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Stones still standing

Brent Reaney
Northern News Services

Iglulik (Mar 14/05) - Snow drifts nearly cover the front door of the stone structure which has stood abandoned near the centre of Iglulik for more than 30 years. Long ago, somebody broke the Catholic church's stained glass windows, tore up its insulation and smashed the pew benches.

Despite the abuse, the building is still impressive on the outside, but unusable inside.

In the summer, children somehow try and ride their bicycles over the top of the 16-foot high structure.

For years, the community has discussed the possibility of demolishing the nearly 50-year-old structure, saying it was a safety hazard.

But a number of residents were baptized in the drafty building and others were married there.

"Quite a few people in Iglulik have this emotional tie with the old stone church,"said resident Nick Arnatsiaq.The architect and builder, Father Louis Fournier, is now 83. Currently working in Coral Harbour and Repulse Bay, Fournier spent 20 years in Iglulik beginning in 1953.

Beginning that year - without any building experience - he spent five summers constructing the church using a wheelbarrow, a shovel and a hammer to cut the stone.

"I came from France, and in France all of the churches are made out of stone, so I knew a bit about that," the 83-year-old says. "But the stone building is not warm enough. I learned that later."

Cement and wood came on the barge in the summer.

His memory is fading, but he does remember some details of the construction. There was no stone in the community, so each spring residents hauled limestone by dog team on a qamutik from the hills about one kilometre outside the community. "We use what we have," Fournier says with more than a trace of a Parisian accent.

Though just a boy, Arnatsiaq remembers helping transport the stone. "Hauling big rocks on a qamutik, and trying to get dogs to pull it, it was quite difficult," he says.

One spring, Fournier remembers a rain shower created a half-inch thick layer of ice and the dogs cut their feet as they plunged through the ice and into the snow.

At the time, there were a number of outpost camps near Iglulik. As the church grew, so did the number of people who came into the settlement from the surrounding areas.

"Then they started a school and more people came," he says.

As the group carried out their excruciating labour, Fournier remembers residents saying how they liked the look of the new building.

The work was completed in 1958. Fournier says the first mass was held Christmas Eve of the same year.

"The people came with their caribou skins and their clothes," he says of a service held without indoor heating.

Though a furnace was later installed, warmth left the building too quickly. Because of this, mass would often be held in other locations during the winter.

Impractical to heat, the community closed the church door permanently in 1973, after Fournier's departure.

Father Tony Krotki has been working in the Arctic for the past 14 years, the last three in Iglulik.

Between 200 and 300 people now regularly attend Sunday mass in a new church built beside the old one shortly after Fournier left.

About two years ago, Krotki remembers talk of applying for funds to turn the stone church into a museum.

Renovating the inside of the church is possible, but Krotki says it will be expensive. And installing insulation will be made difficult by the permafrost which creeps two to three feet up the walls.

At the end of February, Krotki met with hamlet councillors to discuss the church's fate. No progress had been made on the application for funds to turn the church into a museum.