Two Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in B.C.’s interior burned to the ground in the early-morning hours of Monday, June 21 — National Indigenous Peoples Day.
One fire started at Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band (PIB) land at about 1:30 a.m., while a 3 a.m. blaze claimed St. Gregory's Church in Oliver.
“I got a call around two o’clock this morning,” PIB Chief Greg Gabriel said. “The church had already gone up in flames and it burned so quickly.”
Gabriel says it is not yet known what caused the fire, noting PIB is investigating. He says the band is working to salvage items from the rubble — including art by Clint George, a PIB member, and the church bell.
Gabriel said there is a lot of anger within the community stemming from the announcement in late May by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation regarding the discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“If this [fire] was determined to be deliberate, our leadership certainly doesn’t condone those kinds of actions or behaviour,” Gabriel said. “I think there could have been better ways to deal with this church.”
The Sacred Heart Church has been closed since June 16 in response to a request from parishioners, who are members of PIB, according to Adam Eneas, a hereditary chief with the Okanagan Nation. He said he asked Bishop Gregory Bittman to close the church on behalf of a fellow parishioner “because of what’s going on with the residential schools.
“He was very open and accepting and wanting to learn about our problems, our history. We had a great meeting,” Eneas says. “He agreed that the church should remain closed until such time as they came to a better situation.”
Eneas said he views the burning of the church as a “very tragic loss” for the PIB community.
Sacred Heart Church was built in 1911. It used to be attached to the Indian day school until that building was burned down in the mid01960s, according to Eneas — who used to be a student at the day school.
Penticton Indian Band member Hector Alec said he was “devastated” to hear about the fire because of the memories he has with his grandmothers at the church.
“Lots of memories, both of my grandmothers went there every Sunday. I remember the hymns sung in Okanagan like it was yesterday … [I] was hearing them as I watched it burn,” Alec said.
Saint Gregory’s Church also went up in flames early Monday morning. It was located on Osoyoos Indian Band land in Oliver.
Oliver Fire Chief Bob Graham confirmed his department was called to a fire at Saint Gregory’s at about 3 a.m., about 90 minutes after calls went out about the Sacred Heart Church fire.
“When we arrived on scene, the building was fully involved and had collapsed … it was just a pile of rubble on fire,” Graham said.
While the cause hasn’t yet been confirmed, Graham says “it is extremely suspicious,” adding there was “some indication of accelerant … some liquid around the area that was flammable.”