By Luke Mandato
St. Francis Xavier Church in Attawapiskat, one of the churches destroyed in a rash of fires across the nation in 2021, is set to rise from the ashes.
A new church is to be built in the northern Ontario community on the site of the previous church destroyed by a fire ruled to be arson nearly three years ago.
St. Francis Xavier Church was among 85 churches nationwide set ablaze in the wake of the discovery of 215 “anomalies” by ground-penetrating radar near what was Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, 2021. A 37-year-old man has been charged with arson.
Hearst-Moosonee Bishop Pierre-Olivier Tremblay, who has been in the diocese since August 2022, said in meetings with the local band council there has always been a wish for the church to be rebuilt, by both Catholics and the community at large.
“Everyone there was very clear that they hoped very much that a church could be rebuilt. It’s going to be a symbol of reconstruction for the community and that’s what I stressed myself. I want the project to be something that we can all be proud of in this moment of reconciliation,” Tremblay said.
Tremblay and a team of architects working on the design had proposed a multi-purpose hall with teepee-style architecture, which was turned down by the band council in favour of a more traditional church design. To pay respect to the local elders, Tremblay has confirmed the inside of the church will feature decorative symbols of Indigenous cultures and spiritualities.
The location of the rebuilt church will also be something to behold, with the resurrected structure set to face the Attawapiskat River, allowing those who arrive on the frigid winter roads to see the church as a welcoming symbol to the community.
Construction is scheduled to commence in May or June and finish by October. Tremblay said nearly $3.5 million in insurance money should cover the cost.
Mike Gull, a volunteer architect, said that due to Attawapiskat’s isolated location, transporting materials for winter construction was too challenging, leading to the summer start date.
“We aren’t able to mobilize on winter roads, so everything has to come in next summer. Winter roads or by barge is the only way to bring your stuff in and there’s a very small window to do that, so that’s why we’re waiting until summer,” Gull said.
Mass has been celebrated by Fr. Raphael Obiadi in the former parish hall. Obiadi still remembers the emotion when the church was destroyed and how through the pain, the community pulled together.
“It was quite a sad day in the community and it was very painful to see the church go down,” Obiadi recounts. “The community has a strong spiritual, emotional and traditional attachment to the church. It made me know how much regard they have for the church and that was really beautiful to see them connected that way.”
Despite being fit with pews, an altar table, statues and all the trappings of a conventional church, the sheer size difference between the parish hall and the original structure has posed some problems.
“When we have funerals, weddings or festival communion that require bigger gatherings, we have to use the primary school or the community gym,” Obiadi said.
Obiadi also recalls the joy when parishioners found that the church would be rebuilt.
“The last time the bishop visited and we told them that we are going to begin to build the church this year, there was a feeling you don’t usually get. There was this great shout with clapping and rejoicing,” he said. “It felt like some breath of fresh air coming into the community. They really want that church. For this community, that church is the centre of their lives, they see it here and everybody connects to it. They might not be in church, but they connect to it.”
In the spot where the new church will be erected sits the Cross that once rested on the St. Francis Xavier steeple. It is the only part of the church that survived the fire. A model of the church with the Blessed Mother Mary by its side sits in the former parish hall.
“The Blessed Mary and the old church. So the elders and everybody that tunes into their televisions can look at the Blessed Mother and the church by her side. That is a beautiful sight in their homes. They love it,” Obiadi said. “It gives them hope that one day the church will be back, and yes, now it will be back.”
From The Catholic Register