Flames engulf St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, Alberta, June 30, 2021, in this still image taken form video obtained from social media. CNS photo/Diane Burrel, social media via Reuters

Progress in resurrecting Alberta church

  • August 19, 2022

After over a year of feeling numb from sadness and shock over the fiery destruction of their beloved parish church, parishioners of St. Jean Baptiste in Morinville, Alta., now have their gaze fixed on the future.

St. Jean Baptiste’s Aug. 14 bulletin revealed that $272,686.14 has been donated thus far to build a new house of worship on the main street of this small town (pop. 9,848), north of Edmonton. Their church went up in flames June 30, 2021.

“We have had a couple of successful initiatives to raise funds,” said longtime parishioner Gerry Gaetz, a fundraising committee member. “The first project being selling a piece of the bricks that were the facade and sides of the church itself. We also had private donations from the businesses and people around here, and on May 14 we had an extravaganza at the cultural centre.”

The Diocese of St. Paul also bolstered the running total with a $100,000 contribution. A new church is estimated to cost as much as $8 million to build.

“Whether that is attainable or not, I don’t know. But we are in a good spot right now.”

The criminal investigation into the fire — deemed an act of arson by many — is still ongoing, but no charges have been filed to date. St. Jean Baptiste was one of 68 Christian churches either burned or defiled by vandalism in the six weeks following reports of 215 previously unmarked and undocumented gravesites at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Progress has been made in manifesting a vision of the exterior and interior look of the new church. Earlier this year, parishioners and members of the Morinville community at large were invited to take part in a survey on the church’s future. Of the 382 participants, 298 — 78.4 per cent — opted for this new church to model itself after the original St. Jean Baptiste as much as possible, which means brick would be used to adorn the outside.

Restoring a steeple with bells — the survey was titled “Bells Will Ring Again” — received the heartiest support at 95.5-per-cent approval.

Ron Cust, a St. Jean Baptiste parishioner serving as a communications liaison for the building committee, said the survey results are being considered in the process to chart a course forward.

“Our focus was to listen to what the survey says, and taking the information the parishioners provided and finding a happy medium between full replication of a historic building that had elements that could not be replicated or were too costly to even consider replicating,” said Cust. “And also, creating a new church that would reflect the new age of the parish, but using the past to create this future.”

A comprehensive design document details every aspect of this new building from main construction guidelines through to the interior and exterior finishing.

The original St. Jean Baptiste, established in 1907, boasted a Casavant Frères Ltée pipe organ built right into the structure. Straight replication of this historic feature is not possible; however, the building committee has found someone willing to donate a Casavant organ from the same era.

Restoring the actual building and the church bell and steeple are utmost priorities, said Gaetz. Replacing the priceless items burned in the church, such as statues and other artifacts, will “be an ongoing process.”

Determining how much the parish could receive from insurance is a key step that is yet to be resolved. More details on this matter are expected to be learned next month.

Finalizing the figure is critical in advancing the rebuilding effort on multiple construction fronts including completion of the design tender package and securement of a full-time owner representative to oversee the project.

In recent months, and for the foreseeable future, the St. Jean Baptiste parish flock assembles for weekend Masses in Notre Dame Elementary School gymnasium. Weekday liturgical celebrations are being hosted in the rectory basement or the Heritage Place and Aspen House senior’s living communities.

Gaetz receives inquiries about the time frame on when the community can move into their new spiritual home, but it is too soon to tell, though Cust said the target is to “open by Christmas 2024, “depending when the insurance company finally settles with our bishop, that might push that date out some.”

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