Bishop Gregory Bittman of Nelson said he was “very saddened” at the fires that destroyed Sacred Heart and St. Gregory’s churches.
“For many years, our priests have been welcomed to minister in these mission churches and it is our hope that this ministry will continue. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by the fires and we are grateful that no one died or was physically injured,” he stated.
The Penticton Indian Band said in a June 21 statement after the two churches burned, “We, along with the Osoyoos Indian Band, who also lost their church (Oliver area) are in disbelief and anger over these occurrences as these places of worship provided service to Members who sought comfort and solace in the church.”
The statement said that while it is “not our place to say who to worship,” the Sacred Heart church building played an important role in the community. “Since 1911 some of our community’s first memories are of us gathering in that church,” said the statement.
“We understand the grief and rage felt by our people across the country after the discovery of unmarked graves at Government / Catholic run former residential schools. This is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and descendants are experiencing, however, we have supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way,” they stated.
While the two fires from this past weekend are under investigation, tribal leaders have said they believe they were acts of arson.
“I wouldn’t call it suspicious, I’d call it what it is, it’s a criminal act, it’s vandalism. It’s arson,” said Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band, to Canada’s Global News. Louie also serves as the tribal chair and spokesperson of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, a tribal council in British Columbia.
Louie said that while he “hates the Church with a passion” and is not Catholic, “there’s a lot of people, even within my own family, that believe in that religion.”
“People are allowed to worship ‘any which way’ they want,” said Louie.
His comments were echoed by Grand Chief Stewart Philip, of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. He said the fires were “not really surprising” in light of the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.
“As time moves forward, there will be further discoveries, the numbers will continue to escalate, and I think we can anticipate more backlash and responses from the Indigenous community at large,” he said to Global News.
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Chief Sandra Larin of the Gitwangak Indian Band in northern British Columbia condemned the attempted arson of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Gitwangak, noting that the church “is in no way affiliated with the Indian residential schools.”
“That church was built by our ancestors in the late 1800s by the hands of our elders at the time with such a great sense of pride,” said Larin.
The fire at St. Paul’s was discovered around 1 a.m., and damaged the steps of the building. The church building remains standing.
Other churches or Catholic statues throughout Canada were vandalized with graffiti in recent days.
On June 26, a statue of St. Pope John Paul II at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Edmonton, Albert was vandalized with red spray paint. The vandal or vandals used the paint to make red handprints on the statue.
Pope St. John Paul II was the last pope to visit Canada. He visited in 1984, 1987, and in 2002 for World Youth Day in Toronto.