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'A big hole in our heart': Attawapiskat church fire rocks Ontario First Nation

It's been an emotional last few days for people in the James Bay community of Attawapiskat. Dozens on the Ontario First Nation watched Wednesday night as St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church burned to the ground.

Stained glass windows crafted through a truth and reconciliation initiative also lost in Wednesday blaze

The century-old St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Attawapiskat burned to the ground on Wednesday evening. (Rosie Koostachin/Twitter)

It's been an emotional last few days for people in the James Bay community of Attawapiskat.

Dozens on the Ontario First Nation watched Wednesday night as St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church burned to the ground.

Services haven't been held at the church since the fall of 2019, when it was condemned.

Even so, Rosie Koostachin said it's been sad to watch the wooden structure — which towered over the Cree community for more than a century — fall in flames.

The church was the heart of the community.- Rosie Koostachin, resident of Attawapiskat

"The church was the heart of the community," she said. "It's been there since we were small, since I was a baby. I'm 50 years old now and it's always been there.

"And now it's all gone. It feels like there's a big hole in our heart."

One of the stained glass windows at St. Francis Xavier lost in the fire. They held special significance as part of a $50,000 truth and reconciliation project.

Lost along with the old church were beautiful stained glass windows that held special significance — they were part of a $50,000 truth and reconciliation project, undertaken to help community members heal from trauma inflicted by Canada's residential school system.

Jackie Hookimaw is grateful the original blueprints for the stained glass window still exist, and hopes they can be recreated.

"When my father passed away, the sun broke through the stained glass window, and it was for me such healing. It was like his spirit is going to the spirit world, you know, and it's the same for everybody," she said.

Church seen as a gathering place

Hookimaw said she's contacted the Dioscese of Hearst-Moosonee to ask if the windows are included in the insurance coverage for the building.

Koostachin said watching the fire was profoundly sad.

"We can feel the people standing around ... all quiet, so quiet. We don't have a place to gather anymore," she said.

No one was injured during the blaze, but she said they were afraid because the wind kept shifting.

"When I was walking toward the fire, I could smell the smoke because the wind was up."

The fire affected a neighbouring communications tower, and phone reception is limited.

There's been talk of refurbishing the church for years, but the community has been gathering at a small chapel, located next to it, in the meantime.

"It's just a random house that we turned into a little church," said Koostachin. "It's only a temporary building."

Her memory of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church is far from temporary, though.

"When you come up on the winter road and you reach the Attawapiskat River, the first thing you'll notice is our church," said Koostachin.

"It's a big church for us and it's always been there."

There is no official word yet on the cause of the fire.

CBC News contacted local police and fire services, but hadn't heard back at the time of publication. 

An iconic church in Attawapiskat burned down last night. Sam Juric spoke about the fire at St. Frances Xavier Church with Rosie Koostachin, a resident who documented the fire through pictures and video. 7:17

With files from Sam Juric and Sarah MacMillan

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