RCMP investigate destruction of Catholic church in Fort Chipewyan


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The Fort Chipewyan Roman Catholic Church was destroyed in a fire police consider suspicious. Alberta RCMP said emergency officials were notified of the fire at 2:34 a.m. Thursday.

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When police, firefighters and Alberta forestry workers arrived, the fire had spread throughout the building and could not be saved. Eventually the priority became to prevent the fire from reaching nearby fuel tanks. The presbytery of the church was not destroyed.

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“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.

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church was built in Fort Chipewyan 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 was hired to excavate the former school grounds looking for potential unmarked graves.

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Community members say some people are appalled by the destruction of the church while others are happy to see it disappear. 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.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) said he was “devastated” by the disappearance of the church. The community has held two days of public meetings discussing how archaeologists will excavate the boarding 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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Alice Rigney, an ACFN elder, called the destruction of the church an “attack on the history of the community”. Rigney was another survivor of physical and sexual 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. Some local leaders wanted to make the church a tourist destination by promoting 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 All Nations Church, a non-denominational church based in Fort McMurray, in December 2020. A letter to the community from Bishop Paul Terreio said maintenance costs, insurance and gas had become unsustainable.

The community has not had a local priest for decades. Before it was sold, Fort McMurray priests were flown into the community once a month to offer mass. Priests were still allowed to 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.

All Nations Church, Diocese of St. Paul and Mikisew Cree First Nation were asked for comment.

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