Two Canadian Catholic Churches Burn to the Ground on Indigenous Land

RCMP said they are considering the fires “suspicious” and are “sensitive" to recent events, seemingly a reference to the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a Catholic-run residential school in the same province.
Two century-old Catholic churches built on Indigenous land in British Columbia burned to the ground early Monday morning.
Firefighters' jackets hang on the fence of the burned-out remnants of Sacred Heart Church on the Penticton Indian Reserve, near Penticton, B.C. James Miller/The Canadian Press

Two century-old Catholic churches built on Indigenous land in British Columbia burned to the ground early Monday morning, about a month after 215 Indigenous children were discovered buried under a former Catholic-run residential school.

Penticton RCMP said in a news release the first fire was spotted by an officer at 1:20 a.m. The officer saw flames licking out of Sacred Heart Church on Penticton Indian Band land and called the fire department. By the time they arrived, the church was fully engulfed.

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Less than two hours later, Oliver RCMP was called to a similar fire at St. Gregory’s Church on Osoyoos Indian Band land, about an hour’s drive away. 

The churches, both over 100 years old, and constructed from wood, were destroyed. 

The Globe and Mail reported the chief of Oliver Fire Department said there were accelerants found outside St. Gregory’s. 

“Should our investigations deem these fires as arson, the RCMP will be looking at all possible motives and allow the facts and evidence to direct our investigative action,” said RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Jason Bayda in a news release. 

“We are sensitive to the recent events, but won’t speculate on a motive.”

The fires come as the Catholic Church has been put under an international spotlight following the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. 

Residential schools, which were run by the Canadian government, often through Christian churches, were used to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children and have a long and horrific legacy that includes physical and sexual assault and the deaths of an estimated 15,000 Indigenous children. More than half of residential schools—which were open from the late 1800s until the 1990s—were run by the Catholic Church. 

Following the disturbing finding in Kamloops, efforts are underway to uncover more unmarked graves. Already, remains of more than 100 children have been confirmed at three other sites in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The Catholic Church has been criticized, including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for its unwillingness to help the effort, with some dioceses holding back documents that could aid in the search for the bodies and understanding of how the children wound up in an unmarked mass grave. The Catholic Church has also yet to apologize for its role in the residential school system. 

Father Thomas Kakkaniyil, the priest at St. Gregory, told the Vancouver Sun the church had just held its first service since lockdowns were lifted. He said he believes the fires were arson but committed by outsiders.

“Somebody from outside came and burned it as I understand it,” Kakkaniyil told the Sun. “It was done on the Osoyoos First Nation land but not by those people. It was somebody else.”

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