'Terrible and tragic': Century-old Catholic church in Morinville, Alta., destroyed by fire

A Catholic church destroyed in a suspicious fire early Wednesday was the "heart and soul" of the town north of Edmonton, where it had stood for more than a century.

Town will look to rebuild on the site, community's mayor says

A fire destroyed the century-old Catholic church in Morinville, Alta., about 30 kilometres north of Edmonton, on Wednesday. The fire is being investigated as arson. (David Bajer/CBC)

A Catholic church destroyed in a suspicious fire early Wednesday was the "heart and soul" of the town north of Edmonton, where it had stood for more than a century, according to the community's mayor.

"What's happened is a terrible and tragic event for our community," Morinville Mayor Barry Turner told a morning news conference, hours after the St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church went up in flames.

"It was really the heart and soul of a lot of what went on in our community and, as I've said before, we cannot replace what was lost today."

Bystanders watched as the steeple, engulfed in flames, toppled from the skyline of the town of 10,600 people, 40 kilometres north of Edmonton.

The charred remains of the wooden structure will be levelled.

Morinville residents are reeling from the shock and grief of the loss, Turner said.

The town will look to rebuild on the site, he said.

"I'm confident that our community will respond in a way that we can all be proud of."

The cause of the fire remains under investigation. RCMP are looking into the possibility of arson.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney visited the scene and condemned the destruction of churches as "hate-motivated arson attacks."

At least six other Catholic churches on First Nation lands across Canada have burned down in the past week. RCMP say they are treating the other fires as suspicious.

Kenney said the province will work with police and other law-enforcement agencies to increase patrols at churches that could become potential targets.

Alberta premier condemns burning of Catholic church

2 years ago
Duration 2:18
Featured VideoAlberta’s premier is condemning the apparent targeting and burning of one of the province’s oldest Catholic churches. The fire at St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church was reported just after 3 a.m. Wednesday; by 7 a.m., fire crews deemed it a “complete loss.”

"This historic church was in the heart of Morinville and a key part of the spiritual life of Alberta's francophone community," Kenney said in a statement. 

"These attacks targeting Christian churches are attempts to destroy the spiritual sites that are important to people of faith across Alberta, including many Indigenous people."

Fire crews arrived on scene at 3:20 a.m. local time to find the building fully engulfed and already threatening to collapse. 

Surrounding buildings were evacuated. About 50 residents living in the former convent building were forced to leave their homes. That building was damaged by water and smoke. The flames were brought under control by 7 a.m.

The national chief of the Assembly of First Nations says he understands the rage, frustration and pain brought on by the
discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools, but funnelling that anguish into burning down churches will not bring justice.

"To burn things down is not our way," Perry Bellegarde said Wednesday. "Our way is to build relationships and come together."

'An empty feeling in our hearts'

Phil Schayes, who is Métis, said the church was at the forefront of his upbringing in Morinville.

"We used to be able to see the church steeple and we don't see that anymore and that kind of leaves an empty feeling in our hearts but that said, I think it's a time for reflection," Schayes said.

If the fire was motivated by hate toward the Catholic Church over wrongs committed in residential schools, the loss of the building should be seen as a symbol of the need for reconciliation, he said.

Many of his Indigenous brothers are hurting, he said. 

"I feel bad that we're at this point but it has to come out," Schayes said. "If we've wronged them, which I think that we did, then shame on us.

"Imagine if someone felt so bad inside, so much hate, that they had to burn down a church where so many people found a lot of peace. We can put up another church but a person that is hurting like that, we have to find a way." 

Fire crews assess the scene Wednesday after an overnight fire destroyed the church. (David Bajer/CBC)

Paul Terrio, bishop of the Diocese of St. Paul, issued a statement urging people to resist speculating on the cause of the fire, and asking that they pray for parishioners.

Parishioner Eileen Vollmer lives a block away and often admired the church from the window of her living room.

She said she cried as she and her husband watched the wreckage burn. Vollmer said many of her family memories are connected to the church. 

"My mom was baptized here, had her first communion and confirmation here, got married here and had her funeral here," Vollmer said. "Our children were baptized there and we always went to church here."

Vollmer has lived in Morinville since 1960 and attended the church since she was a young girl. She often helped the congregation welcome its newest members, she said. 

"I made all the little baptism capes that were given to each baby that was being baptized and I just finishing making 12 little first communion veils for the little girls."

The church is a landmark in the town and was a frequent gathering place for residents, said Vollmer, one she admired for the history it shared both with the town and her own family.  

 "It's just very sad."

About 50 firefighters were called to the scene, Morinville said in its statement.

Iain Bushell, the town's general manager of community and infrastructure services, said flames spread quickly through the old wooden structure. The building was already threatening to cave in by the time crews arrived.

"There was already fire in the basement as they attempted to enter the building … it was already charged with smoke. And they could already hear the sounds of collapse on the inside so then they evacuated." 

The structure, completed in 1907, is a "complete loss," Bushell said. 

"The St. Jean Baptiste Church is an iconic church," he said.

"It's part of the landscape."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.