The Church Burned Down

The Church Burned Down

By Mickey Conlon

It was a Sunday in late July, not unlike most Sundays for Denise Grimard, save for the fact she was about eight months pregnant. She was attending Mass at St. Theresa’s Mission Church in Telegraph Creek, B.C., the mission church her husband, Joshua, had just put a roof on. Her youngest of five (at the time) children, Tobias, was acting up so like any mother with a young child, Denise took her two-year-old to the back of the church.

But there was just something about the moment, something at the time she couldn’t put her finger on. Yet she was moved to embrace the moment. “It was particularly moving,” said Denise, who along with Joshua is a lay pastoral worker for the Diocese of Whitehorse at the mission church in Telegraph Creek in northwestern British Columbia. “During the prayers of the faithful people just kept going, kept praying, and there was just intention after intention.”

She looks back now and says it was one of those moments when you realize that the church is not just a building but the people who make up the community. “It was almost like God gave me that moment to hold on to, to really cherish the building, the community.”

Denise is thankful for that one passing sliver of time. For within the next two weeks, St. Theresa’s, the physical structure at least, would be no longer. It fell victim to the savage wildfires that swept across much of northern B.C. and dominated the headlines across Canada this past summer. Much of the town’s infrastructure survived—the hydro plant, the rec centre, the post office, nurse station and the Tahltan First Nation band office—but St. Theresa’s and its rectory were consumed by the inferno, along with more than 25 homes in the town on a terrace overlooking the Stikine River. All told, almost 60 structures were destroyed.

The blaze, ignited by a lightning strike on Aug. 1, has left Telegraph Creek a ghost town for the most part. The population of about 300, mostly members of the Tahltan First Nation, was forced to relocate as the fire drew near. Most residents fled for Dease Lake to the north or Iskut to the east. Those with respiratory and other health issues were taken to Terrace, Kamloops or other larger communities. Into October, health and safety concerns meant the area remained under a state of emergency even though the fire had long since moved on.

“A lot of significant damage and a lot of work to do to get people back into the community,” Rick McLean, chief of the Tahltan First Nation, told media in mid-September. Authorities were hoping to have people back in their homes—those lucky enough to still have one—by the end of October. Meantime, water-system cleaning, checking on the stability of the hilly slopes and other safety measures were underway.

Bishop Hector Vila of the Whitehorse Diocese celebrates Mass at St. Theresa’s Church

The Grimards were already preparing to leave Telegraph Creek when lightning struck. Denise was about a month away from delivering Emmaus, with a Sept. 5 due date. In the northern B.C. interior and its vast wilderness, the required medical services are just not available. So they were planning on heading south, to Chilliwack, Joshua’s hometown, where Emmaus’ siblings had all been born, and began their journey Aug. 2.

Wildfires are a fact of life in such remote areas in the wilderness. But so is the faith that the fires will be contained. Both the Grimards and Whitehorse Bishop Hector Vila were shocked that this wasn’t the case this time.

“We thought nothing of it,” said Joshua. “We didn’t think anything would happen. They had the fire under control. So we kind of left thinking we were going to come back home with everybody there.”

“It was certainly a big surprise for all of us because we thought the fire would be contained and would not touch Telegraph Creek,” said Vila.

It wasn’t to be. The fire was just too intense. Joshua said crews that came into Telegraph Creek sifting remains in the fire’s aftermath attest to its intensity.

“There was nothing left,” he said of the church compound, just ashes and the kids’ trampoline.

Though their home and church have been destroyed, there is nothing that will keep the Grimards from going back to the community they have called home for the past four years. And when they do, rebuilding their beloved St. Theresa’s will be high on their agenda.

The Grimard’s lost home and bicycles

“It wouldn’t seem right if we didn’t go back and rebuild,” said Denise. “Just the fact that the church is the people. Even though the church has burned down, Christ doesn’t abandon His people.”

The church and rectory will be rebuilt, it’s the timing that is the question now, said Vila.

“We’re waiting for clearance from the B.C. government to be allowed to build but with winter on its way, this project will have to wait,” said Vila. “Planning will happen over the winter and therefore we are looking at next spring or summer to begin rebuilding.”

Of course, circumstances have to be right. Telegraph Creek will need to be accessible, people willneed to be available to work on the project and of course there will have to be enough money. To date, relief efforts have raised about $100,000, and that will be used as donors see fit—for therebuilding of the mission or for the needs of those who have lost their homes, said Vila.

The Grimards say there are so many things from the experience that have shown God’s hand. Denise has heard from numerous people in the community that they were able to see the face of Christ in the clouds.

“They saw it as a sign that whatever is going to happen, they are going to be taken care of,” she said. “The faithful that come to the church, the elders that we’ve talked to, they have a peace about it.”

Oddly enough, so do the Grimards. Much of that resonates from the faith community. “Our church community, we felt so supported,” said Joshua.

“We were led to the mission up there, so we felt we were totally in God’s providence, so we didn’t really have any worries about anything. We feel blessed through all of this.”

Still, the initial call telling them the church had burned down came as a shock. Then the tears flowed.

“I definitely had a good cry,” said Denise, who said she was comforted when Vila called and told them, “Denise and Josh, you will receive back a hundredfold what you lost, it’s what Christ said.”

Still, the tears flowed.

The Grimard family at Saint Mary Magdalene Church, BC.

There’s no telling how much the church means to the community. There’s a trust that is built up between the Catholic Church and the community by the ongoing presence, “and that’s not a trust that you hear a lot about in the news,” said Denise.

“But our lived experience has been that there is a deep trust there. That’s where they feel comfort.”

St. Theresa’s was built in the early 1990s and has been a big part of the community. The Tahltan people are traditionally Catholic, with about half the town’s population identifying as Catholic and about 20 per cent of them practising the faith.

“It carried a lot of memories for a lot of the community and people have been so thankful that there is a presence at the church,” she said.

Though the town had been evacuated, and parishioners had lost not only their church and its pastoral presence, their Church was not abandoning them. The diocese stepped up for its people and became spiritual first responders for the displaced community. Kristina McBride is a teacher from Vancouver doing pastoral work in the community for the summer and “she was just pulled into it” as a community crisis counsellor, said Denise. Other lay pastoral visitors quickly descended on Dease Lake and Iskut, as did Vila and Fr. Suresh Mathangi, the priest on rotation for the mission.

“Even in the smallest community, to have a church presence, you realize the importance of it,” she said.

Rebuilding the church will be a chore, no doubt. The Grimards are in contact with the insurance company and are working out details. Joshua said they’ve already been hearing from people and all want to know if and when it will be rebuilt.

“We don’t know how soon, but we definitely know the church will be rebuilt in Telegraph,” he said.

For now, the Grimards have been grateful to share time with Denise’s family in Kelowna. But they are eagerly anticipating their return, though they don’t know when and where they will end up.

“That sense of having a place for ourselves and for our kids to replant our feet again is something we’re looking forward to,” said Denise. “Deep down, both Josh and I, we’re excited to have a sense of normalcy in our lives, odd as that sounds. It has become home for us.

“We’re ready to go home.”