Firefighters respond to an Aug. 30 fire at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. No one was injured in the blaze and the cause is under investigation. Photo by Alan Schietzsch, Grandin Media

Edmonton vows to restore historic Indigenous parish

By 
  • September 3, 2020

EDMONTON -- The Archdiocese of Edmonton says it will do whatever it takes to restore Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples after a devastating fire Aug. 30 tore through the rear of the building.

“Thanks be to God there’s nobody hurt. What we have is damage to a building and buildings can be repaired. This building in particular symbolically is associated with First Nations people and many hearts will be crushed to see this and hear about,” Archbishop Richard Smith said at the fire scene.

“But we as a community, we as an archdiocese, we’re going to walk with the parish every step of the way, whatever that means and whatever it takes just to make sure this is eventually restored.”

Investigators say the fire started shortly after 2 p.m. inside the church on the rear east side. The church was empty and no one was injured. The cause is under investigation.

Sunday Mass was held at 10 a.m, followed by a First Nations Mass at 11:30 a.m., which as usual included a traditional smudging ceremony in which herbs are burned, followed by a 1 p.m. baptism.

Forty minutes later, Fr. Susai Jesu, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, was having lunch in the rectory next door when he received a call from the fire department. When he arrived the church was fully engulfed.

“I was dumbfounded. I could not believe it was Sacred Heart Church, the church I just came out of this place,” Jesu said.

The downtown Edmonton church was built in 1913, making it among the oldest Catholic churches in the city. In 1991 Archbishop Joseph MacNeil designated it as a national parish for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, meaning that anyone with Indigenous ancestry is considered a parishioner. It was the first of its kind in Canada.

Sacred Heart serves residents in the inner-city neighbourhood of McCauley, with a special focus on the poor and marginalized, providing free food and clothing.

Sacred Heart is a unique community where the Catholic faith is expressed in the context of Indigenous culture. It houses many unique pieces of sacred art created by Indigenous artisans, and recently underwent extensive repairs and renovation.

The fire is a “tragedy,” said George Dumont, a longtime parishioner. Dumont said the parish allows him to pray publicly in Cree, a right he didn’t have growing up.

“A lot of us First Nations people come here and we get to see each other and honour together. That’s what I like about it,” he said.

The church will be closed as investigators determine the cause.

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