Attiwapiskat’s towering, historic St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church was destroyed in a spectacular fire April 21. There is a lot of emotion to this tragic event and most people, including myself, don’t really know how to express it.
Our feelings are complicated by the fact that Indigenous people in Canada and North America have a difficult history with the Catholic Church and organized religion in general. On one hand these religious missionaries taught us construction skills in building these monumental structures. On the other hand, they did their best to destroy our traditions and cultural beliefs.
These religious organizations, with the blessing of the Canadian government, were involved in the kidnapping of Indigenous children into the residential school system which ran for many decades. My late parents Marius and Susan and many others in the community endured this difficult experience.
In Attawapiskat, the tragic parts of this religious history were tempered by the late Father Rodrique Vezina, our parish priest who served the community for 43 years from 1973 to 2015. Father Vezina came at a time when the residential school era was ending, and the Catholic Church didn’t hold as much power over us as it had in the past. He was intelligent, hard-working, dedicated and, most of all, kind to everyone. He faithfully and diligently looked after our church and presided over many major events in our lives.
For those of us who grew up in Attawapiskat, we associate our local church with Father Vezina. He was there to lead us in mass every Sunday morning and every evening for over 40 years. We also think of the late Deacon Michel Koostachin, a community member and Elder who became involved in the Catholic Church and our parish for many years. My Aunt Theresa Hookimaw, my mom’s sister, played the organ in our church and she attended every Sunday mass to perform.
I remember times in the 1980s when the church was regularly at capacity and latecomers took part in standing room only. It is haunting for me to remember the harmonized voices of our Elders singing Cree hymns during the service. Strong, proud men who I knew as hunters and trappers intoned the low parts and the women who were normally quiet and reserved sang out the higher notes. The entire Sunday service was in Weenaybaykoo Inineemoon, our James Bay Cree language. Father Vezina spoke it impeccably – both in speech and in song.
Our parents and our Elders had a sense of pride in the construction – in 1917 without much modern machinery or equipment – of their church. Grandparents and relatives had built it under the direction of missionaries who taught the trade of carpentry and construction. They developed a lumber mill in the community and local people harvested towering old growth trees from the nearby wilderness.
In 2014, six beautiful stained-glass windows were installed as part of a project involving the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the painful history of the church and Indigenous people. The project was led by community member Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, her husband Norbert Witt and Father Vezina. The newly installed windows added a more hopeful and positive chapter of community history to this building. Sadly, these artworks were also lost in the fire.
Father Vezina enjoyed documenting our community and for many years he maintained a video system that recorded feast days or events such as weddings, celebrations and funerals. He also collected audio recordings of Elders as they spoke to the congregation or the singing they performed. Of course, his record keeping included all births, deaths, weddings and other religious ceremonies that took place for over a century. I was deeply saddened at the realization that much of this documented history was most likely lost as well.
The church in Attawapiskat was a familiar sight for all of us. When you travelled on the river or on the winter road, the sight of that tall, iconic building meant you were home. Now it’s not there and that is a very sad reminder of what we have lost.
Catholic leadership had suggested that after the building was closed in 2019 that a new church would be built. Hopefully this promise can come to fruition if the community supports that idea. This could be a creative opportunity for a healing statement in terms of meaningful reconciliation.