Archbishop’s visit offers hope amid heartache after Sacred Heart church fire

Sacred Heart parishioners say they are grateful for the pledge to restore the First Nations church in Edmonton even as they continue to be haunted by the devastating fire three weeks ago.

It’s a full circle for the parish, which began in the basement of Sacred Heart School. Since the Aug. 30 church fire, the school has become a temporary home for Mass once again.

Feelings are still fresh and raw, but Mass celebrated Sept. 20 by Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, provided a much need salve.

The Mass was at capacity, with roughly 50 people filling the gym of Sacred Heart School, and was livestreamed on the parish’s Facebook page.

“When he spoke about Sacred Heart’s importance to indigenous people, it really showed his compassion and love for the people, and being there with us, showed his humility,” said Pearl Strong, who has been attending and volunteering at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples for decades.

“It was a great honour that he humbled himself to be with us. I liked that he talked about the transformation of the church and our own transformation of the soul.”

“The parish began as a group that met at the basement of the school here,” noted associate pastor Rev. Mark Blom. “It’s very beautiful that we’re coming back here as we restore the building. We ourselves are experiencing this restoration that’s happening through God’s spirit.”

In his homily, Archbishop Smith referenced the restoration of the church, and of the soul.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

In his homily, Archbishop Smith referenced both the restoration of the physical Sacred Heart church and of the soul – and the need to “Get to work” in proclaiming the Gospel.

“We wonder what it will cost to restore the building, ‘Will the money be there? Will insurance cover it?’, and so on,” Archbishop Smith said. “The cost to restore the souls of humanity was nothing less than the death of Jesus on the Cross. By his dying and rising, the price has been paid and humanity has been restored to communion with God in and through Jesus. From this we know that restoration of each soul happens through being united with our Lord.”

“We look forward to the restoration of the church building, let us pray for the restoration of our souls. May the Holy Spirit help us ‘get out of the way’ of the Lord’s work within us, and then push us forth to ‘get to work’ in announcing the good news of restoration to all people.”

Gifts during the offertory symbolized what the Sacred Heart community has lived through, including a helmet used by Father Blom when he was first on the scene of the fire. The helmet represents all workers in difficult conditions. Other gifts included a copy of the national Truth and Reconciliation Report, Bibles in English and Cree, as well as tobacco, sweetgrass, sage and cedar – elements considered sacred by First Nations.

Symbolic gifts were presented during the offetory including a helmet worn by Rev. Mark Blom.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

Strong said she heard about the fire from a friend, and like many others, rushed to the scene.
Edmonton Fire Rescue has determined that the fire was accidental. Smouldering sage and ashes from a traditional smudging ceremony was the cause. The initial damage is estimated at $350,000.

In a news release, investigators said the fire began on the ground floor of the church and spread to the walls and ceiling. Fire department spokesperson Brittany Lewchuk said ashes were improperly discarded into a metal coffee can on a counter in a corner of a work room.

Investigators say the cause of the Sacred Heart Church fire Aug. 30 was accidental.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually eased, parishioners were looking forward to attending Mass, as a parish community inside the church. Now Strong said many are unsure when they will be able to do that.

“It was devastating. I was in a lot of shock,” said Strong, who – as recently as July – renewed her wedding vows at Sacred Heart with her husband of 11 years. “You go through the stages of grief. There were a lot of tears because I look to the church as my second home.”

Nevertheless, Strong said she and other parishioners were grateful that Archbishop Smith was on scene and stayed there while firefighters battled the blaze. Rev. Susai Jesu, pastor of Sacred Heart church, noted that Archbishop Smith was on scene to be with the parish community in their time of great need.

For his part, Archbishop Smith recalled the feeling of helplessness, but also the crowds that gathered.

It’s a sign, he said, of its importance not only to the parish but the community around it. The next day, Archbishop Smith examined for himself the devastation of the fire.

Strong said the Archbishop’s homily, his presence on scene on the day of the fire speaks to the importance of Sacred Heart as the first designated national parish for First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

“It’s important for the unity of the Church because its history with indigenous people is not the most positive history, but it shows the Church is there for indigenous people and it shows we’re never forgotten and the church wants to rebuild relationships,” said Strong, who has a Métis, Cree, and Dene background.

“You’ll never find any other church in Canada that’s as welcoming. It’s the spirituality. It’s the atmosphere,” she said. “The church is the people and Sacred Heart is where indigenous spirituality and Christian theology mix. That’s why we’re welcoming to every culture.”

Parishioners attend Mass Sept. 20 in the Sacred Heart School gym.Lincoln Ho, Grandin Media

In a letter to Archbishop Smith, the head of Canada’s bishops expressed sympathy with the Sacred Heart parish community.

“We give thanks to God that no one was hurt by this unfortunate accident and we pray that the parishioners of Sacred Heart may find strength in these difficult times through God’s grace,” said Archbishop Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Sacred Heart is indeed a living testament of true reconciliation in our great land. Know that we walk beside you as you and your collaborators in ministry lead the parish community in rebuilding and restoring this spiritually, historically and culturally significant sacred place to its full glory.”

The downtown Edmonton church was built in 1913, making it among the oldest Catholic churches in the city. In 1991, Archbishop Joseph MacNeil designated it as a national parish for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people, meaning that anyone with Indigenous ancestry is considered a parishioner.

In spite of the fire, the Archdiocese says it will take the next steps to restore the church as it did after a devastating fire in 1966.