A 90-year-old Kamloops residential school survivor said she is “devastated” by the loss of Saint Ann’s Church in a suspicious weekend fire near Hedley, B.C.
Elder Carrie Allison of the Upper Similkameen Indian Band (USIB), who has lived in the Similkameen Valley for more than 70 years, said she attended the Kamloops residential school at the age of 8 for three years.
Allison condemns the destruction of the Catholic church, saying in a statement that it was a historical landmark built before 1908.
“There have been many happy and joyful times with marriages from all over the world in that church, and for the couple that was to marry there next week, I am devastated,” she wrote.
The band elder is asking for the public’s help locating the couple scheduled to get married at the church this weekend.
She is also asking for anyone that has ever gotten married in the church over the past 100 years to send in their photos to the USIB.
Allison spoke of the tireless efforts of the band’s ancestors to build the church, riding horseback to Penticton to haul the lumber and walk for miles in rain or shine to attend church services.
“When all the people that were taking care of the church had passed away, somebody had to take over, so I did,” she wrote.
“I think of all our ancestors that helped to build Saint Ann’s looking over us and watching all their hard work and the place they cherished burn to the ground.”
USIB Chief Bonnie Jacobsen said the community suffered a “huge loss” that can never be replaced.
“There are still many members of USIB that follow the Catholic and Christian faiths who are grieving after these events,” Jacobsen wrote.
“While I understand the hurt and anger following the recent discoveries at several residential schools across Canada, I don’t believe this is the way. This is not our way, as violence and destruction are never the answer, and we don’t condone this.”
The Saint Ann’s Church on USIB lands and the Chopaka Lady of our Lourdes Church on Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) lands in B.C.’s Southern Interior burned to the ground on Saturday morning.
Police say they’re treating both fires as suspicious, and are looking for possible connections to fires that destroyed two other Catholic churches in the region.
Sgt. Jason Bayda with the Penticton South Okanagan RCMP said in a statement that investigations into the fires early last week on First Nations lands around Osoyoos and Oliver are ongoing, with no arrests or charges so far.
The fires come less than a month after the discovery of what’s believed to be the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at a former residential school site in Kamloops.
Lower Similkameen Chief Keith Crow says Catholic community members were devastated by the fires and by the discovery of the graves.
“If you’re hurting at this time, please reach out to somebody and make the call. There are a lot of upset people and it’s … heartbreaking,” he said.
The small church in Chopaka was built more than 100 years ago and hosted a service a couple of weeks ago, Crow added.
The fire at that church had spread to nearby brush before being extinguished by crews with the B.C. Wildfire Services, the RCMP statement said.
The Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced last week that ground-penetrating radar indicated 751 unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential School site.
The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation said last month the discovery in Kamloops was made using the same technology.
— With files from The Canadian Press