RCMP in Morinville, Alta., are working to determine what sparked a fire Wednesday at a historic Catholic church and say they are treating it as suspicious.
St. Jean Baptiste Parish church went up in flames in the early morning hours — emergency crews were called to the building at the center of town around 3:20 a.m.
“The fire was already fully involved from the basement when the first fire crews got here,” said Iain Bushell, general manager of community and infrastructure services with the Town of Morinville.
“They entered the building but there was already collapse occurring on the inside of the church, so they backed out and it’s been a defensive or an exterior firefight ever since.”
“It’s one of the largest buildings. It’s very old construction — so an awful lot of wood — and so it went very quickly and it was a very difficult fire to fight.”
The fire gutted the church and caused the evacuation of several nearby homes and businesses, including a senior’s centre. An apartment building next to the church was also evacuated.
RCMP said those who were evacuated are being supported by the Town of Morinville and Sturgeon Victim Services.
Bushell said fire crews were able to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings, but the church is a total loss.
“There was some minor smoke and water damage to the apartment building on this side but we managed to save all the other buildings,” he said.
About 50 firefighters were called to the scene, including crews from Legal, Bon Accord, Gibbons, Sturgeon County, St. Albert and Edmonton.
“They fought really hard right at the beginning. They take rests and rehabilitation as they were doing the firefight and that’s also why we call our neighbours so we can change our teams to keep them as safe and rested as we can,” Bushell said.
A spokesperson with Edmonton Fire Rescue Services said the department received a call for assistance at 4:59 a.m. Wednesday. One ladder crew was sent to the church fire and arrived just before 6 a.m.
“Regional mutual aid is a partnership between communities allowing different communities to request emergency support,” EFRS spokesperson Brittany Lewchuck said.
“When support is requested from EFRS, our duty office first ensures that there is adequate coverage for Edmonton before sending resources to other communities.”
Fire crews were able to bring the fire under control just before 7 a.m. and remained at the scene later Wednesday morning putting out hot spots.
“We are worried about continued collapse of some of the corners. So the church, as you can see over my shoulder, is a complete loss,” Bushell said while speaking to reporters at the fire scene.
Historic church a loss to the community: officials
He said the loss of the church will be felt in the community.
“It’s a very old and iconic building here in the town of Morinville,” he said.
“It is a very big loss to the community. It is one of the iconic landscape features of the town. It’s been here for, I think, 130 years that the church has been in place. So, of course, it’s going to have a real impact on the community and I imagine that many people are going to be deeply affected by its loss.”
The church was named after Father Jean-Baptiste Morin, the town’s namesake who settled the community in 1891.
“We can never replace what’s been lost here,” a visibly shaken Mayor Barry Turner said at a news conference later Wednesday morning, adding the shock and loss has been overwhelming.
Turner said the church has been the heart of the community for many years — hosting not only religious services, weddings and funerals, but also community events and celebrations.
“It’s really the heart and soul of a lot of what went on in our community,” he said. “We cannot replace what was lost.”
“Our loss is enormous and could have been much worse, except for the brave men and women that answered the call.”
Turner said a special council meeting was held Wednesday morning and the community’s leaders made the decision to cancel the planned Canada Day festivities.
“What we will do is open up the Morinville Community Cultural Centre tomorrow for an opportunity for members of the community to get together, share their stories and move forward together.”
Mary Morin is a parishioner who was married at the church. Her children had communion there and she said the loss is devastating.
“I got up last night — well, early in the morning — and I could smell smoke. So I walked around my house and I couldn’t see or smell anything and I thought, ‘Hmm, the sky looks orange; it’s going to be a hot day.’ But I woke up later and it was actually our church on fire.
“(The church) was beautiful — the stained glass, the bells were just working again recently in the last couple of years and they were just beautiful. You could hear them throughout the town.
“It was certainly our signature building. You could see the steeple from anywhere.”
Fire being investigated as suspicious, Premier Kenney condemns acts of arson
A fire investigator was at the scene Wednesday morning and RCMP are treating the fire as suspicious.
“The fire investigation is underway. Certainly, the timing is unfortunate given what is going on in the country at the moment and it being a Catholic church, but again, I’ll let the fire investigator get into that,” Bushell said.
Mayor Turner echoes that sentiment.
“At this point, I’m not going to contribute to any speculation here. And really, the important thing is our community — that we support each other,” he said. “At the end of the day, what’s happened is a terrible and tragic event.”
“I’m confident our community will respond in a way that we can all be proud of.”
Four small Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in rural southern British Columbia have been destroyed by suspicious fires and a vacant former Anglican church in northwestern B.C. was recently damaged in what RCMP said could be arson.
Two recent incidents on the Siksika First Nation in Alberta are also under investigation.
On Monday, RCMP said a fire was deliberately started at the Siksika First Nation Catholic Church. On Tuesday, RCMP said at attempt was made to start a fire inside the Siksika Anglican Church, but was unsuccessful.
Several Alberta politicians spoke in front of the church Wednesday afternoon, including Premier Jason Kenney.
The premier said it was a tragedy to lose a building of historic significance, adding he was deeply concerned by the apparent recent acts of arson targetting one particular faith community.
“We all know that Canada has to redouble its efforts at reconciliation, but hate-inspired violence — burning down of faith communities, targeting them with this these acts of violence and intimidation — is not reconciliation. It’s not the way forward,” Kenney said.
“It is a dangerous and violent criminal act, which I, on behalf of Alberta’s government, condemn unequivocally.”
Kenney went on to say the province is doubling the amount of money available through the Alberta Security Infrastructure Program: a grant he announced earlier this month intended to protect vulnerable residents and religious organizations from hate crimes.
The fires happened 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, B.C.
The Cowessess First Nation in southeastern Saskatchewan also announced last week that ground-penetrating radar detected an estimated 751 unmarked graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
Some 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, which operated for more than 120 years in Canada. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
Anyone with information on the fire can call Morinville RCMP at 780-939-4520. Tips can also be left anonymously through Crime Stoppers.
The town of Morinville is located within the Edmonton Metropolitan Region, approximately 35 kilometres north of the city along Highway 2.
— With files from The Canadian Press