A crisp afternoon at the Morley Stoney Mission Site was countered with laughter and music laden with emotion and messages of hope.
Some 60 people of all ages gathered to pray, sing and reminisce about their memories of the McDougall Church east of the town of Morley – the 142-year-old historical building burned down on May 22, 2017 in a suspected act of arson.
Memories mixed with messages of reconciliation filled the celebration tent where people gathered for the “Forward Together” event – held near the charred remains of the little white church and hosted by the McDougall Stoney Mission Society.
For many, the church built by settlers George and John McDougall in 1875 has been a point of connection for the cultures and communities of Morley and Cochrane. It was the oldest church built in Southern Alberta.
While the church itself connotes connections to colonialism and a painful era of residential schools, there has largely been support for the rebuilding of the historical building from members of Morley, where some representatives from the community turned out with guitars in tow to show their support for the site.
Holly Fortier, a Cree/Dene woman of the Ft. McKay Treaty 7 First Nation, was one of the guest speakers who addressed the symbolism of the day’s gathering with respect to the truth and reconciliation movement.
Fortier is an Indigenous awareness consultant and is a well-known cultural leader, academic and activist.
“What is happening today, at this moment, on this land … this is reconciliation,” she smiled, following a moving talk about her own ancestry as a member of one of the 634 First Nations groups in Canada.
Fortier, who travels across Canada and internationally to educate people on the mistruths that have resulted from the era of residential schools and the 1876 Indian Act and how to heal for the future, said the opportunity to speak about the McDougall Church was of personal significance to her.
Her mother was one of the countless Indigenous children taken from her Ft. McKay Nation family, along with her two little sisters, shipped off to a residential school and stripped of contact from their family.
It was a time of hopelessness that led its way to a happy ending – as her mother was adopted by the late Lily and Lazarus Wesley of Morley and married a man who helped her reunite with her Ft. McKay family.
Fortier grew up spending much time in Morley and continues to have a strong connection to the community.
“It wasn’t God in residential schools, it was bad representation,” said Fortier – a quote from her own mother.
Fortier said moving forward, she is hopeful more churches will reach out to reconcile with First Nations people – to help close a chapter and heal from decades of atrocities that took place in residential schools – the last of which only shuttered its doors in 1996.
Chris Twoyoungmen of Morley delivered his emotional story of giving up a drug and alcohol addiction, which he credits to his connection with God, linking it with the importance of the McDougall Church to his community.
“I want to help out as a leader because I know what it’s like to be in addiction … it’s never too late to change,” said the father of seven.
“For as long as I can remember, I have had a special fondness for the site. A great deal of my memories as a child take me back to the two services that I went to each year with my family,” said Brenda McQueen, president of the McDougall Stoney Mission Society in a recent press release.
“They were services of celebration with two cultures sharing their stories, songs, and dances. We would play in the fields after the service and perhaps enjoy a doughnut or two.”
The McDougall Stoney Mission Society is working closely with the province to develop a plan to rebuild the church.
This month, a heritage conservation contractor has begun a weeks-long process to assess the site to determine what materials can be salvaged.
For detailed event listings, to learn about the church history and the society visit mcdougallstoneymission.com.
To connect with Holly Fortier, visit nistoconsulting.com.