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Work underway to rebuild Attawapiskat church destroyed by fire

'(It's) not an easy task to replace such a gathering place and a place of worship where there were so many good memories for the people'
2021-04-22 Attawapiskat church5
A view of the stained glass windows St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Attawapiskat before it was destroyed by fire in 2021.

Planning is underway to replace a 104-year-old Attawapiskat church that was destroyed by a fire last year.

The church authorities are planning to rebuild St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church and start the services back as usual next year.

Sebastien Groleau, who's with the Hearst-Moosonee Catholic Diocese, said it's "very important" for people to have their church back.

"Right now, they gather in what was the parish hall, renamed the Kateri Chapel. It is nicely arranged for worship, but it is still a hall. They asked for a church like the other one," he said.

The heartbreaking fire at the church happened on April 21, 2021.

The wooden church had six stained-glass windows and an oil painting inside that were also destroyed by the fire. Because the wood inside was falling apart, the church hadn't been used recently and was abandoned at the time of the blaze.

SEE: Stained glass windows burned in Attawapiskat fire were made to heal: project creators

"(It's) not an easy task to replace such a gathering place and a place of worship where there were so many good memories for the people," said Groleau.

Since March of this year, he has met with the community four times.

The plans presented to the community are for a 6,166-square-foot building, which includes a 1,250-square-foot rectory area and a 4,916-square-foot church area.

The goal is to approve the designs in 2022, build the next year and have the church done by the end of August 2023.

No decisions have been made about whether the church will be a prefab design or built on-site, or if the materials will be brought in by winter road or summer barge.

"Like all construction projects nowadays, even in Timmins, we have to deal with the supply chain for material. We have great support from tradespeople from Attawapiskat who are looking forward to work on the project," he said.

Building standards have changed drastically over the last century.

While the community wants a church like the original one, he said that's difficult with the new building codes.

For example, Groleau said there was no washroom in the previous church, but "now we need to have at least one universal washroom." There will also be space for Sunday school.

The community wants a church facing the river, but there could be a problem in complying with standards for emergency access.

"Arrangements have to be made to both respect the building codes (firefighter access) and entrance facing the river," said Groleau.

Having an entrance facing the river made sense when people arrived by canoe, he said. An access ramp is also needed in place of the old stairs going to the church.

They are looking to install stained glass windows in the new church. What those look like "will be up to the residents of Attawapiskat who attend church and worship in that space."

Rebuilding the church is expected to cost $3.2 to $3.5 million.

Most of the cost of the rebuilding is being covered by insurance.

Groleau is working with other partners to get church furniture like pews. He estimates only the pews could cost around $200,000 not including shipping.

"If we could get them for shipping fees only," he said.

Groleau said he's been very fortunate to meet great people interested in working together to better their community.

"I had heard a lot about the community of Attawapiskat and especially the broadcasting work of Father Vezina but had never been. They have been broadcasting their religious services in every home for decades, first on the local radio and now on the local TV network. They are working on having every home on optic cables to improve communications," he said.