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Saving one of Alberta's northernmost and oldest churches

It’s tough for her to see the structure lean slowly, Marlene Lepine said, the paintings on the ceiling fade and the wood decor deterioriate.

The church's foundation is crumbling, its steeple needs to be repaired and the floor leans

Crumbling foundations, leaning floors, cracked floors. Parishoners of the Fort Chipewyan Catholic church are fighting to save their parish from falling apart. 2:20

Dene and Cree hymns echo in Marlene Lepine's mind when she sits in Fort Chipewyan's century-old Catholic church — one of Alberta's oldest.

As she sits in the pew, the same one her family has always occupied, she gazes upwards at the azure blue ceiling.

The 66-year-old said the church that sits on the shores of Lake Athabasca, about 280 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, holds a special place in her heart.

It's difficult for her to see the painted decorations and artwork on the ceiling fade and the wood decor deteriorate.

The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church is the oldest continuous parish in Alberta, founded in the mid-1800s by the diocese of St Boniface. (David Thurton/ CBC)

"This building means so much to us," Lepine said about the church. "It's in our hearts. It's our life."

But the church might become a relic of the older generation's memory if much-needed repairs are not started soon, parishioners say.

Alberta's oldest parish

Founded by the diocese of St. Boniface in 1847, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church is the oldest continuous parish in Alberta, according to the book Many Foundations: Historic Churches of Alberta, written by Mary Oakwell.

The present church was built in 1909 by the Oblate missionaries. And it's showing its age.

The vents need to be replaced. Cracks crisscross the foundation. And the floor has begun to precariously slope toward  one side of the building, which was classified a provincial historical resource in 1988 and added as a national historic place in 2006.

On the roof, the steeple cross — the signature symbol of the Christian faith — is missing an arm. The statue of the Virgin Mary below is tilting.

Cracks in the vents also need to fixed in the Fort Chipewyan Catholic Church. (David Thurton/ CBC)
Cracks in the foundation are just some of the issues that plague the Catholic church in Fort Chipewyan. (David Thurton/CBC)

The church remains a central building in the northern Alberta community. As many as 30 members worship on Sundays at the 11 a.m. communion service. And the building overflows whenever there is a baptism, wedding, funeral or religious celebration like Christmas or Easter.

The building has undergone an assessment that confirmed these and other issues, said Margaret Whiteknife, who is spearheading the drive for repairs. A second study is underway to assess how much it will cost to restore the iconic building.

But given the cost of refurbishing historic structures, she knows it will be an expensive bill.

"I know we don't have as much funding to even get started," Whiteknife said.

'Come out and see our steeple'

Whiteknife said as soon as the cost estimates come in, the parish will begin appealing to the community and Alberta businesses for donations.

Churchgoers like Julia Cardinal are already appealing for donations-in-kind, like a crane to help facilitate immediate repairs to the steeple.

"We will put out a challenge to the contractors here," Cardinal said, adding that she hopes to get several offers. "Come out and see our steeple. Meet or beat."

The exterior of Fort Chipewyan's church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. The open steeple with bell and cross is one of its character-defining elements. (David Thurton/ CBC)

The community also hopes to restore the older building that was the priest's home, and perhaps turn it into a museum or an attraction for tourists who make the drive on the winter road from Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan. 

They hope to return the lakeside church's physical beauty back to how they see it in their hearts and memories whenever they enter its doors.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca

About the Author

David Thurton

David Thurton is CBC's mobile journalist in Fort McMurray. He's worked for CBC in the Maritimes & in Canada's Arctic. Email: david.thurton@cbc.ca