Keeping the faith
Chapel Island reunited with historic altar
They kept the faith. That’s how elder Lillian Marshall describes the attitude of the elders of Potlotek First Nation and the Mi’kmaq grand council during the effort to bring home to Chapel Island the community’s historic altar, which dates back to the mid-1700s and had been absent from the community for close to two cen- turies.
At long last, the altar returned home Monday and was welcomed by hundreds of people to Chapel Island, a national historic site located off Potlotek in the Bras d’Or Lake, a traditional gathering place and spiritual home for the Mi’kmaq people.
After being transported to the island by barge, the altar was greeted with song and prayer and its pieces were carried inside St. Ann’s Church where it was reassembled. A Catholic mass and community feast followed.
Marshall was a driving force behind the effort to bring the altar home, having researched its history, which she detailed on panels that now hang inside St. Ann’s Church.
“I always had an understanding that it belonged here,” Marshall said, saying it was only on loan when it was removed from the community.
The altar was given to the Mi’kmaq as a gift in the 1700s. As the English and French fought during that time, French churches were burned to the ground, and oral history says that the altar was moved several times to protect it.
The altar was ultimately located for safekeeping in the vestry of Sacred Heart Church at Johnstown.
Marshall said following construction of a chapel in Potlotek in 1999, they held some initial meetings with representatives of the Johnstown church and they were reluctant to give up the altar. The effort was initially abandoned and another altar was built. But the campaign was later rejuvenated. A letter of support for the relocation of the altar was sent earlier this year from the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs to the Diocese of Antigonish and Parks Canada.
On June 24, the Potlotek chief and council received approval to have the altar returned. The altar was moved by Parks Canada from Johnstown to the Fortress of Louisbourg to be cleaned and to undergo some restoration work.
“That’s how we got it, from the support of all those people,” Marshall said.
Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall said waiting for the day of the altar’s return felt a bit like anticipating Christmas as a little kid.
“I see the elders crying, it’s just very emotional. I’m proud to be a part of what happened today, it’s one of the greatest things in my (time) as chief, to bring the altar back,” he said.
Support on social media played an important role in advocating for the return, he added.
“It’s the missing piece of the puzzle,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Lillian … she’s a treasure in our community and I’m so proud to be by her side.”
Wilbert Marshall said legend has it that there is also a church bell located somewhere in the nearby swamp, and if it is there, the community will now work to find it.
“It’s been away for a long time,” said Tom Sylliboy, a captain of the Mi’kmaq grand council. “I have to thank the people that brought it and actually thank the people who saved it for so many years, especially the Johnstown people.”
He said the St. Ann’s mission, which starts later this week, has been celebrated on the island for 400 years and Chapel Island is a sacred place not just for res- idents of Potlotek but for First Nations people throughout Atlantic Canada.
“It’s a very big thing for our people,” Sylliboy said.
Maura McKeough, acting cultural resource manager for the Fortress of Louisbourg, said the communities of Potlotek and Johnstown did the “heavy lifting” in arranging the return, while Parks Canada’s role was supportive and to provide consultation and help with restoration.
The altar tells the story of French, Mi’kmaq and Catholic history, she noted.
“It was very moving to see it come back together, to see it so well-received in the community,” McKeough said.
The historic altar is carried back into St. Ann’s Church in Chapel Island on Monday. The altar was welcomed home by the community of Potlotek following an almost 200-year absence.
Johnstown resident Gail Johnson joined Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall Monday in seeing the returrn of Chapel Island’s altar, which had been kept for many years at Sacred Heart Church in Johnstown.