One year ago today, Ste-Agnès Church in Lac-Mégantic escaped the explosions and inferno that engulfed the town's downtown core after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed.
On Sunday, the church served as a gathering point for the community as it marked the first anniversary of the disaster that killed 47 people and shattered the lives of the families and friends they left behind.
Sunday morning, the people of Lac-Mégantic were joined at Ste-Agnès by dignitaries, including Premier Philippe Couillard and Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who came to offer sympathies on behalf of the province and the rest of the country.
An honour guard made up of police officers, firefighters and emergency personnel who responded to the disaster also took part.
An overflow crowd of hundreds communed with the capacity crowd inside the church via a giant screen set up outside Ste-Agnès.
Together, they heard words of grief from community leaders and prayers for comfort and hope.
"In the middle of all this personal and community destruction, there is a reconstruction that we have to go through as a town and as individuals. We need to find confidence together," said Luc Cyr, the Bishop of Sherbrooke who celebrated the mass.
It was also a ceremony full of symbols — water, flowers and butterflies representing nature's return despite the pollution from the disaster, and a toolbox symbolizing the town's rebuilding.
This theme of rebirth and renewal also saw the children of Lac-Mégantic given a prominent role in the celebration of the mass.
At its conclusion, those in attendance were invited to file past a new memorial erected outside the church — a granite book with the names of all 47 victims carved on its open pages.
There, they observed a minute of silence before the microphone was turned over to dignitaries.
Colette Roy Laroche, the mayor of Lac-Mégantic, offered comforting words to her constituents and called on them to keep hope alive.
"Keep believing that we can rebuild our town and make it more beautiful than ever," she said.
Couillard returned to the themes highlighted during the mass, notably its emphasis on the children of Lac-Mégantic.
"We see that life will triumph in Lac-Mégantic, thanks to its children," the premier said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was visiting flooded communities in Manitoba Sunday, issued a statement commending the people of Lac-Mégantic for their courage and efforts to restore their town's "joie de vivre."
"Having witnessed this first-hand during my visits, I owe these people my greatest admiration. On this sombre anniversary, let us pay tribute to their resilience, determination and extraordinary strength of character," he said.
"Once again, rest assured the government of Canada will continue to stand by you."
Morning mass follows night of vigil
The 11 a.m. mass followed a late night vigil and procession through the town that saw more than 1,000 people march in solemn silence past the spot where tragedy struck Lac-Mégantic with such awful violence a year ago.
They began their walk in the darkness after observing a moment of silence at 1:15 a.m. — the exact moment on July 6, 2013, when the train crashed into the centre of the town and exploded in a series of cataclysmic fireballs.
Though a year has passed, the emotional scars in the community remain as deep as the physical damage that is still so apparent on the local landscape.
- Lac-Mégantic remembers: 1 year later
- Lac-Mégantic residents still suffering 'indescribable' grief
- Lac-Mégantic: By the numbers
The march followed a midnight mass and a moving speech by Mayor Colette Roy Laroche, who received two thunderous rounds of applause and two standing ovations from about 1,200 people who packed Ste-Agnès Church.
"For several minutes we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn't true," Roy Laroche said of the July 6 catastrophe in a speech also watched by about 200 people on a big screen outside the building.
"But what happened to us was a nightmare. When we removed our hands (from our eyes), the horror was still there and the worst was to come."
She urged townsfolk to turn the page on the tragedy and look to the future, but to never forget.
Roy Laroche, who became a household name in Quebec for her leadership and poise in the disaster's aftermath, also asked the community to stick together to overcome any future obstacles.
"A year ago, we found ourselves in one of the worst tragedies in the histories of Quebec and Canada," she said.
"We were also covered by the biggest wave of love and solidarity that modern Quebec has ever known."
In his sermon during Sunday's midnight mass, Rev. Steve Lemay, the parish priest, offered words of comfort.
"There's still more road to cover," said Lemay, who presided over many of the victim's funerals and has opened up about how hard the year has been on him.
"Many of us are still suffering from the consequences of the catastrophe that struck us ...
"We have suffered and cried together, we worked together, walked together and it's together that we will continue on the path."
Stars in the night
Many participants in the march wore glowing plastic stars on their chests. Several wiped away tears as they held hands with the person next to them.
Most stared sadly at the downtown area where dozens of buildings were gutted. To this day, the zone remains off-limits behind metal fences as decontamination work continues.
A half-dozen people left the march to sit side-by-side on the railway track, looking at their broken town.
Nearby, a woman stood by herself, gazing in the same direction while weeping quietly in the darkness.
"I think it was important to do this to complete our mourning process," said walker Bernard Boulet, whose sister Marie-France was declared dead in the disaster, though her remains were never found.
She lived in the downtown area that was incinerated by the explosions. Boulet said several of her family members took part in the events.
"It does us some good," Boulet said of the mass and the march.
Grief still raw
On Saturday, the people of Lac-Mégantic began their weekend of events to remember the victims of the conflagration that forever changed their town.
Hundreds turned out Saturday to watch locals release 5,000 young trout into the lake, plant flowers in a new garden near the train tracks, and free 460 butterflies into the sky.
The gestures were meant to symbolize the water, earth and air — all aspects of the environment contaminated by the nearly six million litres of crude spewed from the smashed tanker cars.
'It's an intense life moment that we're living through in Lac-Mégantic' - Linda Gendreau, a Lac-Mégantic resident
But as the collective healing process moves forward, locals say their terrible emotional wounds have yet to heal.
The pain remains so raw in the community that many planned to avoid the weekend ceremonies, which also include concerts and social events.
Louisette Nadeau, who attended Saturday's flower-planting ceremony, doubted her daughter, who narrowly escaped the explosions, would be able to find the strength to participate in any of the activities.
Nadeau said her daughter Nathalie had just left the Musi-Cafe bar, where dozens died when the train exploded.
She said the first blast knocked Nathalie off her feet and left her with second-degree burns on one arm. Then, the massive flames rushed toward her.
"Luckily, her spouse lifted her up off the ground ... because if not she probably would have burned right there," said Nadeau, whose daughter lost many friends that night.
"It's been a year, but it's like it happened yesterday. She's having a very hard time dealing with this ... She always says, 'Why me? Why not them?'"
Nadeau said she took part in the flower ceremony to help give strength to those who lost loved ones. She fears, however, that the town may never be the same.
"I hope that one day life will be different," Nadeau, a resident of Lac-Mégantic for 30 years, said as she struggled to hold back tears.
"We try to move on, but it's impossible."
Later Saturday, hundreds of people released butterflies at another event near the crash site.
Children giggled as some butterflies clung to their fingertips, at first refusing to fly. The moment brought smiles to hundreds of faces.
Stepping towards recovery
Later Sunday morning, the commemorative mass will be followed by the unveiling of a monument and a procession.
The monument, on the front lawn of the Ste-Agnès Church, will be dedicated to the victims.
Linda Gendreau, a Lac-Mégantic resident who watched as children helped release trout into the lake Saturday, said the community has yet to free itself from the grip of the catastrophe.
She said the commemorative events are important steps in the town's recovery.
"It's an intense life moment that we're living through in Lac-Mégantic," said Gendreau, who lost a work colleague and several acquaintances in the disaster.
"We are very much in the presence of the consequences of the tragedy, so it's a process."