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Our Lady of The Snow

Abandoned Without Provenance

All of these images were captured on June 8, 2020. That was a very wet spring for this area as many roads were closed due to flooding. Fortunately we were able to reach this old church and photograph it.

Our Lady of The Snow, Catholic Church, in Owl River, Alberta
The rooftop cross leans to the right and makes this old church look tired and sad.

I have searched for information about this old church that stands northeast of Lac La Biche. I checked with the county office, a nearby county, a local newspaper and even sent an email to the nearest Catholic Church. Only two places even responded and they said that they knew nothing about it. I even contacted the local funeral home that uses the adjacent cemetery. An individual there said she’s lived in Lac La Biche for 28 years and the church has been closed that whole time. That takes us back to 1992 as a minimum but I suspect its been closed a lot longer than that.

I found the difficulty in obtaining information about this old church to be very strange. Do they really know nothing about this old building or are they reticent to speak about it? The general area that the church occupies is rich in historical significance for Alberta. In northeast Alberta there are numerous onion-domed Ukrainian Catholic Churches and Orthodox Churches but Roman Catholic Churches are not so common. This specific area has a high number of natives and Métis people. There are even connections to the earliest of the European explorers such as David Thompson. In fact, David Thompson was the first European on record in this part of Alberta. He was here in 1798-1799 and his surveys, and resulting maps, opened this area up to many others who followed. Thompson came here because of what is called, “The Little Divide“. People travelled by canoe or York boats at that time so river systems were the Trans Canada highways of the day. Lac La Biche is the location of the portage between the two drainage basins (Athabasca – Mackenzie and Churchill). For access to this and other interesting facts, click on this link to go to the Lac La Biche and District Chamber of Commerce.

Portage La Biche was a crucial link in the first navigable Trans Canada trade route that was inaugurated in 1811 by David Thompson. It was a passage to the Pacific from 1811 to 1825 and the gateway to the Southern Athabasca Country from 1799 to 1825.

Lac La Biche and District Chamber of Commerce

With such a long and extensive history for both native, Metis and European peoples, how is it possible that one of the earliest local churches is so lacking in historical information?

Our Lady of The Snow, Catholic Church

The side door leads to what might have been a basement or a coal chute. It’s now filled with water and debris. The church looks huge from this perspective and yet from the inside it seems strangely small.

Our Lady of The Snow is Gone.
Inside the old church building

The inside of the church is in surprisingly good condition. There are some beams lying on the floor and signs of the inevitable vandalism but the wood interior doesn’t even look very old.

Inside the church looking out the front door
The basement or coal chute

The trees are beginning to grow closer to the old church as they begin the process of reclaiming the land. The chimney is in excellent condition as you can see below. That side door leads to the basement which was full of water when I was there. You can inside see the basement or coal chute – I’m not sure which it is – at the above photo. That is a large amount of water and perhaps explains why the floor seemed so soft.

Do you suppose that there is any truth to the stories of a little girl, an aberration, who occasionally looks down at visitors through the windows? Could it really be or did I just make that up? These old churches can encourage the mind to wander, especially if you come alone or at night. If you are looking at the images below on a big screen perhaps you’ll see something looking back at you.

The image below shows the approach to the church. Go to the left and I don’t know where the road will end up. Turn to the right and you reach the cemetery which is still in use.

Our Lady of The Snow, Catholic Church

Eventually I did find a distinguishing feature of this old church that sets it, or at least this area, apart and provides some reason to take care of it. Just behind where I was standing when I photographed the road leading to the church there is a bench and cairn with a plaque to commemorate the service of Constable Leo N. Johnston. Constable Johnson was one of the four RCMP officers who were killed in the tragedy near Mayerthorpe in 2005. Constable Johnson grew up in the Owl River area so it’s certainly possible that he either attended this old church or at least came here for special events for friends and family. In fact his first post as an RCMP was in nearby Lac La Biche before he moved to Mayerthorpe. All four officers that were killed were to be interred at the RCMP Cemetery in Regina. Constable Johnson’s mother wanted his remains to return to this very cemetery; in other words she wanted him to come home. His widow wanted Constable Johnson’s remains to be buried in Regina. I can understand the reasons for both locations. Johnson’s parents fought a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada but lost. Constable Johnson widow then had his body exhumed and cremated, but will not reveal where the ashes are located. You can read more about that dispute by clicking here. There is additional information about him as one of the Fallen Four at this link.

Just when an old school or church seems to have no story to tell I discover that it is indeed a very special place. I hope that I’ll learn more about the history of this old church once my blog is posted. Frequently readers of the blog will have connections or other knowledge of the subject matter that then fills in the blanks. If you know something about this church, please comment below or contact me in Facebook.

After posting this I learned that the church and land are up for sale. I originally provided a link to the listing but it no longer works so the church and land were either sold or it expired without a sale. I don’t know if it sold or not.

A 2021 Update on This Old Church Building

At least three people have contacted me to tell me that this church is no longer standing. The full story of this fire as published by LakeLandToday.ca is shown below. This confirms that it was arson and it happened on April 27, 2021. This is sad but not surprising news. The photos of the inside of the church show that it has been vandalised in a very disrespectable manner. There could have been a party inside where a fire set to warm themselves got out of hand, or it could have been a very specific arson attack. At this time we don’t know. If anything else is published, such as news of a charge laid against those responsible for the fire, I will update the blog. For now all I can say for certain is that this old historic church no longer exists. Our Lady of The Snow is gone. This blog is likely the largest collection of on-line photographs of the old church available.

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18 thoughts on “Our Lady of The Snow

  1. Thanks Glen for another interesting story. Your attention to detail is super with no stone left
    unturned. =)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Val, I always appreciate your comments. No stone left unturned but not much under the stones either.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Glen

    Thank you for this post. This is a beautiful church inside. I just noticed this property is for sale and thought you would like to know about it. See the following info which was updated today. Lots of pics there too!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Gerri for your comments and for letting me know about the listing. I don’t see an attachment but I will check for an MLS listing in that area.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Kaelan Benjamin Bentham April 11, 2021 — 11:26 am

    Do you have any photos of the water-filled basement?

    Like

    1. Not really. I did look down there but it was dark and I didn’t see a need to grab my flash. The place was for sale so presumably it’s privately owned now.

      Like

  4. Sherilene PSHYK May 14, 2021 — 2:45 pm

    I just stopped at this church to find it has been burned down.. does anyone know as to why? I find it strange that the church itself burnt, but the trees around it, even the ones right next to the church are still standing and not burnt…. I can’t find any info on why it burnt down. It’s really to bad. I loved stopping there and visiting the old church.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is very sad. There have been a number of arson attacks on old churches in Alberta in the past few years. I don’t know if that is the situation here or not. It’s noworthy that it was listed for sale in 2020 but isn’t any longer. Was it sold? I don’t know.

      Like

  5. Geraldine Ewaniuk May 20, 2021 — 7:49 am

    According to the newspaper “Lakeland This Week” publication dated May 18, 2021, the headline reads “Owl River Catholic church fire was arson, say authorities.” “In the late evening of April 27, Owl River’s Big Bay Church was intentionally set ablaze after a heavy snowfall saturated the grounds of the Our Lady of the Snow church site, leaving the structure that had stood for more than 80 years as a mound of ashes in the slush.”
    I have scanned the whole article and can send it to you, Glen, if you would like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be great Geraldine. I haven’t seen the article. It’s so sad that the old church was burned down on purpose.

      Like

    2. Geraldine Ewaniuk May 20, 2021 — 8:13 am

      Glen, your article about Our Lady of the Snow Church with accompanying pics leaves a good record of this Church of how it looked before it was destroyed. So what you have documented during your travels is important for historical purposes because now the Church is gone and all we have left are written histories, such as you have compiled Thank you!

      Like

      1. I am pleased to know that my photographs and blog are useful for something so important as maintaining the historical record. I will update the blog shortly with information from that article to make sure that the information is all in one place. Thank you for keeping me in the loop about what has happened.

        Like

  6. What a drag it was torched. I was about to set off on locating it. Another worthwhile blog.
    Cheers
    @bugsandyellowrugs

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes this old church has history and character but it is no more. Thanks Chris.

      Like

  7. I get why people like to investigate old buildings, but I can not fathom why they think it necessary to vandalise and destroy history. Glad you captured this place before the arsonist did. Thanks for sharing Glen. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Allan. It’s especially sad because it was only after the fire that the community realized how much they cared about the old structure. That of course is a very common sentiment, as is well known to people in Edmonton. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.
      Glen

      Liked by 1 person

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