For more than a century, the clapboard church nestled in the midst of hills in western Canada has been the spiritual home of the Upper Similkameen Indian band.
To build St Anne’s, residents of Chuchuwayha Indian Reservation # 2 traveled 40 miles to the nearest town, transporting wood back to their community on horseback and by wagon.
To reach its banks, generations of parishioners would travel miles on foot, passing ponderosa pines and sagebrush.
But early Saturday morning, thick smoke filled the air and flames tore through the aging wooden structure near Hedley in British Columbia. When the local firefighters arrived, the church had been reduced to a pile of ashes.
The community fire marshal said nothing could be done to save the wooden building. Police say the fire that destroyed the church was suspicious and likely started deliberately. It was the fourth Catholic church in First Nations territory to be destroyed by fire in less than a month.
“The church meant a lot to all of us, especially our ancestors,” Carrie Allison, an elder who helped maintain the church, said in a statement. “When your pain turns to anger, it is not healthy for you or your community.”
As Canada grapples with the discovery of more than 1,000 unidentified graves of indigenous children at the sites of former residential schools, many have directed their pain and anger at the Catholic Church, which ran more than half of the schools across the country.
Disease and famine were rife in schools, and survivors have described physical and sexual abuse, often at the hands of Catholic priests and lay people.
In recent weeks, nearly two dozen churches have been burned or vandalized across the country, eight of which occurred in First Nations territories.
Justin Trudeau joined indigenous leaders and provincial officials in condemning what are suspected to be acts of arson.
“I can’t help but think that burning churches is actually depriving people in need of mourning, healing and mourning of places where they can cry, reflect and seek support,” the prime minister said Friday.
But for many indigenous people, churches summon contradictory and conflicting emotions: they are the spaces built by their ancestors where generations were baptized and buried, but they also represent the destruction of indigenous culture and more than a century of fear and physical abuse.
From the 19th century to the 1990s, more than 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded schools in a campaign to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian society. More than half were administered by the Catholic Church; thousands of children died from disease, neglect, and other causes.
“Those innocent souls were scarified by colonialism,” said Amelia McComber, an indigenous theologian and practitioner. “And that sacrifice has become the focal point of the pain and trauma that has been going on for generations in our communities.”
Upon entering schools, children were prohibited from speaking their mother tongue and forced to convert to Christianity. Generations later many of the indigenous peoples in Canada they still identify as Christian.
“We are a spiritual people and that spirituality was transferred to Christ, because that was the only way our people could pray. [in the residential schools]. That was the only way they could worship, ”McComber said.
Some have suggested that First Nations communities should consider severing all ties to a religion that they say was imposed on them.
“It is a legitimate debate for First Nations to talk about removing Catholic churches from our territories and establishing our own faith as the official religion.” tweeted the writer Robert Jago. “Canada and [First Nations] – these are not 100% separate societies – but religion is one of the places where they are, or should be. “
But as more churches are burned or vandalized, indigenous leaders have called for the buildings, many of them more than a century old, to be saved, despite their anger.
“I can understand it. I don’t like church. I don’t believe in church,” said Osoyoos Indian band director Clarence Louie. told the National Post, after the church in his community was destroyed. “Many residential school survivors hate the church with a passion, but I never heard any of them suggest that people resort to this … I talk to many residential school survivors and of course there is a lot of hatred, bitterness and anger – but that’s it. It still doesn’t mean you’re going to start arson. “
For Allison, a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, the fire has only caused pain.
“I think of all of our ancestors who helped build St Anne’s, watching us and seeing all their hard work and the place they loved to burn to the ground,” he wrote. “Many of us suffer, but this is not how we do things and this is not our way. It makes me so sick, sad, and I can only hope not to meet you. I feel sorry for you and hope you are satisfied. “