Nova Scotia

Chapel Island First Nation celebrates return of historic altar

The people of Potlotek in Cape Breton have fulfilled a sacred trust with the return of a centuries-old altar to the most sacred site for the Mi'kmaq, Chapel Island.

French gave altar to Mi'kmaq nearly 300 years ago

Mi'kmaq historian Lillian Marshall and Potlotek Chief Wilburt Marshall pose with the historic altar which was returned to the community today after 155 years. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

The people of Potlotek in Cape Breton have fulfilled a sacred trust with the return of a centuries-old altar to the most sacred site for the Mi'kmaq, Chapel Island.

The altar was given to the Mi'kmaq by the French almost 300 years ago.

Details of the exchange are lost in the mists of time, but it's believed the altar was the centrepiece of a chapel at either the Fortress of Louisbourg, or in St. Peter's, once known as Port Toulouse.

When the English began their successful conquest of settlements in Nova Scotia in the mid-1700s, the French asked their Mi'kmaq allies to protect the altar from destruction.

A historic altar was returned to Chapel Island First Nation on Monday in a traditional ceremony. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

Tradition suggests it was taken by canoe and portage across Cape Breton to Chapel Island.

There it stayed until renovations in the community's church in 1860. The altar was moved to Sacred Heart Church in nearby Johnstown, in what was to have been a temporary arrangement.

Repeated requests over the years failed to secure its return. Only recently was agreement made to transport the item back to Chapel Island.

Last month, the altar was removed from Sacred Heart in its original 12 pieces and taken to the workshop at Fortress Louisbourg for a cleaning. At that time, Maura McKeough, acting Parks Canada manager for the site, was able to confirm its French origins and likely the age.

A sacred altar is examined by members of Chapel Island First Nation on Monday. (Joan Weeks/CBC)

The altar was transported by boat from Potlotek to Chapel Island earlier on Monday, preceded by many men from the community and followed by women, drumming and singing.

The altar's first mass in Chapel Island in 155 years was celebrated on Monday afternoon.

The altar's return has been timed to coincide with the annual four-day St. Anne's Mission, beginning later this week.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now