The charred remains of St. Bernard’s Church in Grouard, Alta., following a May 22 fire that destroyed the church. Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan

Trial date set for alleged Alberta church arsonists

  • November 3, 2023

Two men from High Prairie, Alta., charged for setting fire to St. Bernard’s Church in Grouard, Alta., on May 22 are slated for trial almost a year to the day later.

Gerald Capot, 50, and Kenneth Ferguson, 56, the alleged arsonists, are expected to appear in the Court of King’s Bench in Peace River, Alta., from May 21-24, 2024, according to Alberta RCMP Cpl. Troy Savinkoff. The trial date was set in early September but details only surfaced Oct. 23.

The destroyed St. Bernard Church was a presence in Grouard, a hamlet in north-central Alberta’s Big Lakes County, dating back to 1901. This house of worship, a provincial heritage site, contained many cherished historical items that were destroyed, notably paintings rendered by Bishop Emile Grouard. The Oblate of Mary Immaculate was dubbed “the Artist Bishop of the North.”

Fr. Bernard Akum, the pastor at the time of the fire (he is now in the London diocese), told The Catholic Register that only the Blessed Sacrament and a few vestments and robes from the sacristy escaped damage.

Catholicism’s roots in Grouard stretch even further to the 19th century. A Roman Catholic mission was established in 1872. A residential school funded by the federal government opened its doors by the mid-1890s. 

Vandalism against Catholic churches has risen in recent years, particularly following reports of the discovery of unmarked graves at numerous former residential schools beginning in 2021. Statistics Canada reported last year anti-Catholic hate crimes skyrocketed 260 per cent from 2020 to 2021.

Manny Chalifoux, a member of the St. Bernard’s parish since 1984, said “it was a shock to discover the church was burned down.” He said he could not understand why the building became a target.

“To me, the building (itself) has never done anything wrong to people,” said Chalifoux. “I agree with what the community has been saying about the priests (accused of abuse) being at fault. Why burn a building down when the building does not have any connection to the abuse that might have taken place in the late 1800s?”

To be clear, the motive that drove the alleged actions of the accused has not been publicly disclosed.

For Linda Vandenberg, a parishioner of St. Bernard’s for over 10 years, even though almost six months have passed since the devastating incident, she is “still not believing that this has happened.”

“It is hard to reconcile that the church was set on fire and that people did not express any remorse about it, at least as far as what I can tell,” said Vandenberg. “I guess I am still feeling a bit angry about that. We did lose so much history, including paintings from Bishop Grouard, and personal items that cannot be replaced.”

She and her fellow Catholics are looking to the future as they attend Mass in the Kapawe’no First Nation School gymnasium. This kindergarten to Grade 12 school is owned by Northern Lakes College.

Currently, the St. Bernard congregation is without a priest. Fr. Lawrence Odoemena of St. Paul’s Parish in High Prairie drives half an hour to Grouard to preside over the 10:30 a.m. Sunday service.

While Vandenberg said the school opening its doors “has been a godsend,” the setup “is not ideal.”

“First of all, it is a gym,” said Vandenberg, “it is hard to make that feel like a church.”

Since St. Bernard’s Church was insured, it will eventually be rebuilt.  

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