Parishioners worship in trailer after church burns to the ground

Faith, hope arise from the ashes


KUGLUKTUK-Allen Niptanatiak, the lay leader of Our Lady of the Light Roman Catholic Church, his wife Grace and mother-in-law Bernadette Elgok are blessed with a faith strong enough to withstand the most heartbreaking tests, and flourish in the most modest of circumstances.

Our Lady of the Light burned to the ground on April 13, 2004. Since then, they and the other devout Roman Catholics of Kugluktuk have rallied together, to bring their church back to life.

"Things happen for a reason," says Niptanatiak, the parish chairman, who sees renewed strength in the parish since the fire.

Only the picket fence around the churchyard escaped the flames.

These days, services are conducted in the parish's new church, a starkly simple double-trailer, which arrived last August by barge. It stands on the site of the much-loved wooden church.

On Sundays, Niptanatiak, a wildlife officer for Nunavut's environment department, often serves as lay leader, conducting services.

During a recent service at the new Our Lady of the Light, Niptanatiak asks the five worshippers, who have weathered a storm to come to church, to reflect on the chosen scripture readings, and reminds everyone of the need to love each another.

They shake hands to pass a blessing, and hold hands during the Lord's Prayer.

These gestures reinforce bonds between the small group, who are both Inuit and Qallunaat.

At the end of the service, recorded music from a boom box plays "Our Lady of the Light". The hymn's melody moves with a slightly Maritime lilt.

"In this our land with the darkest nights, with days of endless light, we see a vision lovely still, Our Lady of the Light, goes the hymn, which was written by a teacher, Peter L. MacLean, shortly before the church burned to the ground on April 13, 2004.

Bishop Denis Croteau of the MacKenzie Diocese consecrated the new church this past Christmas with a blessing.

Attendance at the midnight mass and feast on Christmas Eve filled the church to capacity, Niptanatiak says.

In the 1960s, Niptanatiak remembers how 200 would show up for Sunday services. Now only 50 to 70 parishioners usually attend service on Sunday.

Attendance fell after the 1992 retirement of the late Father Oliva Lapointe, who lived in the community for 50 years. For many years after his departure the old church was only used at Christmas and on Easter.

In September 2003, regular Sunday services resumed, only to cease abruptly in 2004 when the fire, which started in the church's wiring, destroyed the building. A second, deliberately-set fire razed what little remained 10 days later.

Until late last year, services were held in the community's Pentecostal Church. But services could never be scheduled at regular hours or on major holidays.

As a result, Catholics started to attend the Anglican or Pentecostal churches, diminishing their ranks even further.

The community's history with the Roman Catholic Church is long, but checkered, starting with the murder of two Oblate missionaries near the Coppermine Falls in 1913, to lawsuits filed against the Church by former residential school students who say they were abused at these Catholic institutions during the 1950s and 1960s.

To draw lapsed Catholics back to the church, the parish plans to start a Sunday school.

Niptanatiak also hopes to find a priest willing to visit Kugluktuk, even for a short period, in exchange for room and board. But the parish will have to raise money for the priest's travel to Kugluktuk, which can cost more than $2,000.

The Mackenzie Diocese has struggled for years to find priests. In 1950, there were 60 priests for 12,000 Catholics. In 2002, there were only nine priests for nearly 25,000. The diocese is in a "desperate situation," Bishop Croteau says.

Kugluktuk's new church also needs more decorations. On the parish's wish-list are religious statuary and a better supply of music. A holy water font used in baptisms, and new small bell would also be welcome. The parish intends to build a steeple on the church this summer.

Irreplaceable items lost in the blaze include a white-tiled ceiling, curved to resemble an igloo, two narwhal tusks by the altar, 14 stations of the cross made of seal skin and two seal skin wall hangings, one of the crucifixion and another depicting the last supper.

The parish paid for the new church with $200,000 in insurance money. The snug trailer contains an altar space, which can be screened off, a spacious room with chairs for services or meetings, a fully-equipped kitchen, bathroom and an office.

Kugluktuk is not the only community in the Kitikmeot to lose an historic Catholic church. In May 2006, vandals set fire to the original stone church in Cambridge Bay, Our Lady of the Arctic.

This stone church, whose walls were bound together with a mixture of seal oil and clay, was finished in 1954. Charred remnants of the walls still stand, and some in the community want to rebuild the damaged structure again. Unlike Kugluktuk, a new Catholic church had already been built in Cambridge Bay long before the fire occurred.

Share This Story

(0) Comments