Attawapiskat community reels after historic church destroyed by fire
TIMMINS -- For Rosie Koostachin, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church was not just a place to practise her religion, it was a place to find comfort from issues impacting Attawapiskat and Indigenous people.
Whether it was dealing with her community's water crisis, rising suicide rates or the generational impacts of the residential school system, she said the church had been a place of solace and hope throughout her life.
Which made it all the more heartbreaking for her to see it catch fire Wednesday evening. So much so, she said the emotions did not catch up with her until she arrived home from watching the blaze.
"I actually was crying and I was just in tears," Koostachin said in a Zoom interview. "I was born there, I did my first communion there, I was baptized."
Koostachin's parents were married there, a fact they told her as they watched the building burn.
It had been condemned and declared unsafe, she said, although there was always hope that it could be refurbished or elements of it preserved in a new building.
But Koostachin said the fire was too large for the small community's fire team to put out and it is unlikely anything can be recovered. The fire even damaged the area's telecommunications.
There's no word yet on a caused and local police and fire services could not be reached for comment.
Among items lost in the blaze are stained glass windows created by local Indigenous artists as part of reconciliation efforts, which Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus saw as the greatest tragedy when he learned of the blaze.
"They really made that church their space," Angus said in a Zoom interview. "Local artists had put together stained glass that didn't reflect the European Christian church imagery, but that imagery of the Cree people themselves. How they related to the land, how they related to their own spirituality."
Whether or not people were religious, Koostachin said the church was the heart of the community and one of its largest structures.
She and her 10 siblings were all raised Catholic, she said, and even amidst the historic injustices against Indigenous people, religion gives her hope in the face of tragedy.
"Despite all the things that happened in our lives, we still believe because it brought hope to us and faith ... even though I'm also a very spiritual native person," Koostachin said.
She recalled the church's priest in tears as the building burned down, but she reassured him that the community can rebuild, create new artwork and build new memories.
"He walked away down the river, he felt it, too," Koostachin. "I patted him and said 'Father, it's going to be OK.'"