GASTÉ, MARIE-JOSEPH-EUGÈNE-ALPHONSE (named Eugène-Alphonse at birth), Roman Catholic priest, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, and missionary; b. 11 Oct. 1830 in Andouillé, France, son of René Gasté, a miller, and Renée Benoiste; d. 27 Nov. 1919 in Laval, France.
Marie-Joseph-Eugène-Alphonse Gasté graduated from the lycée at Laval, France, in 1851 and entered the Grand Séminaire du Mans. He taught at the Collège de Château-Gonthier in 1854–55 and was ordained priest on 25 March 1855 at Sées. From 1855 to 1860 he served as assistant priest at Bais, in the diocese of Laval. Stirred by the appeals of Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin* on behalf of the missions of the diocese of St Boniface in Rupert’s Land, Gasté left his comfortable post, joining the Oblates on 24 April 1860. He completed his noviciate at St Norbert (Man.), and took his vows before Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché* on 31 May 1861.
Gasté then assisted Father Valentin Végréville in founding the mission of St Pierre, close to the new Hudson’s Bay Company post of Lac-du-Brochet House (Brochet, Man.), on Reindeer Lake. Taché, who had initiated missionary work there in 1847, was eager to solidify it so as to counter the impending establishment of an Anglican mission. Gasté spent the next 40 years at St Pierre, earning the title of “the Moses of the Chipewyan.” He travelled enormous distances to the camps of the Chipewyan known as Caribou Eaters, which spread north to the Barrens, and he also ministered to the southern Chipewyan and Cree. His great circle of influence extended from Dubawnt Lake (N.W.T.) to Lake Winnipeg. So devoted was he to his work that when he went to France in 1893 as a delegate to the general chapter of the Oblates, he returned immediately, rather than take any holidays.
In 1868, after seven months of arduous travel with the Chipewyan, Gasté became the first Oblate to contact the inland Inuit of what is now northern Manitoba. He persuaded them to trade at Lac-du-Brochet, much to the dismay of the HBC officers at Fort Churchill (near Churchill). The continuing contact with the Inuit laid the foundation for the work, under Gasté’s tutelage, of Arsène-Louis Turquetil, an Oblate who in 1931 would become the first missionary bishop for these Inuit.
The mission of St Pierre became part of the Oblate vicariate of Saskatchewan in 1868, with Grandin as vicar of missions. Three years later the vicariate would become the diocese of St Albert. Convinced that St Pierre was the most difficult of his missions because of the lack of converts, the difficulties of transportation, the isolation, and the impossibility of agriculture, Grandin intended to close it in 1870 but yielded to Gasté’s pleas to keep it open. This decision increased stability and the opening of a small school attracted more Chipewyan to commit themselves to Catholicism and in turn ensured the permanence of the mission. In 1891 a reorganization of ecclesiastical boundaries would place it in the vicariate apostolic of Saskatchewan (later the diocese of Prince Albert), under Bishop Albert Pascal.
Gasté sent his assistants to build chapel-houses throughout the southern part of his vast mission area, at Pelican Lake, The Pas, and Grand Rapids (Man.), as well as at Cumberland House (Sask.). The progenitor of these far-flung establishments, he exerted considerable influence on the development of his church in what is now northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He countered the impending closure of the trading post of Lac-du-Brochet in 1897 by bringing in a boatload of goods from a free trader in Prince Albert (Sask.) and arranging for a Métis to sell them, thus forcing the HBC to keep its post open so as not to lose its clients. In 1901, when Gasté ended his long missionary career, he had ensured that the HBC would maintain its post and the bishops the mission, despite the economies of church and trade which urged their abandonment.
At Prince Albert from 1901, Gasté served as superior of the Oblates and their master of novices, chaplain for the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion, vicar general of the vicariate in 1903, and its administrator in 1905. He celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination at Prince Albert in 1905, receiving tributes from the Chipewyan to whom he had ministered for so long.
In 1908 he returned to France to live with his sister and he served as priest in Laval from 1910 until his death in 1919.
Marie-Joseph-Eugène-Alphonse Gasté’s letters (originals and copies) are held at the Arch. Deschâtelets, Oblats de Marie-Immaculée (Ottawa) in his file and in the correspondence of the various bishops with whom he served; of particular value are documents HEB 6255.A45C, nos.1, 20. Additional Gasté correspondence is available at the Arch. de l’Archevêché de Saint-Boniface, Man.
Arch. Départementales, Mayenne (Laval, France), État civil, Andouillé, 14 oct. 1830. Prince Albert Roman Catholic Diocesan Arch. (Prince Albert, Sask.), Albert Pascal corr., Pascal à Henri Grandin, 9 juill. 1908, 31 juill. 1909. Gaston Carrière, Dictionnaire biographigue des oblats de Marie-Immaculée au Canada (4v., Ottawa, 1976–89), 2: 64–65. Fêtes jubilaires des R.R. P.P. Gasté et Moulin, le 26 juillet 1905 à Prince-Albert, Sask. (s.l., s.d.; copy at Arch. Deschâtelets). Martha McCarthy, To evangelize the nations: Roman Catholic missions in Manitoba, 1818–1870 (Winnipeg, 1990). Missions de la Congrégation des missionnaires oblats de Marie Immaculée (Marseille, etc.), 1 (1862)–44 (1906), esp. 9 (1870): 333–55, and 50 (1912): 285–88.