Stained glass windows burned in Attawapiskat fire were made to heal: project creators

·4 min read

The six colourful stained glass windows that Jackie Hookimaw-Witt and Norbert Witt created for the community of Attawapiskat were their “heart and soul.”

Now, all that is left from the windows is ash.

April 21, a fire destroyed the 104-year-old St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Attawapiskat. It was a symbolic building for many community members. No cause of the fire is known yet.

The Witts, who are married and now live in North Bay, said they were totally devastated after they learned the news because so much work and heart went into the windows. At first, they thought they could fix the windows but nothing was left from them.

“I feel like I’m grieving all over again. I couldn’t sleep, it was so painful,” Hookimaw-Witt said, adding she asked her friends from home to bring her some ashes from the remnants of the fire. “So I could still remember. It’s a deep connection. There were so many memories with the church.”

Creating the windows was a team effort spearheaded by the couple and Father Rodrigue Vezina. With the help of other community members and elders, the project took about four months from mid-February to mid-May in 2014.

The $50,000 funding for this initiative was from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Witts, who had never worked with glass before, trained for a week with a glassmaker in Ottawa where they learned how to cut glass, lead, frame and paint. After returning to reserve, they trained Hookimaw-Witt's brother Dominic Hookimaw who did glass cutting and installation, while Norbert worked on designs. Materials were brought from Ottawa by winter road.

The windows were meant to heal and address the suicide trauma, Hookimaw-Witt said. The bright colours also meant to show people to move forward and not be stuck in the dark past.

“We wanted to reclaim our Indigenous spirituality,” she said. “We made it really authentic, how we relate to nature and how to try to make it co-exist with Catholicism but looking at it from a humanistic point rather than oppressive features. I tried to find positive elements in there.”

The six windows reflected Attawapiskat culture and history from a local Indigenous perspective. The number of windows coincided with the number of Cree seasons represented by the animal symbol in the upper, round part of the window. The lower parts of the window told stories about the history and cultural activities during each season. The window themes were also placed according to the summer and winter solstices. The windows were three metres tall and one metre wide.

The first window was made in Ottawa during the training. The other five windows were made back on the reserve.

The Kateri Window (Fall-Jerry’s goose) was dedicated to Marie-Louise Hookimaw. The shed on the left is the original Mushkegowuk Cree wigwam style that was on Potato Island in the 1950s.

The Travellers (Freezing Season-Moose) window represented people from different nations with a Cree person pointing out at a meteor. The religious theme is the Three Wise Men.

Winter Solstice- Nativity (Winter-Wolf) showed a scene of a traditional family in front of a tipi. The wolf is a symbol for the winter months. The window also had Northern Lights in the upper left and a campfire in the lower right.

The Fasting Window ( Thawing season- Eagle) showed a person during a fasting ceremony.

Two windows had farming scenes to honour Hookimaw-Witt's father John Hookimaw who, after being trained by the missionaries, continued farming potatoes and turnips with his brothers and his family.

One of these windows was inspired by an image of a missionary training a local person to plough and shows the landscape of Potato Island.

The theme of the last window, the Fishing Window (Summer-Polar Bear) refers to Jesus and the Big Catch. According to the Cree tradition, the woman is steering the canoe, while men are doing other work. There’s also an image of a polar bear representing Hookimaw-Witt's clan.

“One Catholic woman said, ‘I’ve never heard of a woman in the Bible story, a fisherman’s story. And I said, ‘Well, this is Cree story. We have women that are fishermen and can steer a canoe,’” Jackie said.

She added she wanted to showcase equality between Indigenous people rather than showing it from a patriarchal point of view.

“I know what patriarchy’s done to the role of women and relationships and authoritarian ways. I want the children or youth to have equal relationships rather than the patriarchal with the family because this is one way how you can heal,” she said.

If another church is built in the community, the couple said they want to create the windows again but make sure they’re insured this time.

A documentary depicting how the windows were created is below:

Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com