The Archdiocese of Edmonton says it will do whatever it takes to restore Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples after a devastating fire tore through the rear of the building.
“Thanks be to God there’s nobody hurt,” Archbishop Richard Smith said at the fire scene. “What we have is damage to a building, and buildings can be repaired. This building in particular symbolically is associated with First Nations people, and many hearts will be crushed to see this and hear about it.”
“But we as a community, we as an Archdiocese, we’re going to walk with the parish every step of the way, whatever that means and whatever it takes, just to make sure this is eventually restored.”
Investigators say the Aug. 30 fire started shortly after 2 p.m. inside the church on the rear east side. The church was empty and no one was injured. The cause is under investigation.
“We’re still just ruling stuff out. The guys are still fighting fire right now,” said Barry Fielden, an investigator with Edmonton Fire Rescue. “Everyone’s safe and crews are doing their best to get it out.”
Fielden said six or seven fire trucks, with approximately 30 firefighters, were on scene.
Sunday Mass was held at 10 a.m, followed by a First Nations Mass at 11:30 a.m., which as usual included a smudging ceremony in which incense is burned, followed by a 1 p.m. baptism ceremony.
Forty minutes later, Rev. Susai Jesu, the pastor of Sacred Heart, was having lunch in the rectory next door when received a call from the fire department. When he arrived, the church was fully engulfed and firefighters were on scene.
“I saw huge fire and smoke. I was dumbfounded. I could not believe it was Sacred Heart church, the church I just came out of, this place,” Father Jesu said.
“In no time, there was a huge fire. I thought, ‘Is it true? Am I really watching this?’ I’m just saying ‘Jesus, help us to stop this fire.’”
The downtown Edmonton church, was built in 1913, making it among the oldest Catholic churches in the city. In 1991 Archbishop Joseph MacNeil designated it as a national parish for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, meaning that anyone with Indigenous ancestry is considered a parishioner. It was the first of its kind in Canada.
Sacred Heart church serves residents in and arround the inner-city neighbourhood of McCauley, with a special focus on the poor and marginalized. Ministries include providing free food and clothing. Those who rely on the parish will have to find other resources temporarily.
“Thanks be to God we have a lot of outreach agencies in this part of the city,” Archbishop Smith said. “The people that would come here for help, they’ll also know where else that they can go. And I know those agencies will rally to cover any gaps.”
Sacred Heart parish is a unique community where the Catholic faith is expressed in the context of Indigenous culture. It houses many unique pieces of a sacred art created by Indigenous artisans, and recently underwent extensive repairs and renovation.
George Dumont, a longtime parishioner at Sacred Heart, called the fire a tragedy. He said the parish allows him to pray publicly in Cree, a right he didn’t have growing up.
“It’s always been special to me to come here,” said Dumont, who has been involved in the parish for more than five decades. “A lot of us First Nations people come here and we get to see each other and honour together. That’s what I like about it.
“I’ve watched a lot of places that have burned, and there’s a lot of damage here. I’m thinking, well geez, they’re not going to have Mass there for a year,’” Dumont said. “They’re going to have to get that all fixed up and all that. Where the parishioners are going to go, I don’t know. That would be my concern.”
The church will be closed as investigators determine the cause of the fire.
“You can see that the damage is pretty extensive,” Archbishop Smith said. “It’s here at the back of the church where a lot of the supplies are kept and so on. No one is allowed inside at this stage, so no idea how extensive this damage is.
“I can expect that even if flames were confined to this area, there’s going to be smoke damage. There will be water damage. We’re at the stage now of just waiting to see what the extent is.”
In spite of the fire, the Archdiocese says it will take the next steps to restore the church as it did after a devastating fire in 1966.
“We recovered from that, and we’re going to recover from this one too,” Archbishop Smith said.
“We have to be in dialogue obviously with our insurers and see what that is and get it covered and, whatever it takes, make it happen. This church is just too, too important in so many ways. We’ll do what needs to be done in order to restore it.”