More than just a religious space, Fort McMurray's first Hindu temple will be a gathering space for the entire community and a place to celebrate culture.
The Sanatan Mandir Cultural Society broke ground on the temple in 2019, but the project was delayed and cost more than expected with upheavals during the pandemic.
On Saturday, the temple had a soft opening. Hundreds of people came to gather and pray in the new building.
Construction is expected to be complete in time for a grand opening in October. The overall cost is expected to be about $8.5 million, not including an expansion to include a children's centre.
Society president Kalpesh Patel, who has been raising money for the centre since 2010, said he's proud that a dream has come true.
Patel said the work has been a community project and that volunteers put in more than 70,000 hours of labour over the last three years. He helped lay the floor, put in the plumbing and clean the new building.
"This is really good for all of Fort McMurray," Patel said.
He said about 900 families practise Hinduism in Fort McMurray, and there's been a desire for a temple for decades.
Over the last few years people have been gathering for celebrations in gyms.
Some cultural and religious events held in other locations have been limited by time constraints and restrictions on noise and small fires for religious purposes, said Akshaya Lakshmi, youth director for the centre.
Patel, a first-generation Canadian, said the project is for the next generation so they can have a connection to their culture.
"They haven't seen it … the heritage which we have left behind," said Patel.
Echoing Patel, Lakshmi said the temple represents a dream come true. "You can feel the energy," she said.
Lakshmi said many young people growing up in Canada struggle to learn about their culture. The centre will "light a fire" and show them how big the community is, she said.
"This facility is going to be creating that sense of community for kids who don't feel at place in other places in our community. They can come here and feel accepted and celebrated."
Bhavesh Patel, chairperson for the society, said he has spent most of his free time working on the centre in the past three years.
Watching kids and seniors walk into the building on Saturday was exciting, he said.
Devesh Amin, director of land and building, said starting construction was a challenge. He was one of five people in the role of general contractor. The work took up so much time, he didn't go out of town on a weekend in the last three years, he said.
Amin said the temple is important for seniors, some of whom may not speak English. "If they are staying at home and do nothing, they definitely are having challenges," he said.
He wants the facility to bring people together so the seniors will be happier. "Without having socializing, it is difficult to stay," he said.
The main floor of the temple is reserved for prayer. The second floor will be turned into a yoga studio, library and senior centre. The basement will be a hall.
There are a few pieces to finish, including the parking lot, the second-floor studio space and the importation of religious statues.
When it is finished, the building will be open seven days a week. Until then, it will only open on weekends, for people to visit the temple and pray.