Church heavily damaged by fire in Mercier, southwest of Montreal

Firefighters in Mercier, southwest of Montreal, managed to get the fire under control, but the historic building was heavily damaged. According to the local fire department, police are investigating it as a possible arson.

Sainte-Philomène church was built in 1848 and this is the third time it has burned

Smoke and flames were pouring out of the South Shore church early Thursday morning. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

A historic church in Mercier, southwest of Montreal, was heavily damaged in a fire early Thursday. According to the local fire department, police are investigating it as a possible arson.

"It is sad for the community, because effectively, it is the centre of our village," Lise Michaud, the mayor of the suburban town, told CBC News after surveying the extent of the damage to the Sainte-Philomène church.

"It's our history. It's our heritage."

Mercier, like many Quebec communities, was built around the church, making it a central building in the community of about 13,500. The parish was founded in 1840.

Construction of the original building began in 1844 and was completed in 1848. It is located on St-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard, also known as Route 138.

The church on St-Jean-Baptiste Boulevard is nearly 200 years old, serving as a focal point for Mercier's development. (Simon-Marc Charron)

A police officer first spotted the fire at around 6:10 a.m. Thursday and notified the fire department, a spokesperson for Mercier said.

Flames overtook a portion of the building, causing the roof to collapse.

Fire departments from seven neighbouring municipalities rushed to assist Mercier firefighters after the local department put out a call for help.

This is the third time a fire has broken out at the building. In 1955, it was damaged by fire, though the roof and walls stayed intact. It also went up in flames in 1975.

That time, it was left with only the walls standing.

The mayor of Mercier said the back of the historic church, which houses the sacristy, was flattened. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

Éric Steingue, Mercier director of fire safety, said the fire originated in the sacristy, a room where priests prepare for service. The entire sacristy and altar were destroyed, he said.