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Owl River Catholic church fire was arson, say authorities

St. Paul Diocese property not maintained for years

OWL RIVER - In the late evening of April 27, Owl River’s Big Bay Church was intentionally set ablaze after a heavy snowfall saturated the grounds of the Our Lady of the Snow church site, leaving the structure that had stood for more than 80 years as a mound of ashes in the slush. 

An arson investigation is now being conducted by fire officials with Lac La Biche County’s Protective Services department. 

As local firefighters battled the blaze and examined the resulting damage, the fire’s origin was found to be suspicious, and with further investigation, the blaze has now been determined as an arson, says Protective Services manager and Regional Fire Chief John Kokotilo. 

Bob Laboucane, firefighter with county’s Owl River-based fire hall and a grandchild of George Laboucane, is one of the church’s original builders in1934. Bob’s own father has also helped with repairs and maintenance at the site. Bob was on scene the night of the fire. 

 It was an ironic full circle family connection in the history of the building. 

“I left my home in Golden Sands and I could see the glow in the sky. So, I knew it was fully engulfed,” he said. 

The fire call came in at 11:10p.m. The first crews arrived on scene just eight minutes later to find the majority of the wooden, two-storey structure was already on its way down. The building had already lost its roof, and the walls were collapsing by the time crews arrived, said Laboucane, saying little could be done to salvage the structure.  

“What you see right now is what was there was when we arrived,” he said. 

Crews worked the scene into the next morning, spending several hours putting out fires in nearby trees and making sure there were no hot spots left behind. 

Vacant for years 

The 87-year-old building, owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Paul, had been left relatively unused for the better part of two decades. The church and church grounds have been for sale for some time, says Sterling Johnson, the municipal councillor for the Owl River area. 

“It was basically condemned,” Johnson told Lakeland This Week, explaining that the building, which was never connected to the grid, stood abandoned and empty without power for years. 

For many area residents, including Johnson and Laboucane, this fire was not a surprise. The building was left to slowly deteriorate at its own pace.   

“I knew that was going to happen,”  Laboucane said as he recalled driving past the dilapidated church on his daily travels. “We'd come back from other calls last year in the fire truck and drive by. I told the guys in the truck, ‘You know, one day, we'll be here fighting this fire. Somebody is going to light this thing up.’ 

Fallen Four property

Despite the loss of the church, the Lady of the Snow cemetery grounds have seen upgrades in recent years and regular clean-up projects are organized by community members inside the cemetery and at the nearby memorial cairn and rest area dedicated to RCMP Constable Leo Johnston. The Owl River native was one of four RCMP members killed in 2005 while guarding a property near Mayerthorpe that was under police investigation.  

The Johnston memorial — its concrete cairn and plaque, decorative planters, benches and flags — was not damaged by the church fire. 

While there is still community support for the site, without the support of the landowner, there is only limited effort the municipality or residents can provide to preserve what remains of the site’s local legacy, Laboucane says. 

No one from the St. Paul Diocese has responded to interview requests. 

Lakeland This Week will continue to provide updates on the results of the ongoing fire investigation. 

Jazmin Tremblay

About the Author: Jazmin Tremblay

Jazmin completed a minor in journalism at Hanze University in the Netherlands and completed her Communication Studies degree from MacEwan University with a major in journalism.
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