Morinville residents seek funds, answers a year after church fire

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As the sun set on the last day of June, dozens of congregation members gathered for mass next to the gravel yard that had once been their church.

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A year earlier, those in attendance and the rest of the town of Morinville had watched in shock as flames engulfed the hundred-year-old St. Jean Baptiste Church, destroying everything but the bells and a few pallets of brick.

Without the nearby rectory and the memories of those who gathered, little now exists to suggest that for more than a century the site was home to a soaring tower that loomed over the countryside north of Edmonton.

“Not being able to see that clock tower as we drive into town certainly has implications for our community,” Morinville Mayor Simon Boersma said in an interview on Thursday. “(It was) with us for so long, it’s like… a death.”

A year after the suspicious fire – one in a series of suspected arson attacks in Canadian churches, coinciding with efforts to identify unmarked graves in former residential schools – there are plans to rebuild the church.

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However, there are still few answers about the cause of the fire.

‘It remains an active investigation’

St. Jean Baptiste Church was built in 1907, which was 16 years after Roman Catholic priest Jean-Baptiste Morin led a group of French-speaking settlers to establish the community that later became Morinville.

Sometime after 3am on June 30, 2021, the church caught fire and was quickly flooded, forcing the evacuation of nearby homes and businesses, including a retirement home.

St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Morinville, Alta., burned to the ground on June 30, 2021.
St. Jean Baptiste Parish in Morinville, Alta., burned to the ground on June 30, 2021. Photo by Larry Wong/Postmedia
The Roman Catholic Church of St. Jean Baptiste Parish was built in 1907.
The Roman Catholic Church of St. Jean Baptiste Parish was built in 1907. Photo by Greg Southampost media
The parish of St. Jean Baptiste in Morinville held a mass on the one-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed the church.
The parish of St. Jean Baptiste in Morinville held a mass on the one-year anniversary of the fire that destroyed the church. Photo by Greg SouthamGreg Southam

“The fire brigade has done its best,” said Gerry Gaetz, a member of the parish committee. However, the fire made short work of the church’s old wooden structure, which Gaetz likened to ‘kindling’.

Visiting the site the following day, Prime Minister Jason Kenney deemed the fire a “criminal act of hate-inspired violence,” and pledged to cut security subsidies for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious buildings targeted by vandals. double.

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And while the RCMP has launched a criminal investigation, no charges have been filed.

“Unfortunately, RCMP has not yet made any arrests in connection with the fire,” said Cpl. Troy Savinkoff said in an email dated June 24. “It remains an active investigation and the RCMP is still seeking tips from the public.”

Arsons are notoriously difficult to investigate, in part because they destroy much of the evidence that could identify a suspect.

One of the few church fires in 2021 to lead to indictments was the July fire that destroyed the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey, BC. arguing with her boyfriend.

No evidence was presented in court that the woman was motivated by hatred, or the discovery of graves in former residential schools.

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Boersma says his community has shown a lot of mercy and forgiveness since the fire, but some residents are still struggling with the lack of answers.

“We want to know what happened,” he says. “Everyone would definitely want that closure. And pointing fingers doesn’t help at this point. It doesn’t solve anything. It gives you no closure at all. The closure will come when the RCMP investigation is complete.”

Gaetz, for his part, is busy fundraising for the new church. He said donations — including the sale of pieces of the destroyed building — have met about a quarter of the $1 million goal proposed by the archdioceses.

Inflation and the rising price of building materials have complicated matters, but Gaetz said the most optimistic prediction is that the new church will be completed in the next two to three years.

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