DECORBY, JULES (baptized Marie-Jules-Louis), Roman Catholic priest and Oblate of Mary Immaculate; b. 3 May 1841 in Chandolas, France, son of Joseph Decorby, a vineyard owner, and Marie-Madeleine Serre; d. 16 Oct. 1916 in St Charles, Man.
Jules Decorby entered the noviciate at Notre-Dame-de-l’Osier in France on 30 April 1861, made his religious profession as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate on 3 May 1862, and took his perpetual vows at the scholasticate of Autun a year later. He was ordained to the priesthood at Autun on 30 May 1867 and in September left to serve as a missionary in the diocese of St Boniface under Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché*.
Decorby was assigned to the St Florent mission (Lebret, Sask.), in the Qu’Appelle valley, where he served from 1868 to 1880. He received some aid from other Oblates – Jean-Marie-Joseph Lestanc assisted him from time to time and in 1874 Joseph Hugonard arrived to help him – but often he was 15 days’ walking distance from the nearest priest. From his base mission he travelled across what is now southern Saskatchewan as far as the Cypress Hills [see Payipwat*]. Many of the places he visited would later become the sites of missions and then towns. He worked among the Cree, Saulteaux, Sioux, and Assiniboin and was sometimes called “the little father who knows all languages.” In 1874, when the Indians were negotiating Treaty No.4 with the Canadian government, Decorby tried to help the Métis of the Qu’Appelle area to obtain some guarantee of land and other rights. He wrote to Taché and David Laird, the minister of the interior, and assisted in the preparation of a petition from the Qu’Appelle Métis to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris*.
Letters written by Decorby to Taché and to family members in France during this period include descriptions of day-to-day prairie life and of events such as the loss of the mission residence and chapel to fire, the construction of new buildings with the assistance of the Métis, and the devastation of an Indian camp by smallpox. Because he accompanied the Métis on buffalo hunts, he was able to describe at first hand their practice of establishing a winter camp near the animal’s migration route and to give detail about family life and the work of the missionary among them. His writings express concern about the disappearance of the buffalo, primarily because of the hardship the Indians and Métis would face, but also because it seemed the species might disappear from the western plains altogether. In 1879 he and an assistant loaded some buffalo calves into Red River carts and had them taken to Winnipeg, about 600 miles away.
In 1880 Decorby was transferred to the Fort Ellice area, on the Assiniboine River in western Manitoba, where he established the mission of St Lazare. In addition to ministering to the aboriginal peoples, he served as pastor to settlements of European immigrants, including the new Hungarian colony near Esterhaz (Esterhazy, Sask.) [see Pál Oszkár Esterházy]. In a letter of 1888 to his sister, he claimed to know nine languages and to be working on a tenth. The year 1895 saw Decorby sent farther up the Assiniboine valley to Fort Pelly (Sask.). He built a log chapel, a house, and a day-school for Indian children there, but in 1901 he relocated the mission site to St Philippe de Néri, a few miles closer to The Key Reserve. Although the residential school he set up at St Philippe de Néri was opened in 1903, he was unable to obtain government funding for it until the autumn of 1906, a delay that resulted in much difficulty. He continued his work among European immigrants, which was undoubtedly aided by the knowledge of Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, and German that he was able to acquire.
At the age of 70 Decorby was injured in a fall and reluctantly left the mission for St Laurent, Man. From 1913 to 1915 he lived on the Oblate farm at Cartier and in 1915 he was moved to the juniorate at St Charles. His health continued to deteriorate and he died the next year. His body was later transferred to the Oblate cemetery at St Boniface.
Decorby had become a legendary figure in the west. Many stories were told about him, usually emphasizing his endurance over long journeys by foot, horseback, or dogsled, his extraordinary skill with horses, his generous and humble nature, his untiring work in preaching and ministering, and his genuine affection for the Indians and Métis.
Decorby’s missionary work was part of a broad endeavour by the Oblates and the Catholic Church, first to evangelize and educate the aboriginal peoples, and later to minister to Catholic immigrants who had come to settle in the region. Within this larger context the life’s-work of Jules Decorby – this “little father” – can be seen as a sincere effort by a man of God to assist the people of western Canada in moving towards self-sufficiency, justice, and, ultimately, eternal life.
The main primary sources for Decorby are his letters to Archbishop Taché and later Archbishop Adélard Langevin, found in the two archbishops’ papers in the Arch. de l’Archevêché de Saint-Boniface, Man., and correspondence from Decorby to his family in France, the originals of which are in the private collection of a great-niece, Joann DeCorby Blaise of Kennedy, Sask. Decorby’s letters are difficult to read, but Mrs Blaise had all of his correspondence transcribed into more legible copies and translated into English. Photocopies of Decorby’s letters to Taché are also available in Saskatchewan Arch. Board (Regina), R-806 (St Boniface Archdiocese). Additional Decorby materials in Mrs Blaise’s possession include an original photograph of him taken at the time of his departure for Canada in 1867.
Archdiocese of Regina: a history (Regina, 1988). [J.-P.-A.] Benoît, Vie de Mgr Taché, archevêque de St-Boniface (2v., Montréal, 1904). Gaston Carrière, L’apôtre des Prairies: Joseph Hugonnard, o.m.i., 1848–1917 (Montréal, ). J.-É. Champagne, Les missions cathaliques dans l’Ouest canadien (1818–1875) (Ottawa, 1949). J. W. Grant, Moon of wintertime: missionaries and the Indians of Canada in encounter since 1534 (Toronto, 1984). Donat Levasseur, Histoire des missionnaires oblats de Marie Immaculée: essai de synthèse (1v. paru, Montréal, 1983– ). [The unidentified Oblate in the photograph on p.23 is Decorby.] Missions de la Congrégation des missionnaires oblats de Marie Immaculée (Paris), 18 (1880): 193–200. [An English translation of this letter from Decorby to Albert Lacombe, 1 Nov. 1879, is found on pp.63–70 of Clovis Rondeau’s history, cited below.] Aristide Philippot, “Quarante-neuf ans de rude apostolat,” L’Ami du foyer (Saint-Boniface, Man.), 53 (1958), octobre: 3–5; 54 (1959), janvier: 6–7 (copy at the Arch. Deschâtelets, Oblats de Marie-Immaculée, Ottawa). Clovis Rondeau, La Montagne de Bois, 1870–1920, [2nd ed.], trans. Simone LeGal et al., bound with Adrien Chabot, Willow Bunch, 1920–1970, trans. [Irène Bonin, named] Sister Gabrielle-Madeleine (2v. in 1, [Willow Bunch, Sask.], 1970).