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The Catholic priest who chooses the bush.

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There are a lot of characters that make up the Alberta trappers. Here is the story of one such man. A Catholic priest, fluent in many languages, that traps fur bearers and uses the money earned to benefit his parishioners. I think you will enjoy the biography of Father Baratto and take comfort that he is still guarding his flock and also harvesting our abundant fur bearers. Alberta is richer with pioneers like Father Baratto in the woods, so enjoy.

In 1966 I was transferred to High Prairie, Alberta from Claresholm a quiet district in Southern Alberta. The North was a real challenge for a Fish and Wildlife Officer taking over my first district, there was a lot to learn.

It wasn't long before I met Forest Officer Phil Nichols who was in charge of the Salt Prairie District, a very professional Officer, who knew all the ropes, spoke Cree and gave me a lot of fatherly advice. May Phil rest in peace; he was a true friend and valuable teacher. Phil advised me to contact

Father Virgilio Baratto who was the parish priest at Atikameg and Gift Lake. Father Baratto and four Sisters (Mother Superior, a Nurse, a Teacher and a great Cook) operated the Mission and over the next few years, I found the Mission to be home many, many times. As there was no cafe or hotel at Atikameg (Whitefish Lake), they welcomed me for meals and provided sleeping quarters. Atikameg Lake was a very productive lake and demanded a great deal of supervision, 70 miles from High Prairie and on very poor roads at times.

So started the friendship with a great man and devoted priest, so far from his birthplace on June 26, 1925, in Bellune, Italy, which is in the North Pre-Alps area.

He was the 14th of 17 children, of whom 8 became Nuns (Sisters) and 3 Priests, all belonged to the Religious Congregation of St. John Bosco (Salesians). Father Baratto was the black sheep; he joined the Order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1947 as he wanted to be a Missionary and work among the natives in North America. He was ordained on June 26, 1952 in Turin, Italy and was assigned to the Missions of Grouard-McLennan in Northern Alberta, arriving in Halifax in September 1953. Next stop was Edmonton, by rail, where he was met by Archbishop H. Routhier who took him to his first Alberta Parish in Sturgeon Lake, where he was to "learn the Cree culture and language or go back where he came from" the Archbishop told him.

Father Baratto was raised in a forested area so felt at home in Northern Alberta. With a great interest in fish and wildlife he soon learned, besides his demanding parish work including learning Cree and their culture, to fish, hunt and trap. In the fall of 1955 he transferred to Hay Lakes (Assumption) and the Archbishop told him he would have to learn another language, Slavey-Beaver. After only two years, in the fall of 1957 he was sent to Atikameg (Whitefish Lake) which was a good break as this was a Cree community and communicating was much easier.

However, there was a big challenge during this tenure (1957-1968), he built his 3rd church and served the Gift Lake area as well as Atikameg. While at Atikameg, and at all the parishes he served, Father Baratto spent his spare time fishing, hunting and trapping as a Partner on a Registered Fur Management Area. The parishes benefited greatly from his trapping as the money earned went back to help with parish expenses.

In 1968 he was sent to another parish, Marten River-Cadotte Lake which was new, and faced more challenges such as building his 4th church. Of course he continued with his outdoor activities, trapping being his first love and he was able to spend a lot of spare time in the bush hunting and trapping.

The policy of the Oblate Order is to transfer the missionary priests about every ten years, so in 1979 he went to Wabasca-Desmarais where he was lucky as there was a church in good repair and no building of a church was required, which relieved him of a lot of stress and hard work. He was also comfortable with the parishioners as Wabasca is primarily a Cree area so there were less language barriers.

Speaking of languages, Father Baratto is very talented--he speaks eight languages; Italian (mother language), Latin, Greek, French, Cree, Slavey-Beaver, Spanish and English. He also can read and write a number of them.

Father Baratto is presently the parish priest at Joussard

(Editor: he has since then retired), since 1989, on the shore of Lesser Slave Lake where he also serves Driftpile, Sucker Creek and, until recently, Smith. In Joussard there are a number of French families so he fits in well and Driftpile and Sucker Creek are Cree communities so he makes good use of his Cree tongue.

Joussard is a perfect location for Father Baratto, the church and residence are on the shore of Lesser Slave Lake where he can fish and trapping and hunting are close at hand. Of course it is a much different parish than all the others he has been, as a large number of tourists spend the summer in the area due to the excellent fishing in Lesser Slave Lake and the congregation is much larger. Father Baratto is one of a kind, you only have to say his name and immediately think of a courageous missionary who is one of the veteran Oblate Priests devoted to their ministry for the glory of God and their faithful congregations.

But the name "Baratto" can also bring to mind the image of an expert hunter, fisherman and trapper who is patient, audacious, honest and surprisingly crafty when needed. He gives the impression of being different from most, in the sense that he has two guardian angels, one for the day, one for the night and both of them full time. Being a humble man Father Baratto will never mention his talents or strength and his many close calls--like the time his ski-do went through the ice and he was lucky to get to shore plus many close calls on his quad and an encounter with a Black Bear, etc. He gets lots of help from the Lord and his guardian angels.

It is interesting to note who is involved in the Alberta trapping industry and those who love the outdoors and trapping. This article introduced you to an Oblate Priest. There are Trappers from all walks of life i.e.; Doctors, Veterinarians, Lawyers, Business men, Farmers, Police Officers, University Professors, School Teachers, etc. Trapping is a way of life and a livelihood for many Albertans and let's hope it continues so that people like Father Virgilio Baratto, OMI, can enjoy the trapping that he loves and the great outdoors.

Thanks, Father Baratto, for being a good friend and for your dedicated service as a priest for 55 years (54 years in Alberta).

Lew Ramstead writes from Stony Plain Alberta,

This article is reprinted with permission to Catholic Insight from the Alberta Trapper, Fall 2007.
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Title Annotation:Virgilio Baratto
Author:Ramstead, Lew
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Reprint
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Feb 1, 2015
Words:1200
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