Faith amid the flames

After their church was lost to a fire, Fox Lake’s Catholic community hope to see a new church built this year

By Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

The Little Flower Mission Church was the heartbeat of the Fox Lake First Nations community.

Since a fire destroyed much of the interior of the church last summer, this source of faith, belonging and cherished memories has been sadly missing for this devout Catholic community. But this fire has not taken away the strong faith of Fox Lake’s parishioners, and they now wait with strong hope for a new church in 2022.

Little Flower Mission Church after it was severely damaged by a fire in August of 2020. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but it is believed to be caused by an electrical issue.

When asked about the immediate reaction of the community, as the fire uncontrollably raged and consumed the Little Flower Mission Church last August, community elder Leslie Joe Laboucan summarized it in one word: “devastated.”

“We were devastated. We felt lost, heartbroken,” said Leslie Joe, who is a band councillor and former chief in Fox Lake. He was confirmed and married at the Little Flower Mission Church, and he often helps the parish priest Father Andrew Simiiyu, FMH with catechesis and preparations for services.

“I was silent. I was stunned. I didn’t want to even look at it at first. I could just feel an emptiness,” Leslie Joe recalled. “Even though its just a building, a house of worship – whatever you want to call it – it’s a vital part of the community, no doubt. So many memories have come out of there. People were saying, ‘We got baptized there, married there, it’s where we seen our loved ones go.’ So for a while we really felt lost.”

The initial view upon entering the church after the blaze.

That sense of loss was felt by the parish priest as well. It was only within hours of arriving in Narobi, Kenya that Fr. Andrew received word from Msgr. Charles Lavoie, PH, that there had been a severe fire at one of his churches. It was an immediate dampening on the relaxing summer vacation the priest was hoping to have back in his home country.

“I was shocked to hear it,” recalled Simiiyu, who had left for his vacation in the first week of August 2021, arriving in Kenya on Aug. 9th. He heard the news of the church fire one day later.

“My vacation was not that enjoyable because this would often creep into my mind and I had to live with it through that month. Msgr. Charles told me to just be calm and they would sort this thing out, but it was tough not to think about it again and again.”

 

More than 30 young people celebrated their first Holy Communion in Fox Lake just over a month before the fire condemned the church.

When Simiiyu finally got back to Canada at the end of the month, he was eager to go and see the state of his church in Fox Lake. It was not a reassuring sight when he got there. While the church exterior was still intact, black burn marks stained the doors, sides and roof of the church. The glass windows too had all been blown out by the flames.

Inside – the church had been reduced almost entirely to black rubble. Shelves, tables and pews were all badly burnt, broken and damaged. The altar was smoldered with flames to the point that one of its legs was reduced to ash and it had fully collapsed on one side. The ceiling was totally dilapidated, with insulation hanging from torched and broken boards. The bathroom and confessionals too had succumb to the blaze. Everything was covered in broken glass and black ash.

Further damage to the interior of the Fox Lake Church, with parts of the ceiling collapsing.

For a community with such strong devotion to the Church and to their Catholic faith, Fr. Andrew says, it was a deeply felt loss for the community.

“The people loved their Church. They are so religious, so Catholic in Fox Lake,” he said. “I always say 100% of Fox Lake is Catholic. They don’t entertain any other religion there. So the people are hurting. The first thing they asked me is ‘Father, are we going to get another church?’

“By that time, the archdiocese was already in communication here with [Little Red River Cree Nation] and the Chief and council in Fox Lake, and already a plan was being put in place.”

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the January-February edition of Northern Light

Fr. Andrew celebrating First Communions with young people in Fox Lake last summer.