This altar at Sacred Heart Church in Johnstown, N.S., belongs to the Potlotek First Nation and they want it back. The parish is trying to make arrangements to do so. Photo republished with permission from the Chronicle Herald

Mi’kmaq seek return of 300-year-old altar

By  Tom Ayers, Catholic Register Special
  • March 22, 2015

JOHNSTOWN, N.S. - The people of Potlotek First Nation say an ornate wooden altar stored at the nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church was a gift to the Mi’kmaq nearly 300 years ago, and they want it back.

“We all want it brought back home where it belongs,” said Chief Wilbert Marshall, who recently visited the church with a dozen or so band members.

“(The church in) Johnstown has been taking care of it all these years, and we thank them for that. It’s nice the people of Johnstown took care of it, but it’s time to go home.”

Potlotek historian Lillian B. Marshall, 80, said the French gave the altar to the Mi’kmaq in the 1700s. However, during the fighting between the French and English at Louisbourg, the English threatened to burn down all the French Catholic churches in what is now Cape Breton.

To protect the altar, it was moved several times and hidden from the English, she said. No one knows for sure all the places where the altar was stored, but it’s time to return it to the church on Chapel Island, she said.

“I think a lot of people will be very happy to see it.”

Sacred Heart Church in Johnstown is about 20 kilometres north of Potlotek, which has two Catholic churches. The Chapel of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is located onshore in the community, while the historic Church of St. Ann is on the island in Bras d’Or Lake.

As a traditional gathering spot for the Mi’kmaq, Chapel Island is a National Historic Site. The French erected a church there in the mid-1700s, and the site has been used continuously for the annual pilgrimage to celebrate the Feast of St. Ann every July since 1742.

Some say the altar was a gift to the Mi’kmaq at the Fortress of Louisbourg in the 1700s, and that it eventually made its way to the church on Bras d’Or Lake.

The altar was moved as many as 10 times and was rumoured at one point to have been stashed in the woods to keep it from being destroyed, said Chief Marshall.

“Since I was a kid, we’ve been hearing stories about it.” The altar now stored at Sacred Heart is in danger of damage from mould and mice, but it will be protected by the Mi’kmaq of Potlotek, said the chief.

“If we don’t (get it back), it’s just going to rot, and that would be a sin. I’m just asking the people of Johnstown to do the right thing.”

Heather MacLeod-Leslie, an archeologist with the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative office in Truro, examined the altar and declared it fit for travel. Gail Johnson, councillor for District 10 in the Municipality of the County of Richmond, is somewhat torn by the idea of moving the altar. As a Scared Heart parishioner, Johnson said, the altar means a lot to the community because it has been there since 1891, when Sacred Heart opened.

However, as councillor for the district that includes the community of Potlotek, Johnson said she believes the Mi’kmaq should have their artifact returned.

Parishioners aren’t objecting to the altar being moved, she said, but they want to make sure some parts added over the years remain in the church. And they want to have a replica made before the original goes back to the Mi’kmaq.

“Before anything moves, it definitely has to be determined what part of the altar stays and what part of the altar may go,” said Johnson.

Fr. Donald MacGillivray, spokesman for the Diocese of Antigonish, said the Church recognizes the altar belongs to the Mi’kmaq and it is just a matter of time before details are worked out for its return.

“Yes, the altar does belong to the First Nation communities,” MacGillivray said. “We’re still just sorting out all those issues.”

(Reprinted with permission, copyright The Chronicle Herald newspaper, Halifax N.S.)

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