The loss of St. Bernards

Grouard community mark the loss of historic church

Father Bernard Akum’s voice was audibly shaken and exhausted as he recounted the painful loss of St. Bernard Church in Grouard. The church was not only one of the oldest and most historically significant churches in the archdiocese, for Fr. Bernard, this church also represented his first home as a pastor and missionary.

Akum says it has been a difficult number of days since the church burning, having lost the church that was the diocese’s first cathedral, and the church that will always be held dear in his heart as his first appointment as parish priest.

“I’m trying to be calm, somehow. I’ve been worried, not sleeping well. But my peace of mind is gradually coming back,” he said. “This church will always be cherished by me because this was the first parish that I was appointed the pastor on my priestly journey. And coincidentally, it goes by my patron saint’s name – Bernard.”

It’s a church cherished by many in Grouard and the region. In the days following the church burning on May 22nd, there was outreach from hundreds of people across the archdiocese offering their condolences, prayers and expressions of great sadness over the loss of St. Bernard’s.

The remains of St. Bernard Church after it was destroyed by arson.

Parishioner Priscilla Sutherland has lived in Grouard since she was a child, and she started going to church on her own when she was about 12 years old. The parish church has been a close and intimate part of her life ever since.

“It’s still hard to deal with the reality that it’s gone. The first few days I was having meltdowns at home, but I’ve just been trying to help other people and stay strong,” Priscilla said. “I loved our church, to look at the beautiful pictures and everything else, it was so glamorous.”

Fr. Bernard too says he will especially miss the church for its beautiful art and architecture.

“The peace when you are sitting in that church – just looking at the art, the craft, the work of human hands which God had inspired and had revealed Himself through – that used to give me a lot of consolation,” he said. “Every time after I celebrated Mass in that church, before I left the building I would always sit alone in one of the pews and say a little prayer, thanking the Lord for my going out and coming in. I can’t do that any longer. That is a big thing I will miss.”

St. Bernard parishioner Priscilla Sutherland

It was at about 3 pm on May 22nd when Fr. Bernard received a text from Priscilla, notifying him that the church was on fire. Over the four years he has served St. Bernard’s, there had been two previously reported burnings near the church that ended up either being very minor or false alarms, so at first Fr. Bernard was not overly concerned. Nevertheless, he got in his car and rushed back home from High Prairie to see what was happening.

“Along the drive I received another text saying that now the whole church was on fire. When I finally got there, that’s exactly what I saw,” Fr. Bernard recalled. “The fire department and RCMP were there, so were many people taking pictures and videos.”

The first thing on Fr. Bernard’s mind when he saw the billowing flames rising from the church’s blasted windows and deteriorating roof was the Blessed Sacrament.

“I had a serious argument and back-and-forth with the fire department; they were saying it was too risky for me to go into the church. I told them, ‘I have to. I have the save the Holy Eucharist, that is the center of our faith. And I know the tabernacle is made of steel, so even if it is burnt, I know on the inside it is safe.’ Eventually they said, ‘Okay… you are on your own.’”

When Fr. Bernard rushed inside the church, all of the pews on both sides of the aisle were engulfed in flames. At this time, the altar remained untouched by the flames – as if it was waiting for Fr. Bernard’s arrival. He rushed to the altar, grabbed the golden steel plated tabernacle from underneath its teepee structure and rushed back out of the church with swarming flames around him on every side.

Hours later, when the heat along the steel door of the tabernacle had cooled off, Fr. Bernard was able to open it and ensure that the Blessed Sacrament was preserved and had been saved from the blaze.

“That there was no fire around the altar section at that time was a miracle to me,” Fr. Bernard said, recalling this moment.

Fr. Bernard Akum, SDV offers some prayers at the close of the first Sunday Mass since St. Bernard Church was destroyed by arson.

It was as Fr. Bernard first drove back into Grouard that day that he noticed a man walking along the road, holding in his hand a bottle of church wine. Because his main focus was getting to his burning church, Fr. Bernard did not pull over to question or approach the man. But when he spoke with the RCMP, he told them of the incident, and gave them an empty bottle of sacramental wine from the sacristy to show them what the man was carrying.

The RCMP took the bottle and rushed off, tracking the man and arresting him a few minutes later. Two men were charged with arson and made their first court appearance on Monday, May 29th. While there were initial reports that the men were from Peavine or High Prairie, Fr. Bernard says they are both residents of Grouard.

Fr. Bernard believes God placed that man within his sights to ensure that the suspects would be caught.

“God intervened at Grouard and ensured that the culprit would be found,” said Akum. “God knows the importance of this church. There is no way He would just allow it to be destroyed like any ordinary building.

“No arrests previously have been made in most of the church burnings around the country, but in the case of Grouard there is a major step here – to not just come up with speculations, but to find out why those who burnt the church did it. And then we may learn more also about the motivations of other church burnings. I feel this is the best way forward. Otherwise, what we hear is just talk and speculation, nothing certain.”

The beautiful interior of St. Bernard Church. Photo from the summer of 2022.

Priscilla was at home that day when she heard the sirens of emergency vehicles rushing through Grouard. She drove down Grouard’s Mission Road to see what was going on. It was then she saw the flames rising out of the church’s blown out windows. Immediately, she started crying.

“When I saw it I was in shock,” said Priscilla. “My son is on the fire department and he came to me and said they had tried to do their best to put it out, but they didn’t have the proper equipment to stop it.”

Priscilla says the devastation has been felt throughout the community – from parishioners, residents of Grouard, former residential school students, and others.

“I could feel the anger. People who don’t even go the church were very much angered,” she said. “My auntie was in the residential school for 13 years and she too was really hurt, wondering how they could do something like this. There’s not too many that are still living, but a lot of people who went to the school were hurt by this.”

To be with the grieving community during this time of great loss, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas celebrated Mass in Grouard on Sunday, May 28th. The Mass was celebrated at the gymnasium for the Kapawe’no First Nation School, just down the road from the church. There His Grace spoke on the tragic loss of St. Bernard Church, his hopes for the future, and the message of renewal that underlies the Feast of Pentecost – the feast honoured by the Church that Sunday.

Mass in Grouard will be held at the Kapawe’no First Nation School for the foreseeable future.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the June 2023 edition of Northern Light