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The stained-glass windows of Attawapiskat church honor the Truth and Reconciliation journey

Trigger warning: readers may be triggered by the recount of Indian Residential Schools. To access a 24-hour National Crisis Line, call: 1-866-925-4419. Community Assistance Program (CAP) can be accessed for citizens of the Anishinabek Nation: 1-800-663-1142

A stained-glass window at the St. Francis Xavier Church in Attawapiskat First Nation features springtime with a caribou and the plowing of the field while the next panel is about the fall, with a goose and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. –Photo supplied by Norbert Witt

By Kelly Anne Smith

NORTH BAY— Jackie Hookimaw-Witt was in shock after being told that the stained-glass windows she, her family, and community members made would not be replaced when the new St. Francis Xavier church is built in Attawapiskat First Nation.

Jackie is a member of Attawapiskat First Nation and lives in North Bay with her husband Norbert Witt. Impassioned to educate others on Indigenous history, they created the Indigenous themed stained-glass windows for St. Francis Xavier in Attawapiskat First Nation. Ella Jackie’s parents and four of her siblings attended Indian Residential Schools.

“With the stained-glass windows, we had hoped that it’s a form of education and also to commemorate the legacy of Residential Schools,” says Jackie. “When we designed the windows, that was the story – about truth, healing, and reconciling. To come to terms with our past, for instance, the superiority of Western religion imposing upon Indigenous people that we were sub-human and that our spirituality was not considered sacred but pagan… Our priest at the time, Father Rodrique Vezina, he understood because he’d been up North for forty years.”

“I went with him to Thunder Bay when there was a movement for healing before [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] came around, and we went to a Sweat Lodge together. He was becoming friends with the Medicine Man who was also a Catholic priest. We went to introduce our [Indigenous] spirituality and how to co-exist with the church,” she recounts. “And this priest, when he was alive then, he was on board with the windows. He knew what we were trying to do because there was so much crisis like suicide in our community. We learn visually… Our windows spoke about spirituality. There is an image of somebody fasting. We do ceremonies up north where I come from. So that part, we thought, when you’re inside the church, you’re reconciling. The windows of our [Indigenous] spirituality are within the inside of the official institution like the Catholic Church.”

Norbert details the windows.

“At the time, Kateri was supposed to be canonized. And we made a window where we put the theme in again from Attawapiskat because Jackie’s father was trained by the missionaries to farm, mainly potatoes.”

The first window made included a goose, the image donated by an artist Jerry Kataquapit from the community. It sat atop the window with Saint Kateri Tekakwitha; Mohawk and Algonquin, she became a devout Catholic, and is the patron saint of environment and ecology.

Norbert continues.

“In that window, we showed Kateri harvesting the potatoes. For Kateri, that was Jackie’s mother there.”

Jackie summarizes, “When we were gardening back home with my parents at the island, my dad grew other stuff, too… My mom and I would go over there to harvest in the fall. So that’s the window we used as an image for Kateri. My mom being on the ground harvesting. There was another window of my father standing beside a missionary and he is plowing the field.”

It was in 2012 that the stained-glass windows became a reality with a grant from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“At that time, there was a proposal called for commemoration. I applied on behalf of my family,” explains Jackie.

Wellness for Attawapiskat First Nation motivated Jackie and Norbert. They traveled to Ottawa to learn the art of stained glass and taught Jackie’s carpenter brother Dominic Hookimaw and others how to create the stained-glass windows.

The community enjoyed the windows until the church closed in 2019; however, the promise of removing the windows to safe storage was never upheld.

Devastatingly in April 2021, the 104-year-old church burned down; along with it, the stained-glass windows. Jacquie was devastated and had a friend gather some of the ashes for her to keep.

She envisions the TRC stain-glassed panels as the beautiful windows of the new St. Francis Xavier Church once more but that might not happen.

Speaking for the Attawapiskat Parish, Mike Gull says, “the only amount of money available to build the church is the insurance.”

“The bishop is trying to fit everything in to build the rectory and the church. And trying to cut some of the stuff out. In terms of stained windows, they are not included now, they may come later. We don’t have enough funds.”

During a meeting to be held this month, building plans for the new church and rectory might be up for discussion along with the stained-glass windows.

Norbert Witt says the couple haven’t given up.

“If there is a possibility for fundraising, we plan to recreate the windows and offer them to the museum in Winnipeg that displays materials for reconciliation. We just think that educating about reconciliation was the purpose of the windows and they should not just be pushed aside.”

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