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More churches in Canada, and one in LA, burn

Amber Bracken / Anadolu Agency via AFP

John Burger - published on 07/09/21 - updated on 07/09/21

A bishop pleads for an end to burnings, and a closer look at the controversial history of residential schools for Native Peoples.

Another Catholic church and another Anglican church in Canada have been burned down, and a man was arrested for allegedly setting fire to a church in Los Angeles.

Since June 21, there have been fires at 10 Canadian churches — mostly Catholic — and multiple acts of vandalism. The incidents followed news that Native Canadians have used ground-penetrating radar in cemeteries on the grounds of former residential schools, which were part of a Canadian program to assimilate indigenous peoples. The existence of the cemeteries had been known, but the news this spring and summer has put the controversy over the residential schools back in the limelight. 

Many of the schools, which stretched across Canada and were in operation from the mid-19th to the late-20th centuries, were run by Catholic religious orders. A truth and reconcilation commission several years ago detailed the ways children were forcibly removed from their families to be educated in European traditions at the schools, forbidden to use their native languages and forced to drop elements of their Native culture. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has called for Pope Francis to come to Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in the schools, said last week that he understands the anger behind the church burnings but said it was “not something we should be doing as Canadians.” 

The latest church to burn down is a former Polish Catholic church near Redberry Lake, northwest of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. According to local media, there was no immediate comment from law enforcement on the cause of the Thursday afternoon blaze.

Lenore Swystun, who lives nearby, told CTV News that the church was not being used but was a historic landmark where people could go inside.

A plaque found in the pile of rubble identified the church as Holy Trinity, which was open from 1909 to 1985.

Swystun’s husband, Douglas, commented, “When a church like this is ripped away from us, it’s horrible.”

Growing list

As horrible as it may be, it’s worse when a church is burned down that is still active, and there have been five such churches lost in British Columbia since June 21. Four were Catholic, and one was Anglican. This week, a bishop in that province asked alleged arsonists to cease and desist, as the fires are hurting people — including Indigenous who might be Catholic.

“We’re all moral human beings, we have emotions, but it’s to do something constructive with the emotions, not destructive,” said Bishop Gregory Bittman of Nelson, in B.C.’s West Kootenay region. “It [the arson] just reinforces and continues the anger … it’s not going to solve the issues.”

His own Cathedral of Mary Immaculate in Nelson was vandalized with orange paint on its exterior June 30. 

Bishop Bittman made the case for examining the history of the residential schools more closely. As the CBC reported:

Bittman says those buried in the unmarked graves may also include staff members of the schools — and he asks people to patiently wait for results of the grave site analysis. “We know that they were poor, they didn’t have proper food, the buildings were not up to snuff … all these kinds of things could have contributed to the deaths of the children or even the people that were there.

“Let’s wait and see and then deal with whatever we need to deal with, but not jump to conclusions and wild speculations about what’s there and what has happened to them,” the bishop said.

Here is a list of incidents so far:

  • June 21 (National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada), 1:30 a.m.: Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land, British Columbia: burned to the ground.
  • June 21, 3 a.m.: St. Gregory’s Church on the Osoyoos Indian Band land in Oliver, British Columbia: burned to the ground.
  • June 26, 1 a.m.: St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Gitwangak First Nations land, British Columbia: minor damage by fire; later destroyed — see July 1. 
  • June 26, 3:52 a.m.: St. Ann’s Catholic Church on the Upper Similkameen Indian Band near Hedley, British Columbia: completely destroyed by fire. 
  • June 26, 4:45 a.m.: Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Chopaka, British Columbia: completely destroyed by fire. 
  • June 27, overnight: Statue of Pope St. John Paul II at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton, Alberta: covered in red hand prints; red footprints tracked to the front door of the church. 
  • June 28, overnight: Siksika First Nation Catholic Church, Alberta: fire — extinguished before causing severe damage.
  • June 30, early morning hours: St. Jean Baptiste Catholic Church in Morinville, just outside of Edmonton, Alberta: burned to the ground.
  • June 30: Cathedral of Mary Immaculate in Nelson, British Columbia: orange paint splashed on front entrance. 
  • July 1 (Canada Day), 12:30 a.m.: St. Patrick’s Co-Cathedral in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories: partly burned; minor damage. 
  • July 1: St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Gitwangak First Nations land, British Columbia: completely destroyed by fire. 
  • July 1: At least 11 churches in Calgary — many of them Catholic — vandalized with red paint, including paint splattered over a statue of Jesus, painted handprints on doors and text reading “Charge the priests” and “Our lives matter.” Also, a smashed church window, with paint thrown inside and the number 751 painted across a church sign — an apparent reference to the 751 unmarked graves identified at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School.
  • July 2, about 4 a.m.: Anglican church in Tofino, British Columbia: fire — extinguished after destroying part of a wall.
  • July 8, afternoon: Holy Trinity, an inactive Polish Catholic church near Redberry Lake, northwest of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: burned down.

The controversy has also spilled over into the United States, with several reports of church vandalism since late June. On Thursday, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles was damaged, as a man allegedly set the belltower on fire. He was taken into custody.

“The church building incurred some damage, including fire damage to the roof of the bell tower and some broken stained-glass windows, but thankfully no one was in the building at the time,” said spokeswoman Itzel Magana told MyNewsLA.com.

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