Farewell to a friend: Congregation of destroyed Alberta church gathers to grieve, move forward

Catholic worshippers in Morinville, Alta., held their first Sunday mass since their church was destroyed by fire earlier this week.

'It will be sad ... but we just have to move forward now'

A steady stream of parishoners and Morinville residents visited the burned remains of outside the fence surrounding St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church. (Andreane Williams/Radio-Canada)

Parishioners of a historic Catholic church that was destroyed by fire came together on Sunday both to mourn and to celebrate their strength as a community.

"We get to still be the kind of congregation that we were in the church and celebrate still being together — even though we're not able to be in the space we normally are," said Tracey Dryden, a parishioner of St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in Morinville, Alta., a town of 10,600 people, 40 kilometres north of Edmonton. 

"I'm feeling happy to be gathering again," added Morinville resident Simonne Chevalier. "It's not in our spiritual home — we're homeless right now. But we're going to gather and we're going to rebuild and we're going to have mass." 

The town's iconic church, which was completed in 1907, was destroyed in a suspicious fire that was reported at about 3 a.m. Wednesday. Arson is being investigated as a possible cause.

It was one of numerous churches that have been torched or defaced in recent weeks, a wave of vandalism that has occurred since several First Nations have reported finding unmarked graves at former residential school sites. 

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the attacks against the Catholic church, which operated many of the residential schools, saying it's not the answer to the trauma that has been caused.

Harsh words also came from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who visited the scene in Morinville on Wednesday. He called the destruction of churches "hate-motivated arson attacks" and said he hoped the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

Bouquets and notes have been fastened to the fence surrounding the burned remains of St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church. (Andreane Williams/Radio-Canada)

Less than a kilometre away from Sunday's service at the Morinville high school, the ruins of the church were surrounded by a fence to which heartfelt notes have been pinned amidst the bouquets. 

"No matter how horrific and traumatic history may be, we must move forward as one people," one note begins.

"Despite my anguish that this act has caused, I will continue to do my part to help heal the wounds of our nation through love."

Joseph Gibeau, who attended St. Jean Baptiste every week as a child growing up in Morinville, said he came to see the ruins on Sunday because he needed to see it.

"Weddings. Funerals. A lot of members of my family were married here. My mom was buried here. Some of my brothers and sisters were buried here. I was also baptized here," said Gibeau.

"There's been some sad moments in my life but this is one of the sadder ones, for sure."

For Dryden, it was her first time back to an in-person church service, which were suspended or limited during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I'm sure it will be sad as well, as people remember what was," she said about the service, which was held inside the town's high school, "but we just have to move forward now."