Calgary police arson investigators are working to determine if a fire at a Forest Lawn church was deliberately set and say the blaze could be linked to a recent string of vandalism incidents in the city.
Firefighters arrived at the two-storey Calgary Vietnamese Alliance Church in the 4900 block of Forego Avenue on Sunday at about 7:20 p.m. to find “large volumes of smoke and flames” coming from the building.
Crews were able to get the flames under control from the outside quickly before making their way inside to extinguish smaller fires.
No one was inside at the time of the fire, police said.
‘This feels like their home’
Quam Luu, who works at the church, is frustrated about the blaze and wonders why it happened.
“It’s really damaged from the inside. It’s all burnt, some of the benches and all the windows are damaged,” Luu said.
“We are Vietnamese. Lots of old people came here 40 years ago from the boat and they have been with the church for that many years. This feels like their home.”
Pastor Thai Nguyen said they don’t feel safe anymore.
“We come here as refugees and build a new life and build our new church here, and I feel worried. I don’t know what happened or what to do next,” said Nguyen.
“I’m going to need to do something to protect the church.”
Detectives who have been investigating a string of nearly a dozen churches being vandalized with red paint last week will be helping the arson unit search for clues.
Police said it was too early in the investigation to know how the fire started and if it was on purpose, why.
“We are very aware of the current tensions in the community around residential schools and the acts of vandalism and arson that have been occurring,” police said in a news release.
“We will examine whether there is any connection in this case, but we are asking people in the meantime to be patient while we work to figure out what exactly happened.”
The service acknowledged the “trauma, hurt and anger” felt by community members in Calgary and across Canada in the wake of unmarked graves being found at the sites of residential schools.
“While the vast majority of people have been peacefully expressing their responses to these events, we also know that the unlawful vandalism and burning of churches across the country has left many in our community feeling unsafe,” police said.
Staff Sgt. Kurt Jacobs said police continue to work with church leaders as they investigate connections.
“There’s no doubt it’s a tragedy what took place, but we aren’t going to solve anything moving forward by utilizing acts of violence and going after individuals and painting everyone with the same brush,” he said.
The police service said while it’s still not clear if this fire is related to the vandalism of other churches — and fires at other churches across Alberta and elsewhere in the country — it’s committed to “working toward peaceful reconciliation while still performing our duties of upholding the law and protecting public safety.”
‘We are just hurting ourselves’
Pastor Mabini Dabalos said their hearts are with Indigenous people through the pain.
“If burning churches will not stop, we are just hurting ourselves instead of bringing peace and reconciliation with each other,” Dabalos said.
“It’s hard because being a church, we preach about love but what is going on in our society today, it’s not love. My heart is sad this is happening in our province.”
Mayor Naheed Nenshi said: “When you defaced or vandalized churches or monuments, you actually are hardening people’s hearts at a moment where we need to soften people’s hearts, at a moment where people now finally have reconciliation in their heart.”
Anyone with information on the fire is asked to contact police at 403-266-1234 or to contact Crime Stoppers.
– With files from Jayme Doll, Global News