able to preach to and converse with the First Nations in their own languages. In 1922, he told the Kamloops Rotary Club that he “could swear in 22 languages.” He also became fluent in the Chinook jargon that was used in the early canneries, where Indigenous canners used it to communicate with Japanese and Chinese coworkers.

But despite its widespread use, Father Le Jeune believed that the language had its limits – at least when it came to his hopes for mass conversion – because there weren’t many who could read it.

In 1890 he adapted the Duployan system of shorthand to the sounds of Chinook jargon and began to teach his method to the First Nations. His best students in turn became teachers, and within a few years there were in his district at least 2,000 First Nations people reading and writing shorthand.

In 1891 Father Le Jeune launched the Chinook jargon newspaper the Kamloops Wawa, or the “Kamloops Chat.” The paper focused at first on hymns and religious texts but evolved to include news from different Indigenous communities and eventually international news. It was published in three columns (Chinook jargon in the Roman alphabet, in shorthand, and in English).

From a circulation of 100 mimeographed copies at the outset, Father Le Jeune increased it to over 3,000 copies a month. The last issue of the Kamloops Wawa was published in September 1904.

Father Le Jeune retired from his mission in the summer of 1929 and died in New Westminster on Nov. 21, 1930. He is buried in the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Cemetery in Mission.

Published on The B.C. Catholic website