Morinville’s oldest church has burned to the ground in what Premier Jason Kenney said appears to be a hate-motivated act of violence.
Morinville fire crews got a 911 call about a fire at the St. Jean Baptiste Church at 10034 100 Ave. in Morinville at 3:08 a.m. Wednesday June 30, said Iain Bushell, the town’s general manager of infrastructure services.
Crews were on scene at 3:20 a.m., Bushell said. Entering a door on the northeast corner of the church, they found that the basement was on fire, but had to retreat due to heavy flames, dense smoke, and the sounds of the building collapsing.
“It was a heavy timber structure. Once it was on fire, it was going to be virtually impossible to put that out,” Bushell said.
About 10 fire trucks and 50 firefighters from the Bon Accord, Edmonton, Gibbons, Legal, Morinville, St. Albert, and Sturgeon County detachments battled the blaze from the outside, bringing it under control by about 6:58 a.m.
By 9 a.m. the church was a pile of blackened timbers and fallen bricks. Two rows of tall trees to either side of the building had been scorched, but the parish office next door, the murals next to the church, and the flower beds in front of it were unscathed. The front door and chimney were also intact, although fire crews intentionally toppled the latter with their hoses as it was a safety hazard. Crews spent most of the day hosing down hot-spots and shifting debris with a backhoe.
Bushell said there were no injuries due to the fire apart from two firefighters treated for heat exhaustion (temperatures reached 38 C during the day).
About 50 people were evacuated from the Notre Dame Apartment complex, which was about 40 paces northwest of the church. Bushell said crews had to hose down hot embers that landed on the building’s roof during the fire, causing smoke and water damage to units that had their windows open.
Evacuees took shelter at the Morinville Legion about a block to the west. Anthony Michaud, 53, was one of the few evacuees still there when The Gazette arrived at about 9:30 a.m. — most of the others had sheltered with relatives in town, he explained.
Michaud, who works as a chef at the Coach’s Corner Sports Bar in town, said he was outside smoking a cigarette at about 3 a.m. when he saw two people in the park next to the church. He then returned to his third-floor apartment.
“Twenty minutes later, I felt the heat and smelled the smoke.”
Michaud said he looked out his window to see smoke and fire. He and the other residents soon fled the building. He had time only to grab his two cats, Baby and Bob, who dealt vicious scratches to his arms and hands when he tried to get them in their carriers.
Michaud said he had no insurance and that his apartment had suffered extensive smoke and ash damage. His silver Chevy Malibu was also covered inside and out with black ash.
“Everything I own is in that apartment,” he said.
Bushell said the town hoped to have residents back home as soon as possible, but that they should be prepared to stay away for up to 48 hours.
St. Jean Baptiste Church was built in 1907 and was one of the oldest and most prominent buildings in Morinville. It was declared a provincial historic resource in 1979, and underwent an extensive renovation in 2013.
Lifelong Morinville resident Cecile Vion was among the handful of people observing the firefighting efforts from the sidelines.
“Me and my husband were married there,” said the 86-year-old, as were her parents. She was also schooled and baptized in the church.
“A beautiful, beautiful place, and a sad, sad day.”
Longtime town resident Adolphe Boissonnault, 86, said he played the organ in the church for 15 years. He described its interior as “immaculate” and replete with priceless paintings and elaborate Stations of the Cross.
“That was the real heart of the community,” he said of the building, as it was the site of many weddings, funerals, and other community events. He said Wednesday’s fire was “just like being nailed right in the heart.”
In an emergency council meeting Wednesday morning, Mayor Barry Turner said he could not begin to describe the overwhelming sense of shock and loss the community was feeling.
“We can never replace what has been lost here today,” he said, but that loss could have been much worse.
“Each of us will need to dig deep and find that seed of resilience and strength that is within us to hold our community up.”
Turner thanked emergency responders and all members of the community who had stepped up to support those affected by the fire.
“Our community spirit is unbreakable,” he said at a later press conference.
“We will rebuild and we will recover.”
Town chief administrative officer Stephane Labonne was wiping away tears as he made the suggestion to cancel the Canada Day festivities, saying nothing in his 25 years of experience had prepared him for this event.
“What has transpired in our community, in our province, in our country over the last month tears me apart,” he said, in reference to the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves at Canada’s residential schools.
Council moved to replace this year’s Canada Day celebrations with a community gathering at the Community Cultural Centre on July 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Fire deemed suspicious
While it will be weeks before investigators determine a cause for the fire, Bushell said the RCMP were treating it as suspicious due to the time it occurred.
The fire was the latest in a string of incidents of vandalism at Canadian churches in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools in B.C. and Saskatchewan, which had sparked renewed focus on the role of churches in running those schools.
Kenney, who toured the church site Wednesday along with Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, expressed solidarity with Morinville residents and the Catholic community and condemned what he said appeared to be “a hate-motivated act of violence.”
“It is an attack on Canadian values,” he said, and one that could have been lethal, given that the parish priest had been sleeping next door.
Kenney said this church had been a major landmark in Morinville and a spiritual centre for many Francophone and Indigenous Canadians.
“We all know Canada has to redouble its efforts of reconciliation, but hate-inspired violence and burning down a faith community, targeting them with these acts of violence and intimidation, is not reconciliation. It is not the way forward. It is a dangerous, violent, and criminal act.”
In the wake of recent attacks on places of worship, Kenney said he is doubling the province’s recently announced Security Infrastructure Program (which funds security upgrades for communities targeted by hate-inspired violence) to $2 million and will accelerate its rollout. Madu was also scheduled to meet with Alberta’s police chiefs June 30 to discuss this issue.