FMCSD renames Father Turcotte School after residential school survivors accuse priest of sexual abuse

Fort McMurray Today [Fort McMurray AB, Canada]

April 5, 2022

By Vincent McDermott

The Fort McMurray Catholic School Division has renamed Father Turcotte School after survivors of the Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan accused the school’s namesake of sexually abusing children in the 1960s.

The Grade 1-6 school will now be called Our Lady of the Rivers. A statement from the division said the name was chosen to acknowledge the importance of the Athabasca and Clearwater Rivers in the region, “as well as the protection that Mary, mother of Jesus, provides for our school community.”

“We wholeheartedly acknowledge the sins of our forebears and will continue moving forward on the path to healing and reconciliation. By renaming the school we pray that this action shows our continual commitment to work in consultation and cooperation with the original peoples of Treaty 8,” said FMCSD board chair Cathie Langmead in a statement.

Father J.A. Turcotte was a Catholic priest who served Fort McMurray between 1948 and 1958, then between 1963 and 1974. He also served Catholic missions in rural and Indigenous communities throughout northeastern Alberta. Overall, he spent more than 40 years in the region.

He was a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a French order of priests and brothers that ran 57 residential schools. Holy Angels was run by the Grey Nuns, although many Oblate priests worked at the school. The school holding his namesake opened in 1969 as J.A. Turcotte O.M.I. Elementary School.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and president of the Athabasca Tribal Council accused Turcotte of sexual abuse at a July 2021 rally outside St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in downtown Fort McMurray. The rally honoured the victims of residential schools and called for action from the Canadian government and religious organizations that ran the schools.

Adam witnessed and was a victim of physical, emotional and sexual abuse when he attended Holy Angels. Adam was not at the school at the same time as Turcotte, but stories were common among the older children, including his siblings, who knew the priest. A common nickname older students had for Turcotte was “Father Jerk-off.”

He did not blame the residential schools exclusively on church leaders, since they were carrying out policies designed by Canadian politicians and enforced by the RCMP.

“Indigenous communities have been telling their stories for many years without action. Today’s announcement is a positive step in changing that pattern, but much more is needed,” Adam said in a statement.

School leaders say once they learned about the accusations last summer, they began meeting with Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors to discuss the accusations and next steps. The name change has been welcomed by Alberta’s Catholic leaders.

“I think our Lord’s mother always promotes health and healing but also associating her with the life of a moving river reminds us of the life of faith that comes to us in baptism,” said Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers northeastern Alberta.

Archaeologists from the University of Alberta are searching the grounds of Holy Angels Residential School for unmarked graves. The team will use the same ground-penetrating radar used at other residential school sites across Canada. Aerial photography and testimonials from Elders will also be used.

The school opened in 1874, moved to a new building in 1881 and had three expansions before closing in 1974. The building, which was on Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) land, has been demolished. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has confirmed the deaths of 89 children attending Holy Angels between 1880 and 1953.

The Indian Residential School Survivors Society maintains a 24/7 crisis line for victims of the residential school system and their family members: 1-866-925-4419