UPDATE: Two South Okanagan churches burned down | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Penticton News

UPDATE: Two South Okanagan churches burned down

The Sacred Heart Church on PIB land has burned down.
Image Credit: FACEBOOK/Lena Theresa May Jack.
Original Publication Date June 21, 2021 - 9:33 AM

Those closest to the two century-old Catholic churches that were razed by fire Monday morning are in disbelief and anger.

"The Penticton Indian Band Leadership and community were shocked to discover our church was destroyed in a fire early this morning. We, along with the Osoyoos Indian Band, who also lost their church (Oliver area) are in disbelief and anger over these occurrences as these places of worship provided service to Members who sought comfort and solace in the church," reads a statement from the Penticton Indian Band released Monday afternoon, June 21.

"It is not our place to say who to worship and what historical relevance it has to our people, we are all free to choose and it is our place as a community to support that freedom. Since 1911 some of our community’s first memories are of us gathering in that church. We understand the grief and rage felt by our people across the country after the discovery of unmarked graves at Government / Catholic run former residential schools. This is a symptom of the intergenerational trauma our survivors and descendants are experiencing, however, we have supports to help deal with these emotions in a more healing way."

The first fire was at the Sacred Heart Church in Penticton, which according to the Catholic church website was built in 1911.

The building was reduced to rubble and the cause of that fire is considered suspicious, RCMP said in a press release.

There was also a structure fire not long after on Osoyoos band land, at Nk’Mip Road and Spud Allen Road, at the St. Gregory Mission. That building is also pegged at a century old.

Rob Graham, the spokesman for the fire Oliver fire department, said the fire started at 3 a.m. and by the time crews arrived on scene the building was long gone.

"For the most part it was relatively reduced to burning rubble when our trucks were on scene," Graham said. "No cause has been determined yet. It’s suspicious, given recent events, the time of day and the location."

Once they arrived, however, the focus was not on saving the building, just ensuring that no further fires were sparked in the remote area. Already, there have been around 20 different brush or grass fires within the area, given the hot dry start to the season.

"Our guys worked well for the situation," Graham said. 

The church fires come as conversations about Canada's colonial history and its relationship with the church hit a fever pitch — a point that did not go unexplored by area residents discussing the fires on social media today nor the communities involved.

Neither the PIB or the RCMP, said they would not speculate about who caused the fires or the motivation.

"All we can do is to be there for one another in this unbelievably hard time," the PIB said.

Sacred Heart Church.
Sacred Heart Church.
Image Credit: Sacred Heart Church page

There is security footage with the Penticton fire from the area being provided to the RCMP to assist with the investigation. The band asks the public to stay away from the immediate area and that people be sensitive to those who are affected by the fire. 

"Please do not approach our Indigenous members and ask how we feel about it. This is a fresh wound that needs time to heal and contextualize our feelings as we will support the investigative efforts," they said.

RCMP said that investigators will continue to liaise with both the Penticton and Osoyoos Indian Bands as we investigate these fires.

“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,” Sgt Jason Bayda, media relations officer for the Penticton South Okanagan RCMP said in a press release.

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

Police are asking for anyone who may have witnessed anyone or any vehicle in the area of either church sometime between the late hours of June 20 and early hours of June 21 to contact the Penticton RCMP Detachment at 250-492-4300.

— This story was updated at 1:58 p.m. Monday, June 21 to add more information from RCMP and again at 4:05 p.m. to add additional comment from PIB.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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