Fire at historic Edmonton church ignited by smouldering sage in coffee can

A fire Sunday afternoon at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in central Edmonton caused an estimated $350,000 in damage to the century-old structure. 

'We always say, the church is not the building, it's the people'

The Sacred Heart Church, built in 1913, was damaged by fire on Sunday. Church officials have promised to restore the historic building. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Smouldering sage and ashes from a ceremonial smudging discarded in a coffee can full of cedar and herbs are to blame for setting an historic Roman Catholic church in central Edmonton ablaze.

The fire broke out inside the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples at 10821 96th St. on Sunday afternoon, causing an estimated $350,000 in damage to the century-old structure. 

In a news release Tuesday, investigators with Edmonton Fire Rescue Services said the fire originated on the ground floor of the building, spreading to the walls and ceiling.

The fire, started after a smudging ceremony held by Indigenous elders inside the church, was accidental, said fire services spokesperson Brittany Lewchuk.

Ashes were improperly discarded into a metal coffee can on a counter in a corner of a work room, eventually catching fire, she said. 

Fire crews were called to the scene around 2 p.m. by a neighbour who spotted flames coming out the back door and second floor of the building.

Crews arrived on-scene fifteen minutes later and the fire was extinguished shortly after 9 p.m. No one was injured. 

'The blaze just took off' 

Father Mark Blom was asleep in the adjacent residence when the fire broke. 

"I was having a nap and I even put earplugs in and then I heard this noise and it was the fire alarm," Blom said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"I got up and looked up the front window and by golly, there is a fire truck right there with a fire hose going into the church so I got out as quickly as I could." 

The work room at the rear of the church was severely damaged and some of the ceiling rafters were damaged. A mural depicting the first station of the cross was also scorched, he said. The church also saw water damage.

The damage, Blom said, could have been much worse. 

"The fire was started by accidental means and the blaze just took off," he said. "A big thank you to Edmonton Fire Rescue; what a job they did." 

The fire, started after a smudging ceremony held by Indigenous elders inside the church, was deemed an accident. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The 107-year-old building in the McCauley neighbourhood, is one of Edmonton's oldest churches. It opened in 1913 to serve the city's rapidly expanding population and has since become a refuge for many Indigenous worshippers.

Archbishop of Edmonton Richard Smith was on scene as the church burned on Sunday and promised to do everything he could to restore the property.

"This is a pretty, pretty sad, dark day," Smith said. 

"The thing to keep in mind is the historical significance of this church and its present significance.

"For decades, this church has been the Catholic gathering place for Indigenous people," he said. "It has been designated especially for them and they love it and you just know that when they see this, their hearts will be crushed." 

Indigenous Catholic parish

In October 1991, the Archdiocese of Edmonton's Native Pastoral Centre was moved into Sacred Heart. Archbishop Joseph MacNeil officially designated the parish as Edmonton's First Nations, Métis and Inuit parish, the first congregation of its kind in Canada. 

"Sacred heart has been designated as an Indigenous Catholic parish and although there are many different people coming here to worship on Sundays, you could say the core hosting people are the Indigenous community," Blom said. 

"So the art of the church, the tone of our church life is being in harmony between the Catholic faith and the Indigenous peoples of this country." 

The church was rebuilt after a fire destroyed a large part of the building in 1966, and church officials plan to do the same in the coming months, Blom said. 

"You can still see the effects of that fire 45 years ago ... You can see where the bricks are scorched inside of the bell towers." 

Blom said services will not be put on hold. The parish will continue to hold services online and are looking for an alternate worship space while repairs are completed. 

"We always say, the church is not the building, it's the people," he said.