Fort Simpson Catholics’ decades-long journey to building a new church has finally come to fruition.

On Sunday, Sept. 17, Bishop Mark Hagemoen knocked on the wooden doors of the new, $1.3 million Sacred Heart Church and entered to lead the congregation in the dedication of the new building, and a celebration.

Bishop Mark Hagemoen leads a service on Sunday, Sept. 17, to celebrate the opening of the new Sacred Heart Church in Fort Simpson. photo courtesy of Father Joe Daley

“What I observed was first of all a great excitement,” said Father Joe Daley, “and also years and years and years of hoping and looking forward, and they couldn’t quite believe it’s here, our new church that we’ve talked about and dreamed about and worked for. It’s here.”

Daley served as pastor for Sacred Heart from 1996 to 2002, then returned in 2014. He remembers the original church, built in the early 1900s, getting classified as unrepairable in a report from 1992. By the early 2000s, the building had been condemned.

Bishop Mark Hagemoen knocks on the door to the new Sacred Heart Church in Fort Simpson on Sept. 17, before leading a service to dedicate the new building. photo courtesy of Father Joe Daley

Since then, the congregation has met in the gym at Bompas Elementary School – named, funnily enough, for Anglican bishop William Bompas. There were no ill feelings in staying there, said Daley. In fact, it’s just one of multiple examples of how the village’s churches support each other in times of need.

When Daley moved back to Fort Simpson, he had nowhere to stay. The Pentacostal Church’s parsonage was empty because the minister had gone off to continue his studies, and the church let Daley stay there for a year, until they got a new minister.

“That’s the kind of friendship that exists among the churches in Fort Simpson,” said Daley.

This community spirit helped build the new church, said Daley. People with no relation to the church would offer to help, giving hours of their time to the cause.

The initiative was made a reality, though, by Bishop Mark Hagemoen. He had heard people talk about their dream of a new church on his first visit to Fort Simpson four years ago. He asserted that now was the time to build it, even though they’d only collected about $300,000 dollars by that point and didn’t know what they could accomplish with that much.

Hagemoen visited a few of his friends within the Catholic community and came back with some plans. “Our jaws dropped and he said, ‘I think we can do it,’” said Daley. “And within months we were putting out tenders. It was just incredible.”

They chose Rowe’s Construction, based in Hay River, but with a secondary office in Fort Simpson, as a contractor. Rowe’s planned to employ local people to build the church, and had a competitive bid. “The bid from Rowe’s was worth $1.3 million,” said Daley. “So we were short $1 million.”

Then major donors from down south came through in big ways. The Archdiocese of Edmonton, the diocese in Hamilton, Ont. and Catholic Missions in Canada all provided major support and fundraised.

“I think we have a very well-built building,” said Daley. “The bishop keeps saying, ‘This will last 100 years.’ And I have no doubt.”

But, it wasn’t just the big donors that made it happen, said Daley. He cited an envelope from an elder containing $10, and a coin dropped into a blanket set out for collections by an old lady, walking with a cane.

The bell from the old church, fondly remembered by many in the community, was positioned in front of the new church. Lay leader Martina Norwegian said people were so excited that they clamoured to ring it after the service. photo courtesy of Father Joe Daley

“She came and she dropped it and she bowed. And I thought, ‘That’s what made this church,’” said Daley.

Another member of the congregation, Billy Villeneuve, went around the village collecting cans and bottles on a three-wheeled bicycle for years, every day of the year, and donating the proceeds to the church. Even in the worst days of winter. “When I’m shivering in my truck, he’s biking along,” said Daley.

In the end, Villeneuve contributed more than $80,000 from what he collected.

The church’s legacy is complicated. While people are deeply enveloped in their faith, it was also the churches that administered residential schools. Both Daley and Norwegian were optimistic about the symbolism of the new building.

“We could say it’s a new beginning,” said Norwegian, “but I would say we were always working to this new beginning. So now that it’s come to fruition, with a new building, we can continue working on it moreso in a positive direction.”

“Especially post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the healing is just starting,” said Daley.

But, the will for the new church came from the community, and it will be the community that buoys it forward.

Norwegian said it was really the people, their prayers and their hopes, that made this dream come true.

“And not only us here today but the many people who died, who prayed and hoped with us. From the bottom of my heart I just want to continue to say thank you and mahsi.”

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