A place of love, welcome, sanctuary and warmth in Alberta’s northern wilderness
Parish targets preservation and restoration campaign for 109-year-old Fort Chipewyan church
It speaks of the region’s history—and, to Margaret Whiteknife, it says much, much more.
It’s the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church, and its roots date back to 1849, when the church established a mission in Fort Chipewyan—the oldest European-Canadian community in the province of Alberta.
“When I enter that building, I feel at peace. It’s soothing to be there. All my troubles are gone when I walk in that door,” says Whiteknife, a lifelong member of the Parish of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, and the organizer of an ongoing fundraising campaign to restore the 109-year-old church.
“It’s a place of love, a place of welcome, a place of sanctuary and a place of warmth,” she says. “There’s a strong sense of belonging, of community. When I’m in that building, I feel the love of generations of my family members who have completed their journey here on Earth.”
Established as a trading post by the North West Company in 1788, Fort Chipewyan was of prime importance to the fur trade rivalries of the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Roman Catholic Church was built in 1909, and is the third building to occupy its present site in Fort Chipewyan.
It was designated as a provincial historic resource in 1998—and author Mary Oakwell, in her 2011 book Many Foundations: Historic Churches of Alberta, notes the blue vaulted ceiling painted with angels, stars and other scenes by Father Emile Grouard and Grey Nun Sister Default.
“Paintings done . . . in the church (depict) biblical scenes as well as those that would have been familiar to the early parishioners—York boats, fur traders and Aboriginal faces,” writes Oakwell.
“These paintings have survived in fairly good condition,” adds Oakwell, who also writes of the “beautiful paint colors made from berries and fish oil.”
The church remains an important landmark and a community gathering place to this day, still playing host to weekly services, marriages, baptisms, communions, and funerals. However, the century-old wooden building is in need of repairs to its foundation as well as its superstructure, which must be made carefully with deference to the church’s historic resource designation.
For the past three years, Whiteknife has led a parish fundraising campaign—highlighted by an annual Valentine’s Day dinner—in the hopes of beginning a phased restoration of the church, given Fort Chipewyan’s isolated geography on the shores of Lake Athabasca.
Enbridge is committed to enhancing quality of life in the communities where we operate, and we recently supported the project, through a donation and a sponsored door prize, to help the parish reach its goal.
The parish has ambitious plans for the 10-acre site, which includes associated rectory buildings.
“In recent years we’ve had visitors and tourists who came to see the paintings and the detailed architecture in the church,” says Whiteknife. “We’re thinking there is a possibility of a museum and gift shop, with a café open in the summer. The land is fertile, and gardens would really do well there.
“We want this restoration project to benefit the entire community.”