May16, 2016

EDMONTON - Pope Francis has added his name to the list of people offering condolences to those affected by the massive forest fire that has led to the evacuation of Fort McMurray.

In a May 6 letter to St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio, the pope said he "was saddened to learn of the destruction and distress caused by the extensive fires around Fort McMurray."

The pope said he was praying "for all the displaced, especially the children, who have lost their homes and livelihoods."

He also asked the Lord to bless civil authorities and those coordinating the evacuation and providing shelter for the nearly 90,000 people left homeless.

In particular, Pope Francis asked for strength and perseverance for those who are battling the fire.

The pope's message came via Cardinal Pietro Paralin, the Vatican's secretary of state, through Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the apostolic nuncio to Canada.

The pope's message comes as the Church across Alberta is offering assistance to the evacuees.

In a letter to parishioners in the Edmonton Archdiocese, Archbishop Richard Smith said Catholics are "shocked and saddened by the sudden destruction caused by the wildfire."

The archbishop also invited Catholics to join him in offering "urgent prayers" for all those affected by the wildfire.

Alberta dioceses held special collections to assist parishioners in the two Fort McMurray parishes and the Fort McMurray Ministerial Association.

Smith, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan and Bishop David Motiuk of the Edmonton Ukrainian Eparchy encouraged Catholics to also consider making direct donations through the Red Cross.

Pettipas reminded priests of his archdiocese that people across Alberta and beyond came to the aid of the people of Slave Lake when they were forced to evacuate their town in 2011.

The Edmonton Archdiocese has responded to a request for chaplaincy support at Northlands Expo Centre, which is the main gathering point for evacuees in the Alberta capital.

Cathy Bouchard, president of the Alberta-Mackenzie council of Catholic Women's League said CWL members are following Terrio's advice and donating either to their dioceses or the Red Cross.

Future plans include drawing from the CWL relief fund and providing gift cards "as their (fire victims') immediate needs turn into long term essentials," Bouchard said.

As well, Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, a former bishop of both St. Paul and Edmonton, has asked people in Toronto to contribute to a fund for relief for the victims of the fire.

In a letter to his diocese, Terrio said that as the full extent of the losses are known, the community would be called upon to help rebuild and resettle the city.

"This fire disaster is a hard blow at a time when Fort McMurray is already struggling under an adverse economic situation," wrote Terrio.