By Andrew Ehrkamp
News Editor

It’s been a long and arduous journey, but Sacred Heart Church in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. is rising again.

After nearly 90 years, the old church was beyond repair, so it was demolished.

Now a new $1.3-million church will open its doors next month – thanks to the Archdiocese of Edmonton through its Together We Serve annual appeal, as well as donations from the local community, private donors, Catholic Missions In Canada, and the Diocese of Hamilton.

The new church will open Sept. 17, the 30th anniversary of the papal visit of St. John Paul II to Fort Simpson. The village is located about 500 kilometres west of Yellowknife.

“There’s a lot of excitement for a lot of reasons,” said Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. “Getting a church back on the site is really important to the community.”

Sacred Heart Church is the focal point of Fort Simpson, a community of 1,200 which is the regional centre for the Dehcho region and its largely Dene communities of Wrigley, Jean Marie River, Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake), Nahanni Butte and Fort Liard.

“The church is really the centre of the community,” added Rev. Joe Daley, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish. “I’ve had some comments such as ‘The church is really coming along good’ and ‘We’re excited’.

“It’s a very good feeling.”

Parishioners have been attending Mass in a school gym since 2012, when the old church – built in 1923 – was demolished.

“There were two problems,” Daley said. “The roof started to expand at the eaves, and some bars were put across to hold them together, and the foundation kept tilting in. Many in the parish community were worried that the church would collapse on them.”

Daley said “the parish never had much money” but did manage to raise $300,000 “which is a lot for this community.”

However, there was a problem: one-third of the money had to be spent trucking the debris to Alberta for disposal because the walls of the church were covered with lead-based paint.

Only recently did the initiative to build a new church begin in earnest.

“Bishop Hagemoen really picked it up. He immediately encouraged everyone by saying ‘I’ll do anything I can to help,’ ” Daley said. “This is happening largely because of him.”

The Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith approached the Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Diocese of Hamilton, and they both were more than willing to help.

“We’re excited to help in such a concrete way,” said Connie Lunde, director of development for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. “For the people of the North, this is more than just a building.”

Bishop Hagemoen said any major construction project in the North has its own challenges, including additional costs, distance, and terrain.

Still, the new Sacred Heart Church is nearly complete. It will include an apartment for the parish priest and another that will be rented to generate income.

The parish is still trying to figure out what will happen to the steeple which was saved from the old church building. The plan is to have it placed on a concrete base until then.

“People were concerned because the steeple is a significant part of the church,” Daley said. “It’s a very good blend of the past and the future.”

Hagemoen said it’s “unexpected, and providential” that the new church will open on the anniversary of the papal visit. Recently Fort Simpson residents erected a teepee mega-structure made of cedar logs above the site where St. John Paul II celebrated Mass in 1987.