Parishioners ring new bell at Sacred Heart Church. Photo by Andrew Ehrkamp

Northern church is an answer to prayer

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Catholic Register Special
  • September 21, 2017

FORT SIMPSON, N.W.T. - The people of the small, remote town of Fort Simpson, N.W.T., say it’s a prayer answered.

Parishioners of Sacred Heart Church took turns ringing its aging bell to call the community to the official Mass consecrating the new $1.3-million building on Sept. 17.

The new church officially opened just days before the 30th anniversary of what many residents consider another answered prayer — the detour that St. Pope John Paul II took to keep a promised visit to the roughly 1,200 people who live here, about 600 kms west of Yellowknife.

It was standing room only inside as parishioners, supporters, First Nations elders and chiefs gathered to help celebrate that they finally have a new place to worship in the Deh Cho region and its largely Dene communities.

“It’s a beautiful gift. It’s like people’s prayers have been answered,” said Mike Cazon, a Dene from nearby Trout River, who has been attending Sacred Heart Church since he was a child.

Parishioners had been attending Mass in a school gym for five years after the old building, built in 1923, was condemned and demolished.

“It’s almost unbelievable that this long-time dream of the people of this region is becoming a reality,” added Fr. Joe Daley, the pastor of Sacred Heart.

People gasped audibly as they entered the church with its gleaming blue-and-pale-brown interior and vaulted hardwood roof, many of them seeing for the first time how the design has mixed the present with the past. The steeple and bell from the old church building was saved and placed on a concrete base in front of the new one. Both are signature symbols of the churches built by the Oblate Brothers of Mary Immaculate in the Northwest Territories.

Ornate wood-relief Stations of the Cross, written in French in honour of the Oblates, hang on the walls. And the baptismal font, altar and podium — handcrafted from local diamond willow — have been saved from the old church.

The church building opened thanks in part to the Archdiocese of Edmonton, which contributed through its Together We Serve annual appeal, as well as donations from the local community, private donors, Catholic Missions In Canada and the Diocese of Hamilton, which announced that it was forgiving $50,000 worth of the loan it made to the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.

Parishioners raised about $300,000 through bake sales, raffles and even a pool on when the ice would break in Fort Simpson, which lies at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers.

Daley also singled out Billy Villeneuve, an older parishioner who helped raise more than $80,000 by collecting bottles and cans for recycling for years.

(Ehrkamp is a news editor for Grandin Media in Edmonton.)

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