The old St. Gabriel Mission Church in Janvier, Alta., left, was destroyed by fire Dec. 15. The new church, at right, was undamaged. Photo from Diocese of St. Paul

Mission church on Alberta First Nation destroyed by fire

  • December 21, 2023

The RCMP’s Wood Buffalo detachment in Alberta is investigating a fire that devastated the former St. Gabriel Catholic Mission Church Dec. 15 in Janvier, a hamlet neighbouring the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation.

A news release stated officers responded to a 10:30 p.m. emergency call alerting them of a structural blaze in Janvier. Upon arrival, they discovered the building was “engulfed in flames.” Firefighters extinguished the blaze, but the old house of worship was destroyed.

Witnesses informed police they saw a silver sedan driving away from the scene as the fire began.

Bishop Gary Franken of the Diocese of St. Paul told The Catholic Register that this building had not hosted Catholic liturgical services in a long time as it gave way to a newer St. Gabriel Church next door. 

“The church building destroyed by fire in Janvier was the unused ‘old’ church, which happens to be right beside the ‘new’ church that has been in use for a number of years,” wrote Franken. “I was informed that the newer church was not damaged. There was some talk about using the former church as a museum, but no decision was finalized about that. These church buildings belong to the First Nations band that they are on. The Diocese of St. Paul is responsible for providing the ministry, with a priest coming down from Fort McMurray on a Sunday once a month for Mass.”

Chipewyan Prairie First Nation councillor Shane Janvier decried the fire in a video he posted to social media of him next to the remains of the church. 

“The significance of this old church in the community — lots of celebrations at this church over the years, lots of weddings, lots of baptisms,” said Janvier. “This is a place where we’ve come to say our last respects to our loved ones and our ancestors … enough’s enough. We’ve got to start looking out for one another as a community.

“If we’re going to make statements that this is our land and we’re going to fight for this land, then we damn well better learn to respect our land. That’s not respecting our community.”

Janvier, who received First Communion in the destroyed church, said “early indications appear to be arson.” However, the RCMP is still investigating the cause of the fire. 

Anyone with information or footage regarding the fire is asked to contact Wood Buffalo RCMP at (780) 788-4000 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS).

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