IN the Canadian Arctic a small community is celebrating the 18th anniversary of a Catholic church which building experts said would collapse within two years.
It is the igloo-shaped church at Inuvik (population 5,000), the oil capital of the Mackenzie Delta on the shores of the Beaufort Sea. The name Inuvik means "place of man" in Eskimo, and was established in 1955 as the world's first modern Arctic township. At that time Brother Laroque decided, as the community's first priest, that the township must have a permanent place of worship. He was a Brother of the Oblate Order, a primarily Belgian religious community of 7,000 which had taken Christianity to the Arctic. With no formal training in architecture or carpentry, Brother Laroque completely designed the structure and supervised the building operations.
Experts highly sceptical
He took his blueprints to construction experts, who were highly sceptical about his foundations. While other buildings in town had been built on pilings, and continue to be built that way because of the permanently frozen ground, Brother Laroque proposed to lay down gravel and pour over concrete as his foundation.
Ignoring the advice of experts, he stubbornly went ahead with his project, and after two years had completed his unique, igloo-shaped church.
He designed it from his own imagination as a symbolic church for the Canadian Arctic embracing 12 large arches representing the Twelve Apostles, and 72 minor arches standing for the 72 Disciples of Christ.
From a mission sawmill at Fort Smith, plywood was sent by barge up the Mackenzie River and Construction work began with local volunteers aiding Fr Laroque and Fr Adam, who contributed to the beauty of the church by personally building the communion rail.
A deaf and dumb local girl, Mona Thrasher, painted the walls to tell the story of the Crucifixion and add. to the colour and mood of the interior. Stained glass windows were added, and then the crowning glory, a 68ft high cross which was finally set in place in 1960.
But no sooner was the igloo church of Inuvik completed than Fr Laroque was sent off to work in another area of the Arctic.
Nativity scenes carved on ice
Fr Dennis Croteau, the current priest, took over custodianship a year ago, and each winter he will see local people undertake their annual task of carving scenes from the Nativity out of huge blocks of solid ice which stand until the summer sun melts them in late April or May. Fr Croteau, who is 43, worked for four years with the Dogrib Indians at Fort Rae. At the same time he visited man missions further north, travelling as far as 150 miles by dog team to remote settlements where he was needed.
"I like this type of country," he said. "It is still primitive, but it gives you much room for initiative and involvement, and you find you can really contribute to the community."
In fact he and other Oblate priests are throughout the Arctic regarded as friends by every native Indian and Eskimo and white man and woman, performing every duty asked of them such as part-time labourer, postman, even radio set repairer, while at the same time attending to spiritual needs.