Suspicious fire destroys century-old church in Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

·3 min read
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church, on the shores of Lake Athabasca about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, was constructed in 1909.  (Allan Adam/Facebook - image credit)
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church, on the shores of Lake Athabasca about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, was constructed in 1909. (Allan Adam/Facebook - image credit)

RCMP are investigating after Fort Chipewyan's century-old Catholic church — one of Alberta's oldest — was destroyed in a suspicious fire early Thursday.

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church, about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray on the shores of Lake Athabasca, was gutted by the fire.

RCMP Cpl. Troy Savinkoff said the cause remains under investigation but arson is suspected.

"The circumstances to us, at the onset, are fairly suspicious and we will be working with a fire investigator to narrow down what the cause might be," Savinkoff said in an interview.

The historic wooden building was only used occasionally for special services, and sat vacant most of the year.

"We do believe, just because of circumstances, that there is a definite suspicion here," Savinkoff said.

If arson is proven, the Fort Chipewyan church would join a growing list of churches across Canada damaged or destroyed in recent years.

A wave of vandalism followed the reported discoveries last year of unmarked graves at former residential school sites, and a national reckoning over abuses that occurred inside the church-run institutions.

'History gone up in flames'

A video posted to social media around 4 a.m. Thursday shows Allan Adam, chief of the Athasbasca Chipewyan First Nation, standing in front of the church as it burns.

Only wooden beams and the shell of one exterior wall remained visible within the flames.

"The church is on fire. Completely destroyed. There's no saving that now," Adam says in the video.

"As you can see, this is totally engulfed. Over 100 years of history gone up in flames. This was uncalled for. This was a beautiful church."

Adam can be heard in the video instructing firefighters to douse the flames as the structure threatens to collapse onto a nearby fuel tank.

Eventually, he runs away from the burning building.

"As you can see, all the vehicles are moving out of there because the fuel tank is on fire," he says.

He tells residents to move away from the flames as he jumps into a vehicle. He tells people that firefighters are running out of water.

"As you can see the fire trucks are exhausted, completed," Adam says on the video. "There is nothing we can do to save the church now, from here on in.

"The only thing we can do is make sure everybody is safe."

RCMP were called to the scene around 2:30 a.m. Savinkoff said the church was engulfed by the time officers arrived.

Police officers using fire extinguishers helped firefighters contain the flames, he said.

"There was definitely a concern it would spread into the community," he said.

The fire didn't spread to neighbouring buildings.

Savinkoff couldn't pinpoint exactly when the fire was extinguished.

No injuries were reported.

David Thurton/ CBC
David Thurton/ CBC

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church, a 1½- storey wood frame structure, was built in 1909 by the Oblate missionaries.

The parish, founded in 1847 by the Diocese of St. Boniface, is considered the oldest continuous parish in Alberta.

The church was the third constructed on the site; the first Church of the Nativity was built in 1851.

The church was part of a larger religious complex that once included a rectory and Holy Angels Residential School, an institution that operated at various sites in Fort Chipewyan. The school, founded in 1874, closed in 1974.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has confirmed the deaths of 89 children attending the residential school between 1880 and 1953.

A search for unmarked graves is planned for one of the sites of the former school.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.