RCMP investigate destruction of Catholic church in Fort Chipewyan

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(Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect ownership of the church building.)

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FORT MCMURRAY — The Fort Chipewyan Roman Catholic Church was destroyed in a fire that police believe is suspicious.

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Alberta RCMP said emergency services were called to the fire at 2:34 a.m. Thursday. A tanker and squad truck with firefighters responded to the fire, but a tanker rolled en route to the scene. The driver was treated for minor injuries.

When police, firefighters and Alberta forestry workers arrived, the fire had spread throughout the building and could not be saved. The presbytery of the church was not destroyed.

“Investigators have been assigned to this incident and the RCMP will work with a fire investigator to determine the cause,” read a statement from Cpl. Troy Savinkoff of the Wood Buffalo RCMP.

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The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church was built in 1909 on land owned by the Mikisew Cree First Nation. The church itself was designated an Alberta Heritage Site in 1998 and a National Historic Site in 2006.

The church was also adjacent to the former grounds of the Holy Angels residential school, which was demolished in 1974. A team of University of Alberta archaeologists are excavating the former school grounds for potential unmarked graves.

Community leaders say people have mixed feelings about the destruction of the church. Many elders in the community have witnessed and endured physical and sexual abuse at school. Indigenous and educational leaders in the community have said for years that the trauma has been passed on to other generations.

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But some elders have remained Catholic, while others have fond memories of social gatherings and family events celebrated at church.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) said he was “devastated” to see the church burning. The community recently held two days of public meetings discussing how archaeologists will excavate the residential school grounds, and Adam thinks “it just sparked something in someone.”

“What happened in the residential schools was not the work of the lord. They were men and women. Priests, brothers and nuns,” he said in an interview Thursday morning. “Where do we go now for the funeral or to ask for prayers? This should never have happened, it was unjustified. I’m just at a loss for words right now.

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ACFN elder Alice Rigney called the destruction of the church an “attack on the history of the community”. Rigney was another survivor of abuse during her 10 years at Holy Angels boarding school. She remembers cheering when she saw the demolition of the boarding school, calling it “a place of hell.”

“Burning the church proves nothing. This shows how malicious some people can be. The individual who did this, I would say has no conscience,” she said Thursday morning. “There’s no reconciliation in that. It doesn’t prove reconciliation at all.

The church itself needed major renovations. Local leaders wanted to promote the church’s tourism potential because of its biblical and natural scenes painted on its blue vaulted ceilings and pink walls. The paint was made from locally harvested berries and fish oil.

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The Diocese of St. Paul sold the building to King’s Kids Promotions Outreach Ministries, a Fort McMurray-based Christian charity, in December 2020. The organization used the church grounds to bring in the Wood Buffalo Food Bank and d other social programs to the community.

A letter to the community announcing the sale of Bishop Paul Terreio said maintenance, insurance and gas costs had become unsustainable.

The community has been without a local priest for decades. Before it was sold, Fort McMurray priests would fly into the community once a month to offer mass. After its sale, priests could still use the church to offer sacraments, such as funerals and baptisms. Rigney said a funeral was held in the community two days before the fire.

“This church is used for worship, funerals and weddings, and it also has a deep and complex history for residential school survivors and their families,” said the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo Coun. Kendrick Cardinal, who is also president of the Fort Chipewyan Métis Association, in a statement. “We are deeply saddened for people who still practice the Catholic faith and will no longer have this church to attend.”

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