British Columbia

Holy statue stolen from Indigenous church dumped in snowy gravel pit

A large statue of a man in biblical robes stolen from a historic Indigenous church was dumped in a snowy B.C. gravel pit.

Theft of Catholic icon reminds Indigenous community of vandalism that closed its historic church

A woman out for a winter walk discovered this religious figure in biblical robes in a snowy gravel pit near the Prince George Walmart. (Facebook/Rosmarie Vonah )

Rosmarie Vonah found Jesus — or at least one of his followers — in a snowy gravel pit beside the Walmart in Prince George, B.C. 

At first, she mistook the almost life-sized religious statue for a stranger lurking in the bushes. 

"It's a little creepy, I tell you," she said. "I saw somebody standing there that didn't move ... [they were] so tall, almost five feet."

Lurking stranger turned out to be biblical statue 

When she confronted the stranger, Vonah discovered a plaster figure with a pious face, biblical robes and bare feet.  The antique Catholic icon had been stolen from the historic St. Pius Church, about 30 kilometres away on the Lheidli T'enneh reserve.

Rosmarie Vonah was out walking in a gravel pit when she encountered a religious statue frozen in the snow. (Facebook/Rosemarie Vohan)

Alyssa Tobin, a curator at Exploration Place museum, was alerted to the unusual discovery by social media. 

She rushed off in a pickup truck to recover the statue, which was covered in snow and frozen to the ground.  Tobin needed help to lift the heavy figure and truck it back to Exploration Place to dry and repair it. 

'I felt sad'

"I felt sad because it's such a historic piece and means a lot to the community," said Tobin, who works closely with the Lheidli T'enneh to safeguard its artifacts.  "It's unfortunate someone took it and is playing games [with the statue] around the city."

Tobin has seen Facebook posts showing the statue "posed" in various locations around Prince George.

Exploration Place CEO Tracy Calogeros said the statue had been roughly handled.  "He has sustained some cracks and some damage. We got pretty lucky that his head didn't come right off."

Tracy Calogheros examines the damage to a religious statue that was stolen from a historic church and dumped in a snowy gravel pit. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC News)

'It's not right'

At first, officials believed the stolen statue was Jesus. But now, they believe it may be Joseph — or perhaps, another saint.

Whatever its identity, the icon incident has distressed former Lheidli chief Barry Seymour.  "It brought me back to the time in the 1970s when the church was vandalized." 

In 1978, the St Pius Church was shut down after it was pillaged. Religious statues were smashed, and a church bell and crucifix were stolen.  Seymour blames non-Indigenous teens for that destructive spree. 

"It's just not right," said Seymour. "The people who did it never came forward and expressed any responsibility for what was done."

The religious statue discovered in a snowy gravel pit is held aloft by Lheidli T'enneh band members in front of St. Pius church in this archival photo from 1983. (Facebook/Exploration Place)

Once the statue is repaired and its identity established, it will be returned to the Lheidli T'enneh or kept in the band's museum vault for safe keeping.

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Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

With files from Nicole Oud