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Northern Alberta community mourns the loss of church destroyed by arson


Two men have been charged with arson after a historic church in northern Alberta was destroyed by a fire Monday.

Mounties were called to help local firefighters at St. Bernard Catholic church in Grouard around 3:30 p.m. Monday.

Two men were arrested Tuesday and charged with break and enter to commit theft and arson. They will appear in court in High Prairie on May 29.

The church was built in 1901 and the damage done by the fire has been deeply felt by many in the community and the diocese.

"They have lost something very valuable to them," said Archbishop Gerard Pettipas. "I think we, the whole diocese, have lost a treasure."

"The historical value of that church – like the paintings on the wall in the sanctuary were painted by bishop Grouard himself," said Monsignor Charles Lavoie. "We're not going to be able to replace that in any way, shape or form."

The fire was considerable in size and the building was heavily damaged. The portion of the church that wasn't destroyed is likely not salvageable, Lavoie said.

The church regularly served people from many surrounding communities, Lavoie said, and if the fire was arson, it would be "heartbreaking."

"Those four communities have been surrounded by these wildfires and we have counted ourselves very lucky that we have not yet lost one of our structures. . . for this to have happened is quite concerning," he added.


Lorrie Anderson, a long-time resident of Grouard, said the destruction of the church is devastating for the community.

"It almost feels like a loss, a really big loss," she said. "Like losing a family member, because everybody was so attached to this church one way or another."

As the only church in Grouard, it has hosted countless weddings, baptisms, funerals and Sunday services. Anderson said the community gathered outside the church on Monday as firefighters worked against the flames.

"Hoping and praying and comforting each other that it didn't burn right down," she added.

While the church has been a gathering place for the community, it's also a reminder of the legacy of residential schools.

The St. Bernard Mission School ran in the area between 1894 and 1961, and a 2022 survey of the area uncovered 169 potential grave sites.

"You know, a lot of people have been affected by this residential school stuff, including my late parents,"Anderson said. "My grandmother, my Kookum, was also raised in a mission."

Despite her family's history with Catholic missions and residential schools, Anderson said she loved the church. It's the place her children and grandchildren were baptized and the place she laid her mother to rest.

Lorrie Anderson's grandchildren were baptized at the church in Grouard before it was destroyed by a fire May long weekend. (Source: Lorrie Anderson)"I just can't see any reason for somebody to set that church on fire," Anderson said. "All they did was break the people. All for what, a little bit of fun?

"This community, I don't know how we're ever going to get over this."

Before the arrests were made, Pettipas said there was nothing to suggest the arson was motivated by the area's history or the work being done by the Kapawe'no First Nation.

"We know the situation of the cemetery in Grouard, it has a very complex history," Pettipas said. "I've never had a sense in my working with the Chief and Council, with anybody else in that community, that there was any sense of bitterness or judgment or anything related to that church."

Restoration and rebuilding can't take place until the investigation into the arson is complete. For now, weekend services are being arranged in a neighbouring community.

RCMP are asking Grouard residents to send in any security footage or dash camera footage from May 22 at around 3 p.m.

Anyone with information about the fire can contact High Prairie RCMP at 780-523-3378.

Anonymous information can be given to Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8377, online at or through the P3 Tips app. Top Stories

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