Above is the sanctuary of the temporary church on St. Theresa Point First Nation. The original church burned down a year ago. Photo courtesy St. Theresa Point First Nation

Year after church fire, faith life carries on in Indigenous Parish

  • April 18, 2022

It’s been a full year since the members of the St. Theresa Point First Nation watched heartbroken as their beloved church burned to the ground on Easter Sunday.

Displaced for several months, the Indigenous Catholic community located 460 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas recently began holding services in a new temporary church. Built by the hands of parishioners and financed by their donations, the small white structure can accommodate roughly 40 to 50 people in the community where hundreds attend church each Sunday.

Lay minister Bernard Wood says each week parishioners can be found listening from outside and sometimes are able to stream through their car radios. Pastor Fr. Victor Ferdinand has become accustomed to holding several back-to-back services each week and Easter Sunday, where attendance is even greater than normal, is promising to be no different.

More than anything, Wood says, the community misses having a church where they can all come together under one roof to pray in the tradition passed down to them from their elders.

“Our elders a long time ago said when they established the (St. Theresa Point Catholic Church), we want our young people, our grandchildren to have a place to go when they are in trouble,” said Wood. “They can go and pray there. Now us people (after the fire), we are thinking along those same lines. Our elders left us with the church building. So come on let’s build a big one so our young people can say, ‘That’s a church I know that I can go to when I’m in trouble.’ ”

Before the fire, the community was already in the midst of fundraising efforts to build a new facility due to structural and plumbing issues and a congregation that far exceeded the church’s capacity of 500. Today the community continues to hold raffles and bake sales to raise for the estimated $7 million cost of the rebuild for the remote community which is only accessible by winter ice roads or plane. Insurance meetings are still underway and are expected to cover just half the cost of the new building.

“It is possible through the grace of God,” said Ferdinand. “I believe always in the providence of God. The people also have the faith and are always supporting and helping. They always keep on going forward. They are fundraising in different ways.”

The community has had a lot of resilience in a challenging year which in addition to the fire included the uncovering of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada, and the ongoing pandemic.

Archbishop Murray Chatlain says a positive that has come out of the Indigenous delegation to the Vatican is the strengthening of relationship between the Church and Indigenous leaders. Though he warns not to put too much weight on the papal apology in the journey towards healing, he hopes it has built momentum towards a papal visit to Canada.

“I try to say, don’t make the apology from the Pope too big or too small,” said Chatlain. “This is one step on a journey. But (the apology) is from the Pope of 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide and has an impact on the Indigenous people of the world.”

Though the community hasn’t had a chance to come together to talk about the Pope’s apology, Wood — a residential school survivor — says it was meaningful to him and others. The community tries to separate the devastating actions of people in the Church from the person of Jesus that they have been taught from their elders.

“For every individual it will be different how they feel with this Easter coming,” said Wood. “What I was taught in church is that Jesus died on a Cross. I believe that. It’s personal to each individual.”

The community continues to find hope in a painting of St. Kateri Tekakwitha that astonishingly survived the fire that consumed metal and stone fixtures. With the edges charred it’s been placed in a glass case and hung in the temporary church as a symbol of hope as she awaits her final home in the new church building.

“(The painting) was the only thing that was left that didn’t burn,” said Wood. “A lot of people were amazed at the miracle. Some people are saying it’s telling us as people to keep praying no matter what.”

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