Missionary, educator, visionary, fighter for human rights.
In 1859, the St. Augustine’s Parish of Rustico welcomed a new French-speaking priest, Father Georges-Antoine Belcourt. He was born in Quebec in 1803 and ordained in 1827. As a Jesuit missionary, he worked tirelessly in the Red River Valley for the rights of the Indigenous people and the Metis, baptized Louis Riel, created a Chippewa dictionary, was first white man to write extensively about buffalo hunts, etc. In Rustico, Father Belcourt set out to help the Acadians, mainly poor French-speaking farmers and fishermen. He established the Catholic Institute, promoting self-help ideas for parishioners; created the Farmers Bank of Rustico, the precursor to the Credit Union movement in North America; he created a “Model School” to educate young men who became teachers, a lawyer, and a doctor; established the first free public library on the Island; and formed a brass band that rivalled the best in Charlottetown. His hard work and dedication empowered the Acadians to lift themselves from poverty. In 1866 Father Belcourt imported Canada’s first automobile. It was built by Elijah Ware of New Jersey. The Ware Steam Wagon was promoted not only as a vehicle that could travel over roads and ice but also a mobile power unit that could run a thrashing machine, sawmill, and pump water. The car arrived in Charlottetown in December 1866. Its first public demonstration was on June 24, 1867 at the parish picnic, Rustico. It was a great sensation! Father Belcourt demonstrated this new technology and its future labour-saving features. In 1959, Father Georges-Antoine Belcourt was declared a Person of National Historic Significance,” and the Farmers Bank of Rustico was declared a “National Historic Site.”
From the paper titled, “From Red River to Rustico” by George F.G. Stanley, 1983…
“…Father Belcourt’s efforts to turn the new regulations [of PEI Dept. of Education] to his own advantage. Why not encourage young bilinguals to enter the teaching profession he started a “model” school in Rustico. The school operated at the secondary level and trained young men to be bilingual instructors. He hired a young Montrealer, Isréal Landry, who was a scholar and a musician. Subjects taught at the “Model” school were French, Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Plain Chant and Music. It was a remarkable group of students who were attracted to Belcourt’s school; and within a year it was producing qualified teachers for French language schools at Miscouche, Egmont Bay and Rustico. Describing Belcourt’s school, the Acadian historian, J.H. Blanchard wrote:
“Ten of these students obtained Provincial Teachers Licenses. One of the students, Stanislas Blanchard became a lawyer and a judge, the first Acadian of Prince Edward Island to attain this distinction. Another Isidore Gallant, was the first Acadian of the Province to become a medical doctor.”J.H. Blanchard
A school was, however, only one step. Belcourt founded the Institut Catholique de Rustico, a kind of adult study club. It was a popular organization. Every fortnight meetings would be held, followed by questions and discussions. To further his objectives of providing adult education, Belcourt set about assembling a library of books in French. They included volumes on farming, cooking, dressmaking; others on music, history and art; religion, science and mechanics; some were dictionaries and encyclopedias and other works of reference.
“Despite the renewal of the Farmers Bank’s charter, its days were numbered. The people of the province might support the bank and the Bishop of Charlottetown, Mgr. Peter McIntyre, offer up earnest prayers for its continued success, but on 1 July 1894, the bank was compelled to close its doors. It did not fail or go bankrupt; it simply ceased to exist. It had been founded without financial reserves, but managed to serve the needs of a small rural population for thirty years. It left behind it a physical monument to its existence, and an idea which was taken up by Dr. Moses Coady, John Croteau, and Alphonse Desjardins of Quebec and continues to the present day as the credit union movement. The Farmer’s Bank of Rustico may well have been Father Belcourt’s outstanding contribution to Canada.”