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.


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