Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Ed Stelmach walk in front of the former town library in Slave Lake May 20. Much of the town was devastated by wildfires May 15 and 16

CNS PHOTO | TODD KOROL, REUTERS

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Ed Stelmach walk in front of the former town library in Slave Lake May 20. Much of the town was devastated by wildfires May 15 and 16

May 30, 2011
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

SLAVE LAKE - St. Peter's Catholic Church in Slave Lake survived the wildfire that destroyed a third of the town, says Father Joseph Jeyapaul Packiasamy.

Packiasamy, a native of India and pastor for the past three years, said when evacuees are able to return to the town of 7,000, he plans to work with other Christian pastors to "try to build a community of hope."

The priest was one of the 150 people who toured the devastated town May 23.

"We went by my church and the church is still standing," he said. "Most of the houses around the church are gone."

The rectory is slightly damaged but Packiasamy doesn't know the extent of the damage.

During the tour, Packiasamy witnessed the strangest thing.

"I could see all the houses burned down (in one area) and one house standing," he noted. "There would be two (houses) and one would be taken away (by the fire) and one would be left.

"On the street one side is gone and one side is okay. I can't believe how these things can happen."

Now about one-third of the town has to be rebuilt.

Slave Lake burned as night fell Sunday May 15, the result of wildfires that first threatened and then quickly engulfed the northern Alberta community.

As the fire approached, Packiasamy left the church in a hurry picking up only his cellphone and his passport. He later attempted to go back to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament but wasn't allowed because the evacuation order had already been issued.

"But thanks to God the church is standing and that means the (Blessed) Sacrament is okay and I'm happy about that."

Packiasamy and other parishioners spent the night at the parking lot of a shopping complex outside of town, sleeping in his car. In the morning, he left for Westlock.

"It was very sad; I was heartbroken," he said from the tour bus May 23.

Packiasamy is currently living in a camper in Thorhild, outside Westlock, and spends his days helping in the local parish and visiting evacuees wherever they are.

Solidarity has been great with churches and town administrations joining together to help the evacuees.

"My parishioners are all spread everywhere from Grande Prairie to Edmonton, Westlock and Smith; everywhere," Packiasamy noted.

He stays in touch with some of them by phone. "They are all ready to come back (to Slave Lake)" to rebuild their lives, the priest said.

As to when they can return is still a mystery. "Maybe in two weeks or 10 days; we are not sure about that."

Packiasamy said he doesn't know how his parishioners will react to the disaster.

"Some may come strengthened in their faith; some may come weakened in their faith but as a pastor my duty is build them spiritually."

St. Peter's Parish has about 250 registered families, 100 of whom attend church regularly.