This is all that remains of historic St. Bernard Church in Grouard, Alta. Two men from High Prairie, Alta., have been charged with setting the blaze. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan

Arson claims historic Alberta church

  • May 31, 2023

Two High Prairie, Alta., men are facing charges of arson and break and enter to commit theft after fire destroyed St. Bernard Church, built in 1901, in Grouard, Alta., on May 22.

Firefighters battled the flames for over six hours that day. Still, the structure and most of the contents within the church, recognized as a provincial heritage site, were deemed unrecoverable. The Blessed Sacrament and a few vestments and robes from the sacristy were salvaged.

Keith Ferguson, 56, and Gerard Capot, 50, were arrested on May 23. 

Fr. Bernard Akum, the pastor of St. Bernard Church, told The Catholic Register he was in High Prairie when he found out about the fire when congregants informed him via text around 3 p.m.

 “One of our parishioners, she had a spare key to the parish,” said Akum. “I was thinking at first that it was just a little flame coming out of a current or power (so I asked), ‘could you just rush into the church, open the door and see if you can quench it?’ A few minutes later she sent me a text that said, ‘Father, there is no way.’ ”

Akum admitted that “right now I do not have the courage to talk about this whole thing with my parishioners.” He cancelled a vacation due to begin on June 1. He said he hopes his Catholic flock could take comfort from his physical presence for now, and as time passes, he will feel more confident to speak expressively about this loss.

Well before this incident, Akum was already set to transfer out of the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan in the fall. “Ending up like this is not a good memory at all.”

Archbishop Gerald Pettipas released a letter and video message to the parishioners, priests and people who make up the region to express his sorrow at the loss and pay tribute to the legacy of a house of worship recognized as the “diocese’s first cathedral.”

“We cherish and hold dear what is old,” stated Pettipas. “Persons, things and places that have been with us for a long time deserve a certain reverence. They stir our memories with thoughts of the past events which have marked our lives. They are tokens and touchstones of what is dear to us — whether that be a special person, a photograph, a ring, a hand-written letter, a piece of clothing or the grandeur of a church.

“We hold these dear, and all of this is especially true of St. Bernard Church in Grouard — a place of immense historical significance and many cherished memories. And even more, it’s a church that was still in use more than 120 years after its construction. We, alive today, still went there for Masses and other sacraments. It was not only a monument to the past, but a vital part of the present, and a building our diocese has been trying to restore, little by little, to its original beauty,” continued Pettipas.

The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) also decried the burning of St. Bernard Church. Christian Elia, the executive director of the organization, wrote in an email that this burning is the “the latest incident of anti-Catholic violence that remains under-reported in the national media,” though the motive for the blaze isn’t public.

“The League submits that the burning down of this historic church is a news story of national importance considering the recent Statistics Canada finding of a 260-per-cent increase in anti-Catholic violence between 2020 and 2021,” stated Elia. “Are Canadians even aware of this unacceptable level of violent intolerance and hatred?”

Over the past couple of years, the CCRL has catalogued over 47 burnings of Catholic churches in its Church Attacks Database. It calculates 173 total crimes agaiinst Catholic targets in the past couple years, including graffiti, desecrations, broken stained glass windows, theft and public disturbances.

For the foreseeable future, liturgical services in Grouard will take place in the gymnasium of the local Northern Lakes College. Pettipas was on hand to help celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass on May 28.

In his statement, the archbishop declared the community of believers are what make a Church, not a grand building.

“A church has been destroyed but the Church — Church with a capital C — will never be destroyed,” wrote Pettipas. “The people of God, the Body of Christ, lives on. A building is lost to the flames, but the flames of faith kindled there are not. The Good News of Jesus Christ is as present and alive as ever. The community of Grouard has lost their place of worship, but they have not lost their faith in the Creator and the Son, Jesus Christ. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we trust that the faith community in Grouard will live on. Christ is with us. Alleluia!”

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