The St. Jean Baptiste church in the town of Morinville was almost entirely destroyed by the fire, which broke out on Wednesday morning. By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, its interior had already begun to collapse, and its basement had been engulfed by flames. Hours later, only a few fragments of its walls remained standing.
“It’s one of the [town’s] largest buildings. It’s a very old construction, so an awful lot of wood. It went very quickly and it was a very difficult fire to fight,” said Iain Bushell, the general manager of Morinville’s infrastructure and community services.
Morinville is a community of some 10,600 people about 30km (19 miles) north of Alberta province’s capital, Edmonton. Many had viewed the church as an essential part of the town’s life and legacy – its “heart and soul,” in the words of Mayor Barry Turner. Its construction was completed in 1907 and it was named in honor of Father Jean-Baptiste Morin, who led several Francophone families to the area from Quebec in 1891 and also lent his name to the town itself.
The mayor said he was “confident that our community will respond in a way that we can all be proud of.” However, the city authorities decided to cancel Morinville’s Canada Day celebrations on Thursday in the wake of the fire.
St. Jean Baptiste’s is at least the seventh Catholic church built on First Nation lands across Canada where fire has broken out recently. Officials described the latest blaze as “suspicious,” and many see it as the next link in a chain of hate-motivated attacks.
The crimes are suspected to be connected to the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at sites where Catholic-run residential schools operated in the last century. The system of boarding schools for First Nation children is now perceived as an oppressive and deadly government-backed attempt to eradicate the culture of native Canadians. The latest burial location, comprising 182 graves, was found via underground radar-imaging in British Columbia, with the discovery announced hours after the fire in Morinville.
“I understand the anger of it,” town resident Robert Proudfoot told RT, adding that he nonetheless condemned the alleged act of hate. “This is not the way to go. And whoever did this arson should maybe think a little bit about what he did here and how he put so many people in danger.”
Some 50 people were evacuated from a former convent located near the burned church that has been converted into residential apartments. The building was damaged by smoke and water as fire brigades from several neighboring towns worked in shifts to contain the blaze.
The Alberta government last week offered financial assistance to religious and cultural organizations that wanted to upgrade their security systems. A suggestion to set up patrols and initiate other protection measures also came from the province’s native community. Grand Chief Arthur Noskey said the offer was not only about helping their Catholic neighbors, but also about digging to the bottom of the injustices his people had suffered.
“These are potential evidence sites,” he told the Toronto Star newspaper. “I know everybody’s hurting and the whole nation is in an uproar, but you know, for us, the truth is coming out.”