One day after St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Canada reopened its doors for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus lockdowns, it was reduced to a pile of ash. Three more Catholic churches in the surrounding area burned down in the same week. All were located on Indigenous-claimed ground. While no suspects have been confirmed, Indigenous locals have recently expressed distaste and frustration against their Catholic neighbors.
On June 21, National Indigenous Day in Canada, Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band (PIB) land and St. Gregory’s Church on Osoyoos Indian Band land in Oliver burned down in what authorities called suspicious fires. The two fires happened within 90 minutes of each other. PIB Chief Greg Gabriel said the cause of the fires is not known, although he mentioned an indication of accelerant.
Two more Catholic churches burned down in western Canada early Saturday. St. Ann’s Church and Chopaka Church, both also near Indigenous communities, are located within an hour of each other in British Columbia.
Gabriel noted rising anger in Indigenous communities toward Catholics since the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation discovered the remains of 215 children on the grounds of a former Catholic-run school in May.
In a similar discovery last week, 751 bodies were found in unmarked graves atop the Marieval Indian Residential School, where the Cowessess First Nation is now located. The facilitators at Marieval — which was run by the Catholic Sisters of Saint Joseph of Saint-Hyacinthe — reportedly removed headstones from the graves when the school was still in operation. The discovery refueled already heightened tensions between Indigenous locals and the Catholic Church that had been escalating since May.
From the 19th century to the late 20th century, many Indigenous children in Canada were sent to state-funded Christian schools, most of which were run by Catholic missionaries. Many children passed away in the schools. The Canadian government has since apologized for the government policy and Pope Francis expressed his pain and pressed religious and political authorities to shed light on “this sad affair.”
“There is a lot of anger here now against the Catholic church. There is a lot of blame for what happened to the children,” Chief of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band Keith Crow told Native News Online.
After demands from the community and parishioners, Bishop Gregory Bittman closed Sacred Heart Church on June 16. Some community members requested the church be closed “because of what’s going on with the residential schools.”
President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said there were “mixed emotions” about the Catholic church among PIB members.
“There are people [in the band community] that have an intense hatred for the Catholic Church in regard to the residential school experience,” Philip said Tuesday.
The discovery of more than 900 unmarked graves this past month is tragic. The Canadian government’s method of attempting the assimilation of Indigenous children is tragic. But equally as tragic is the demolition of four holy places of worship.
“If [these fires] were determined to be deliberate, our leadership certainly doesn’t condone those kinds of actions or behavior,” Gabriel said. “I think there could have been better ways to deal with this church.”
The loss of four churches is catastrophic — many community members were married in, baptized at, or buried loved ones in those churches. Hate crimes against Catholics have been multiplying for quite some time — anti-Catholic attacks, decapitated statues, the destruction of public property.
If these fires were arson, they would add to the long list of hate crimes Western Christians have faced recently. If that isn’t terrifying enough, the media’s coverage of these incidents as nothing more than minor inconveniences — or, worse, as potentially justified — should do it.
CNN reported that the four fires were just the “latest in a string of recent events affecting the country’s Indigenous communities.” The Washington Post reported that “the discovery of unmarked graves has ramped up calls for the Catholic Church to take greater responsibility for its role in the ‘cultural genocide.’”
Reuters reported that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants Pope Francis to apologize: “I have spoken personally directly with His Holiness Pope Francis to press upon him how important it is not just that he makes an apology but that he makes an apology to Indigenous Canadians on Canadian soil.”