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Another Catholic church in Canada burns to the ground

St. Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, Alberta, Canada

WinterE229 WinterforceMedia | Public Domain

John Burger - published on 07/01/21 - updated on 07/01/21

Alberta premier condemns "violent hate crime targeting Catholic community."

Another Catholic church in western Canada has burned down, but this time the structure was not on Indigenous land.

Historic Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Morinville, Alberta, was destroyed in a fire Wednesday that officials are suspecting was arson.

“Today in Morinville, l’eglise de Saint-Jean-Baptiste was destroyed in what appears to have been a criminal act of arson,” Alberta’s premier, Jason Kenney, said in a statement. “This historic church was in the heart of Morinville and a key part of the spiritual life of Alberta’s francophone community.”

Iain Bushell, Morinville’s general manager of infrastructure and community services, told the National Post that the early morning blaze was so fierce that firefighters could not enter the 114-year-old building, and the roof collapsed a short time later. He said the church was of “very old construction so an awful lot of wood, so it went very quickly and it was a very difficult fire to fight.”

The fire follows several others in which churches have been destroyed or badly damaged. The blazes began June 21 in the wake of discoveries of mass, unmarked graves of Indigenous children near former “residential schools.” The residential school system, which ended in the 1970s, was a national program that tried to integrate Indigenous youngsters, removed from their families, into mainstream society. However, the schools, largely run by religious organizations, including Catholic ones, were criticized for having denied the children their cultural heritage and language. The childhood deaths are thought to have occurred because of disease and illness, but in many cases, families were never given their children’s bodies and were not told what happened to them.

Saint-Jean-Baptiste, built in 1907, was named after Fr. Jean Baptiste Morin, who led several Francophone families to the Morinville area from Quebec in 1891.

On social media, Kenney described the fire as a “violent hate crime targeting the Catholic community.” He visited the site Wednesday afternoon. 

“I realized this morning that if a minority faith group had faced an apparent act of violence like this, I would absolutely have been on the spot immediately to show solidarity and so I felt it was necessary to do that,” he said, standing in front of the church’s rubble with Justice Minister Kaycee Madu.

Kenney announced a doubling of funding available to religious and cultural organizations wanting to install security equipment, and urged “promoters of hatred and division” to see that recent acts of arson at churches across Canada “is not reconciliation.” 

In addition to church fires and vandalism in Canada, the controversy seems to have spilled over the U.S. border. On Monday, graffiti was painted on the exterior of historic Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Denver, Colorado. The graffiti consisted of red paint displaying the numbers “1323.” That’s the number of bodies that had been discovered in unmarked graves at former residential schools by June 25.

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