On Friday morning, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints building in Cherry Grove was a smouldering ruin.
Two days later, more than 200 members of the congregation were at their usual Sunday meeting, albeit in an alternate venue.
Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority (BRFA) received a 911 call reporting the fire at 3:20 am on April 28. The Cold Lake fire station responded with three pumpers, a tanker, and a ladder truck. Tankers from Bonnyville, La Corey, and Iron River were also called to the scene.
BRFA Regional Fire Chief Dan Heney said the fire is under investigation. “We found some evidence on site that makes the fire very suspicious,” he said. “And the way the fire was acting also indicates it’s suspicious.”
A second fire was found to be burning at the Canada Post office in Cherry Grove. That was extinguished without significant damage.
There were no injuries in either fire.
The church was able to hold its regular Sunday service at the Cherry Grove Community Hall.
“There is a lot of sorrow” among the congregation, said Cherry Grove Bishop Steve Wille. “The church was central to our community and really a hub for decades.”
The church was established in 1933 by two groups of families coming north to escape drought conditions in southern Alberta.
“There’s a lot of people in their forties whose grandparents were married there, and they were baptized and married there themselves. So there’s quite a bit of grief as it relates to losing that building,” Wille said.
“But I think there’s a resilience. I think we’re going to be all right.”
The church was an important hub in Cherry Grove for church members and non-members alike, according to Wille. He said he and the rest of the congregation have been receiving messages of sympathy and support from the community since Friday’s fire.
The Community Hall committee reached out early on the morning of the fire to offer the hall for Sunday meetings.
“They’re incredible,” Wille said. “It was probably at 9:00 in the morning following the fire, I received a call that they had a place for us for the next couple of weeks while we got our feet under us. We’re deeply grateful for their support and concern.”
Reeve Barry Kalinski offered sympathy on behalf of the Municipal District of Bonnyville. “Our prayers and sympathies are with the community in Cherry Grove,” he said. “This is a devastating loss, especially knowing the high possibility both were set deliberately. We hope that anyone with information about either fire comes forward.”
Wille says planning for rebuilding will start soon after the investigation and site cleanup are complete. “Once that’s done, I’m anticipating that the wheels will turn quickly,” he said. “I’m optimistic that it’ll turn quickly and we’ll get ourselves going again here right away.”
In the meantime, he acknowledges that there is some pain for the members to deal with.
“It’s disappointing that it appears it was a deliberate act. That kind of makes it sting a little more. But we’re grateful for the love and support and the uplift we’ve received from the community,” he said.