Church of the Infant Jesus, perched on a point jutting into Long Lake, had been a fixture in the First Nation community for almost 70 years. Photo via Google Maps

Fire can’t destroy memories of iconic church in Thunder Bay

By  Rick Garrick,
  • June 25, 2018

One of the iconic churches in Ontario’s north, Church of the Infant Jesus, was destroyed last month after a grass fire spread. The church, 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway, had been abandoned since 1997. After the fire, the local newspaper, the Anishinabek News, looked back on what the church had once meant for the community.

LONG LAKE FIRST NATION – Memories of Long Lake #58’s Church of the Infant Jesus were recently shared by Councillors Marlow Wesley and Arthur Sr. Shebagabow and Chief Veronica Waboose. 

The Catholic church, which was built in 1949 and closed in 1997, burned to the ground on May 23.

“We had a lot of history in that church,” Wesley says. “I was born and raised and lived there all my life and it is a loss for us in the community. I was an altar boy and I got married in that church.”

Wesley says he liked going to the church, which was located on a long point of reserve land on Long Lake between the community and the town of Longlac.

“It was a privilege to be an altar boy,” Wesley says, noting that he served as an altar boy in the late 1950s. “There were very few that were altar boys at that age. I was about 12- to 14-years-old.”

Wesley says it was a “sad day for the whole community” when the church burned to the ground.

“Now that it’s not there, it’s like the landmark is gone,” Wesley says. “You still look there, and you don’t see it now, so it is a loss.”

Shebagabow adds that the church was very popular with people who were travelling along the highway.

Church of the infant jesus 02Right, a grass fire on May 23 spread to the abandoned church, which was originally established in 1885. (Courtesy of Anishinabek News)

“I say the whole world used to stop by there, whoever went by there to have a look,” Shebagabow says. “It was a landmark, a landmark of the world almost.”

Shebagabow says he was “very sad” when the church was on fire.

“I had tears coming down,” Shebagabow says. “I didn’t want to cry in front of everybody.”

Shebagabow says he was baptized in the church.

“We even got married there too (in 1971),” Shebagabow says. “We looked forward to going to church every day in those days. We had big high Masses and a lot of people. Sometimes the bishop came there and there was a big celebration.”

Waboose says she and her husband were married in the church in 1959.

“And I baptized all of my children there,” Waboose says. “I was the first reader in that church when we started reading the readings during the Mass. So all of my life was centred around that church.”

Waboose says the church was busy back then with people attending from Longlac as well as from Long Lake #58.

“We used to have two Masses on Sunday, low Mass and high Mass,” Waboose says. “Our school was there, so we had to go to Mass every Sunday (and) every morning, for that matter.”

Waboose says the community had to go to a Catholic church in Longlac after the church was condemned in 1997.

“We couldn’t get any funding to fix our church,” Waboose says. “We fundraised, but we were not able to fundraise (what) it would cost to fix it.”

Waboose says she was in Thunder Bay for a meeting when her daughter phoned her about the fire.

“But it didn’t sink in at the moment,” Waboose says, noting that she started to cry when she saw the burnt church after cutting her meeting short and returning home. 

“I cried because all the memories, everything is gone. It meant the world to me because it was part of my growing up. It shaped who I was as a person. My dad was there when he died — that’s where we had the wake.”

Waboose says the community plans to build a monument on the site after it is cleaned up. 

The remains of Fr. Joseph-Marie Couture, a long-time missionary priest at Longlac until his death in 1949, are buried in a tomb in the church basement.

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