LAC LA BICHE - As the Lac La Biche RCMP detachment continue its investigation into the suspicious fire that levelled the Big Bay Church at the Our Lady of the Snow cemetery near Owl River, nearby residents and past congregation members have been reflecting on the church's long and vibrant history. Many members of the community are tied to the building's inception.
The 90-year old building burned to the ground on the evening of April 27. Despite a quick response by municipal fire crews, the majority of the church’s structure had been destroyed in on the flames before fire crews arrived, according to Bob Laboucane, one of the first firefighters on the scene, and a Golden Sands resident whose grandfather, George, was one of the people who initially planned and built the church.
After the fire had been extinguished it was determined to have occurred under suspicious circumstances by local fire investigators. It is now an open arson investigation with the local RCMP detachment.
There was no electricity running to the building and it caught fire in the early spring between two wet snowfalls, Laboucane said. He also noted that nothing else on the property had caught fire, including the vast forest of trees that surrounded it. Only the church and the trees that began growing out of its sides had been affected and turned to soot.
The fire did not spread to the adjacent Our Lady of the Snow cemetery or the nearby memorial monument recognizing RCMP Constable Leo Johnston, an Owl River resident who was one of the “Fallen Four” RCMP members killed in 2003 near Mayerthorpe.
After the loss of such a distinct and cherished landmark, many community members have recalled ancestral ties to the church that was constructed in 1934 with the help of the Catholic Diocese, Metis trappers and homesteaders.
When Rose Aaspveit was a young girl, she remembers traveling about 20 miles in the summers on her grandfather’s wagon pulled by a team of Clydesdale horses from Peavine Prairie to the Big Bay Church.
As a youngster, Aaspvelt — who is better known locally as Metis Rose — recalls the family attending the Big Bay Church regularly. They would arrive at the church a day or more ahead of mass and camp with other congregation members who also lived large distances away from the nearest church.
“We put up the tent in the summer for us to camp beside the church and listen to stories,” she said. “[My grandfather] sat around the campfire and told countless stories about the old ways.”
Aaspveit’s grandfather, Edouard Quintal, was a prominent Métis trapper and worked with several local men from the community to build the church.
Having been involved in the church’s creation, Quintal felt deeply connected to the parish and made sure his children and grandchildren were brought up to attend mass regularly to share his positive experiences with the community that established themselves at the Big Bay. Growing up, Aaspveit was told stories of how her grandfather and grandmother mother spent the summer of 1934, living in tents along the lake with men from all over the region who came to help build the church after a long winter of working on their traplines.
The connections weren’t just with family. The Clydsdale’s used to carry Aaspvelt and her family to the church for regular services and to meet friends were the same ones that pulled the logs and materials to help build the church.
Looking back Aaspveit adds, “It was those Clydesdale horses that pulled the logs that built that church.”
An Owl River resident with substantial knowledge of the Big Bay Church, Don Tournier remembers the church, even though he and his family were not members of the parish.
Tournier’s father homesteaded in the area in the 1920s, and although they were active members of the community during the time the church was built, they did not participate in its construction.
The Tournier family was not Catholic, but he says, they “supported the idea of it being good for the community.”
Being from a non-Catholic household Tournier said he rarely visited the church but had attended a few weddings and other celebrations there over the years, and knew of its history and community significance from the stories he heard growing up.
“I can just remember things that people and my parents said about its history,” he said, linking the church to other parts of the community’s growth over the decades. “When the school was built in 1932, here at Owl River, they were going to build a church beside it, but then the people of Big Bay decided that they wanted a church also,” Tournier says. “The Diocese wouldn’t build two churches, so instead, they built [Our Lady of the Snow] in the center between the two districts, Owl River and Big Bay.”
Selling furs for windows
Tournier remembers hearing many stories of the dedication and passion of the pioneers and trappers who made the idea of a communal place of worship into a reality for the surrounding community.
“One of the main people who had organized it and got behind it was one of our old pioneers named George Laboucane,” he recalls. “It was built by a lot of volunteer labour and the old timers. Some hauled logs to town to have lumber made for the building of it and Métis trappers donated furs to get money to buy the windows and doors.”
The church that was built between two districts with the help of the community and the local Diocese, drawing Christian believers from across the northern region.
“There were old timers that would come for miles by teams of horses and wagons just come to church.”
However, the priests began to make the same trip less and less frequently, Tournier recalls, creating a shroud of uncertainty for members traveling long distances to attend mass.
“The priests didn't come too much during the later years, so then it all died out,” he says.
Over most of the last 20 years, the church has been left vacant. The property is now for sale.
Although the property has been for sale for a few years, Tournier had hoped the building might one day be preserved and potentially converted into a museum to showcase local artifacts. But now that the church is gone, there is lingering disappointment left behind, he says.
As Desjarlais grew up, his family attended mass at Our lady of the Snow every Sunday, and to the best of his memory, he believes that is where his parents took him and his siblings to be baptized during the 1950s.
“People would go there on Sundays and everyone would pack a lunch and eat it after mass like a picnic,” he recalls fondly. People from all over would arrive on foot or by horse in the early days, but things began to change when priests would come less often and then not at all, he says.
Before then, Desjarlais said members of the parish would gather every Sunday in large crowds to fill the available pews. “There were always different priests, he adds.
However, Desjarlais acknowledges there were other factors that lead to the sporadic and eventual disuse of the building; the structure that was built in 1934 was showing its age and was deteriorating at an increased pace. The walls of the wooden structure began to bow and curve, and the floor boards were soft from water pooling underneath the structure. The integrity of the structure was questionable and as he got older, he recognized that continued long-term use would not have been the right decision because structurally the building was not sound.
Disappointed that something wasn’t done by the St. Paul Diocese to maintain the building and services that were once held at the location, Desjarlais says the building deteriorated, but the community that the church had helped to grow didn't give up hope.
In the late 1990s there were some attempts by area residents and descendants of the church’s original builders to restore the structure.
The prospect of a new beginning
Starting in the late nineties there was a resurgence of hope that the Big Bay Church could be revitalized. With the help of Father Joseph Roy, the resident priest at the time in Lac La Biche’s St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, passionate Owl River residents and volunteers, repairs and updates slowly began on the church and the neighbouing cemetery. The church’s shingles were replaced, recalls Desjarlais, and volunteers raised funds and installed new fencing and a gate around the adjacent Cemetery.
Soon, Father Roy began holding mass on a monthly basis and the people returned to the pews, Desjarlais said, and discussions began among the members about the possibility of restoring or rebuilding the Big Bay congregation. There was even talk among community members about building a new church at the site.
“We could probably build another church on this land,” Desjarlais recalls people saying quite often. “That was what we had planned to do.”
In 2002, with the renovations still going, Desjarlais and nearly a hundred other community members worked with Father Roy to hold a Christmas Eve mass at the Big Bay Church.
“It was full. The upstairs was full, the downstairs was full. There had been a lot of people who had attended that night,” he said.
However, at the end of 2003 Father Roy had returned to a posting in Pakistan, and the replacement priest for the Diocese did not continues Roy’s monthly visits to the Big Bay Church. After that the excitement fizzled and the building lay dormant again.
The church’s closure led to repeated break-ins over the year. In the beginning, community members would fix what they could, but over time the human inflected damaged was too much and windows and locks where left broken. While much of the damage was not substantial, a break-in about five years ago resulted in the interior of the building being completely destroyed.
“It was vandalized maybe five years ago. They wrecked everything inside, until then it was always nice,” Desjarlais said.
The loss of the church is felt deeply by Desjarlais, whose father’s funeral took place there, and its cemetery has become the resting place of his parent, five brothers and maternal grandparents. He says that he and his wife plan to end their journey there as well, when the time comes.
In recent years, seeing the for sale sign go up at the property brings mixed feelings. While he understands the property belongs to the St. Paul Catholic Diocese, he says the local community built it, and grew it and cared for it while they could.
“I think it should still belong to the people of Big Bay and Owl River,” he said. “It was built before, we can build it again.”
Desjarlais feels there is a desire within the community to have central place to gather in their shared faith, he said, adding that it is a topic he would like to see addressed by the local municipal council.
Father Joseph A. Roy
Despite his departure from the community, Father Roy continues to keep in touch with members of Saint Catherine’s and the Lady of the Snow through social media from his home in Sri Lanka.
At 66-years-old and half a world away, Father Roy says he still remembers the passion members of the Big Bay Church had. He recalls that after a short time at St. Catherine’s parish in Lac La Biche, that members in attendance who lived north of the hamlet, began discussing with him the possibility of holding services at Lady of the Snow.
In the few years before being transferred, Roy encouraged interested members to carry out the repairs they though were necessary for the building. During the summer of 2002 and 2003, he began holding a mass once a month at the church he prefers to call Our Lady of the Snow.
“They were asking for nothing but prayer. So, I gave it to them,” he said. In the time that Father Roy would regularly visit the church he says, there were baptisms and a Sunday School when 15 youth had received their first holy communion.
The congregation eventually convinced him to hold a Christmas Eve mass at the small church — despite having no electricity or generator for heat.
Father Roy recalls shivering at the altar preaching that night to a packed room, heated by a fire radiating in a steal drum in the center of the room. Despite the winter's harsh temperatures, he said there was an unmistakable warmth among the congregation.
“They felt more at home in that little church,” he said. Adding the strength of a church depends on how strong a community is. However, even though there was a clear desire in the community to continue attending mass at the Big Bay location, after Father Roy left no one filled the void that his leaving created.
Despite the changes, Roy says the strength of a church is carried in the strength of the community, and its history of working together.
On June 8, 2008, Glen Bowe, a passionate photographer and blogger of abandoned and historical structures in the Canadian prairies, spotted the Big Bay Church during a drive through the area.
After visiting the grounds, he wrote on his blog: “The inside of the church is in surprisingly good condition. There are some beams lying on the floor and signs of the inevitable vandalism but the wood interior doesn’t even look very old.” He continued, “The church looks huge from [the outside] perspective and yet from the inside it seems strangely small.”
After learning about the fire and the arson investigation Bowe said it is an unfortunate and common tale of old buildings left behind with time.
“This has occurred in a few rural churches in the past couple of years,” he said.
Looking back Bowe noted that the Owl River Church could have made a great historical resource but left mostly unattended would have continued to be vulnerable to break-ins.
“There are hundreds and possibly thousands of these old buildings across the prairies although I’ve never seen one quite like Our Lady of Snow. It had a very unique look to it and no doubt a very unique history,” he said. “Now all that is gone.”
For now, questions remain around the cause of the April 27 fire and the eventual sale of the property owned by the St. Paul Diocese where the Big Bay Church once stood.
Jeanette Johnston, a local resident and volunteer who has helped revitalized the cemetery at the site, is questioning whether the final resting place of dozens of area residents can be sold with the rest of the property.
There are also concerns whether an access road may need to be constructed in order to bypass the former church property, if it is acquired by private hands, or if the memorial plaque for the RCMP Constable Leo N. Johnston will have to be relocated.
The Diocese of St. Paul has stopped responding to questions regarding the sale of the Big Bay property. Lakeland Today will continue following details regarding the investigation into the suspicious fire that levelled the Big Bay Church.