Elders and church leaders Annabella Iahtail and Francis Hookimaw beside a model of the St. Francis Xavier Church in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario, which burned down in 2021. Photo by Fr. John O’Brien

Burned church symbol of hope in Attawapiskat

  • April 22, 2023

Although St. Francis Xavier Church in Attawapiskat in northern Ontario tragically burned to the ground in April 2021, it remains the centre of faith and devotion in the mostly First Nation town.

A model of the old church sits beside a statue of Our Lady in the former parish hall, renamed St. Kateri Tekakwitha Chapel where services have been held while the community awaits the rebuild. At the chapel, a video camera points to the model and the stream is locally broadcast 24 hours a day, bringing hope to elders at home or in hospital and unable to attend Mass in person.

The community deeply values its elders, so it’s important to bring the church to them, says Fr. Raphael Obiadi, who has been pastor since 2018. Masses, homilies, hymns in Cree and services from previous decades are played throughout the day, bringing back happy memories and feelings of hope to the community.

“Every Sunday I go around and visit the elders in their homes and in the hospital to give them communion and while doing that you notice that they are actually fixed to the television,” said Obiadi. “They want to see the church. It reminds them of the past and how lovely it was relating with the missionaries who were there. It gives them a good sense of relaxation and not missing the presence of the church.”

Elders and church leaders Frances Hookimaw and Annabella Iahtail have been the heartbeat of the parish community. Iahtail is a knowledge keeper in the community and Hookimaw is always by her side attending Masses and volunteering in the church, assisting with the children, cleaning and other responsibilities. How the church is going is mostly a result of the goodwill of Hookimaw and Iahtail, said Obiadi.

“We just go on and on,” said Hookimaw. “We can’t stop what we’re doing now. We just have to pray, pray every day until we get a new church. After the tragedy that we had, it was very hard. We just have to keep the faith and pray to God all the time until everything goes well.”

The church community has been through a lot in recent years. The church hadn’t been used since 2019 due to structural issues so the people have been worshipping at St. Kateri Chapel now for four years. After the fire, its beloved priest, Fr. Rodrigue Vezina, who served in the community for 45 years before leaving in 2015, passed. Then COVID-19 hit and also delayed some of the rebuild planning.

The Cross that sat atop the steeple is the only part of the church that survived the fire. Today it sits where the new church will be built, facing the Attiwapiskat River.

The rebuild is a priority for the entire community. Obiadi regularly gets calls from people living on and off the reserve asking when the church will be rebuilt. The central symbol of faith and identity, on the  winter roads crossing into the entrance of the community, the first sight people had was the church.

“The church is actually a treasure to the community,” said Obiadi. “They really want to see the church and have that presence there. I might not see (everyone) in the community in church, but the people traditionally see themselves as Catholic. In other words, everything seems connected to their church.”

The chapel was packed on Easter, more than Obiadi had seen since before the pandemic. Fr. John O’Brien, who is in the town for two months learning Cree and for pastoral work in the Hearst-Moosonee diocese, has been deeply moved by the dedication of the community.

“I’ve been very impressed by the authentic faith and devotion that’s here that a lot of people don’t know about if they’re just sort of following what they think is the mainstream narrative about First Nations people and the Catholic Church,” said O’Brien. “It’s very clear — it’s their church and their faith.”

Plans for the new church are already in place but there have been major delays due to soil contamination which has added significant cost to the project, says Obiadi. The completion date remains unclear.

In addition to the other tragedies, the ongoing reconciliation between Indigenous and the Church is always front and centre. Hookimaw remains hopeful that the future generations coming up will be able to find healing from that dark history.

Seeing the church come back is like seeing the community come back, says Obiadi. And frustrated by the delays, Hookimaw, a soon to be octogenarian, continues to do the work and stays positive that a new building will be the rainbow at the end of the storm.

“I’m 79 years old and I’m going to be 80 soon,” chuckled Hookimaw. “I hope I see it before I die.”

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