Family saddened as historic rural church destroyed in suspicious fire

The destruction of a small church near Two Hills, Alta. in a suspicious fire has left a family with deep roots to the building in shock.

Sokalski family attended service for generations

The Holy Trinity Catholic Church, also known as New Kiew church by locals, was completely destroyed in a fire. (Miranda Ketchum)

The destruction of a small church near Two Hills, Alta. in a suspicious fire has left a family with deep historical ties to the building in shock.

For Hedi Sokalski and her family, the quaint property overlooking a hill about 120 kilometres east of Edmonton, was more than just a building. It was part of her heritage.

"My children were fifth generation altar servers in that church," Hedi Sokalski said in an interview for CBC's Edmonton AM.

"We're hoping we can resurrect it."

Sokalski said the history of the church dates back to the early 1900s when Polish immigrants came to settle in the area. The families started to hold religious services in their homes before building a log church in 1918.

In 1947, they constructed the wooden church, replete with arched windows and a small steeple.

Holy Trinity Catholic Church, also known as New Kiew Church, remained an important centre of rural community life for more than seven decades.

The church atop a hill offered a vantage of the surrounding landscape. (Miranda Ketchum)

Last Friday, Two Hills RCMP were called to a house fire in the rural area south of the town just before midnight. A second fire three kilometres away was reported while officers were on scene with emergency and fire services.

That second fire was inside the church, which was completely destroyed. No one was injured and both buildings were unoccupied at the time.

Both fires have been deemed suspicious by a fire investigator, RCMP said.

In a post on its Facebook page, Two Hills Fire Rescue said the area had experienced a string of five deliberate fires this spring.

"Two Hills Fire Rescue would like to extend our sincerest condolences to the families affected by these cowardly, despicable acts," it reads. 

"The sadness at the loss of this historic landmark is felt by many."

'It was like home'

Sokalski's daughter, Miranda Ketchum, said the loss came as a "complete shock.'

The church no longer held weekly masses but was still used occasionally for special services or events.

Ketchum was the last to hold a wedding there three years ago. She says her 14-year-old nephew had hoped to follow suit and get married there one day.

"Another generation would have gone through there if there would have been the chance," Ketchum said.

The Sokalski family was acting as keyholders and caretakers for the small property.  The church's distinct steeple atop a hill was visible from the driveway of their nearby farm. Ketchum said they would sometimes visit the space to enjoy the tranquillity and reflect on its connection to their now-deceased grandparents.

"It was like family and it was like home," she said. 

"It was part of our daily life." 

All the remains of the structure is a brick chimney and ashen debris. During visits to the property, the Sokalskis have recovered broken dishes, shards of stained glass and pieces of a chandelier.

Nowhere to be found is a large portrait of the Holy Trinity that sat behind the altar and was said to have come from that first log church.

A gathering of people after the annual service and blessing of the graves in July of 2019. (Miranda Ketchum)

Despite the losses, some items have turned up, helping to waylay worries of theft and console the family. The lamb from a large nativity scene, a bust of Jesus Christ, and crucifixes from the tabernacle were recovered from the charred structure.

"All of these things made us so, so happy," Ketchum said.

The fire remains under investigation. Police are searching for two vehicles spotted in the area at the time with the following description:

  • White Ford F250/350 single cab, with a headache rack, cab and fog lights, with a red tidy tank
  • Ford 250/350 four-door, canopy (truck cap), possibly a roof rack

Police are asking anyone who was in the area of Range Road 133 and Warwick Road that night between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. to contact them.