An overnight fire has gutted a hundred-year-old church in the Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj, on the Quebec side of the Quebec-New Brunswick border.
“It’s certainly been a long day – which followed a long night,” Listuguj Chief Darcy Gray told APTN News on Tuesday morning.
“There’s sort of a heavy feeling in the community right now – everyone’s trying to process what certainly feels unbelievable.”
Saint-Anne’s Catholic church was the “largest and tallest” structure in the centre of Listuguj First Nation, according to a commemorative post on the community’s website.
The Saint-Anne’s parish in Listuguj dates back to at least 1740. However, the physical building destroyed in Monday night’s blaze is believed to have been built in 1912.
“It’s survived multiple generations of people in the community – we’ve all got different connections. Not just from the religious aspect, but it was – for a long time – the centre of the community,” Gray explained.
“Not just in terms of physical, geographical location, but in terms of events and community gatherings.”
A church deacon residing on-site reportedly heard a loud “pop” around 9:30 or 10 p.m. on Monday night and was met by thick smoke while investigating, according to Gray.
Police and the fire department were immediately notified, and community members came out in droves after spotting the growing blaze from their homes.
“Next thing you know, the fire started creeping around the building and into the rafters – that was the beginning of the end, so to speak,” he added.
Gray said there were onlookers “at 360 degrees” while the fire raged into the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Gray said. “You probably won’t see churches built like that anymore – and to see one go down… you’re not going to see that time and time again.”
The Listuguj and Pointe-a-la-Croix fire departments were assisted by first responders from Campbellton, New Brunswick.
The fire was so intense that it caused both water and oxygen shortages for the three responding departments, according to Carleen Isaac – a five-year member of the Listuguj Fire Department.
“It was the largest fire that we’ve been to – structure fire. Because the church is massive,” Isaac told APTN News.
“We looked over on the other side of the church like ‘holy jeeze, it’s all black smoke coming out, it’s getting bigger, it’s getting hotter.’” she recounted. “And then I looked in front of me, and there were two large propane tanks, so I started getting a little nervous.
“Part of the chimney on top was rocking back-and-forth, and moving – we were told to move from the area because that’s going to fall, and part of the brick wall behind the church was going to collapse.”
The church’s bell tower reportedly crumbled around one in the morning.
Isaac says she began to feel unwell – dizzy and nauseated – while still on-site. She was eventually transported to hospital in Campbellton to be treated for smoke inhalation and low blood pressure.
Like many other Listuguj residents, Isaac has a personal connection to Saint-Anne’s.
“My grandparents – my grandma and grandpa – are really old school. So when we’d have Christmas Eve with them, we had that tradition of saying ‘okay, it’s midnight mass, so we’ll go to midnight mass with them,'” Isaac explained.
“Then it felt more like Christmas.”
According to an afternoon press release from the Listuguj Mi’gmaq government, the fire damaged the Mi’gmawei Mawiomi Secretariat Headquarters and completely destroyed the Mawiomi Treatment Center, Listuguj’s Powwow Headquarters, and both Saint-Anne’s rectory and chapel.
The fire fight also forced a temporary, day-long closure of band council offices due to low water pressure.
The church site remains barricaded and is closed to the public as an investigation into the cause of the fire gets underway.
Gray says there won’t be talk of reconstruction before the community knows exactly which parts of the church – and which of its contents – are recoverable.
“Inside, there’s a lot of documents and artifacts and information – hopefully some of it survived. Hopefully some of it can be salvaged,” he said.
In a Facebook post, Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafreniere said his “thoughts are with the community of Listuguj, and the whole Mi’kmaq Nation” in the wake of the fire.