Wildfires put Alberta parishes on alert

Wildfires continue to rage in Alberta and in parts of Saskatchewan. Fr. Thomas Basani of Sacred Heart Parish in Edson, Alta., snapped this photo of a wildfire perilously close to the church and cars in its parking lot. (Photo courtesy of Fr. Thomas Basani, CCN)

One parish evacuated in midst of Mass

By Quinton Amundson, The Catholic Register

[Canadian Catholic News -CCN] – So far Catholic parishes in the path of devastating wildfires that have swept across Alberta have only been evacuated as a precaution, with no parishes reporting any damage by mid-month.

These churches were forced to evacuate along with citizens of a number of communities, including one parish that was forced out in the midst of a Saturday evening Mass.

St. Elizabeth parish in Evansburg, west of Edmonton, was in the middle of Mass April 29 when police arrived at the church to warn people of the worsening fire.

“On Saturday evening, the priest (Fr. Martin Carroll) was celebrating Mass in the Church,” said pastor Fr. Felix Devasia, who avoided the early days of the emergency as he was on vacation in India until May 12. “While the priest was reading the Gospel, the police came and told everyone to evacuate because the wildfire was getting worse. So, they stopped the Mass and left the community. Nothing happened to the church. After two weeks of not holding Mass there, everyone has come back.”

Devasia is also pastor of St. Anthony parish in Drayton Valley and St. Agnes parish in Mayerthorpe. Upon his return, he received permission to briefly enter Drayton Valley to grab his vehicle before hitting the road for shelter in Edmonton.

Andrew Ehrkamp, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Edmonton, confirmed that St. Anthony parish in Drayton Valley has been evacuated since May 4 because of the wildfire threat. He also stated Sacred Heart Church in Edson, St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Wildwood and St. Elizabeth parish in Evansburg were all evacuated for varying durations during the first half of the month, but since received approval from officials to return. The Blessed Sacrament was moved to a secure secondary location in all these cases.

“Although there was a fire in Lac Ste. Anne county, Lac Ste. Anne parish was being monitored, but there was no threat,” wrote Ehrkamp. “We continue to monitor all parishes and Catholic cemeteries as the wildfires continue.”

According to the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, approximately 17,431 people remain away from their communities as of May 15 because of the wildfires raging throughout the prairie province since late last month.

The Alberta Wildfire Status Dashboard indicates there are 87 active wildfires as of May 16, including 24 deemed as “out of control.” Christie Tucker of Alberta Wildfire said her agency has “responded to 465 wildfires burning nearly 532,000 hectares” of land this year.
A provincial state of emergency was enacted on May 6.

Devasia celebrated Mass at St. Elizabeth on May 13, and he expected he would do so on May 20. As for resuming services at St. Anthony parish, Devasia said on May 15 that the evacuation order for Drayton Valley is likely to remain operational for at least another week.

Fr. Thomas Basani, pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Edson, said his community got the call to evacuate on May 5. The experience was unsettling.

“All day we were frightened looking at the smoke outside,” said Basani. “The town was so clouded all day with smoke that made the town so dark. That day I was working with some of the ladies of the parish to prepare for a big funeral expected to take place the following day. But at the same time, I kept wondering what I should do when I saw the conditions outside. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Basani shared a few of the photos he quickly snapped in the parish parking lot. The images depict the smoke clouds enveloping nearly the entire sky, save for the flames torching the forest area in the distance.

He received an invitation to stay at Our Lady of the Foothills Church in Hinton from their pastor Fr. Anthony Narisetty. People of Edson were generally advised to evacuate to the Dr. Duncan Murray Recreation Centre in Hinton or the fitness and aquatics centre in Jasper. Basani visited the recreation centre in Hinton to see his parishioners and to thank the volunteers for their efforts.

Fortunately, some rain, coupled with the work of firefighters, made it possible for the community to return on May 8.

Basani said that just as during the COVID-19 pandemic, members of his congregation are now praying the rosary each day, calling for an end to this latest state of emergency.

Ehrkamp said the archdiocese joins the affected communities in their prayers.

“We pray for everyone affected by the wildfires, especially those with health challenges and the elderly. May they find they help that they need and some measure of comfort in faith.”