CNS PHOTO | MATHIEU BELANGER, REUTERS
People leave Ste-Agnes Church in Lac-Mégantic, Que. Following Mass July 14. Some 50 people died and hundreds were left homeless when a derailed train's tanker cars full of crude oil explodecd and incinerated much of the downtown area July 6.
When a runaway train barreled into Lac-Mégantic on July 6, firefighters came to the rectory of Ste-Agnes Catholic Church and told the priests to get out immediately.
Fathers Steve Lemay and Valentin Malundama managed to escape with the clothes on their back, while the derailed train's tanker cars full of crude oil exploded and incinerated much of the downtown, leaving 200 people homeless and about 50 dead.
The priests' first destination was the hospital to comfort the injured and those who feared they had lost loved ones, said Lemay in a July 15 interview. The second stop was the school where those fleeing the blaze sought shelter.
"We went to the hospital to take care of the people, at the school, too, to help people, to listen to them.
"From the first moment, the Church was there with the people," he said.
The population of Lac-Mégantic is overwhelmingly Catholic and the tightly-knit community has responded with generosity and kindness to those facing overwhelming loss.
"Everybody is helping other people and receiving help from other people," Lemay said. "It's beautiful to see this moment."
Ste-Agnes Catholic Church and the rectory survived the fire, but police did not let the priests return to the buildings until July 12, though they did get in earlier to pick up some personal items.
"Our church is in front of the site," he said. "We are in the site."
The church has opened its doors to become a place for memorials, where people can leave pictures of loved ones, flowers and candles, he said. It is the nearest building to the site, "so it's important for people to have access to the church at this moment," he said. Many people have come and gone several times.
Lemay, who celebrated the fifth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood this spring, said he is trying to explain how God's love can help us get over the tragedy and help each other.
"This is the central message of Jesus Christ, that love conquers death, and evil," he said.
"Love helps us as we fight against despair. We need to share this love, to welcome this love and we are a sign of this love for each other."
Services have been taking place in other Catholic churches under the pastoral charge of the two priests, but on Sunday, July 14, about 200 people attended Mass at Ste-Agnes for the first time since the disaster.
For Lemay, the Gospel reading on the Good Samaritan struck a chord because of the way people in the community have been responding to each other's needs.
"They saw what people can do to help each other," he said. "They know people want to help and have the capacity to help when they are open to God's love."
Priests from elsewhere in the Sherbrooke Archdiocese, as well as from Montreal and Quebec, have come to help, giving Lemay and Malundama a chance to get some sleep. Lay Catholics from the community have also stepped up to help.
Many offers from lay associations have come in, but at this stage, until housing is found for those displaced by the fire, accommodating more help from outside is not feasible yet, Lemay said.
"We have to find places for all the families who lost their homes," he said. "At this time, it is hard to answer all the offers we receive. But it will come. We will prepare ourselves to answer all these offers."
Message of support and prayers have poured in from many dioceses across Canada, from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Assembly of Quebec Bishops and many bishops from Quebec, he said.
So far, there have been no funerals as families are waiting for official information about the deceased. But there will be a memorial Mass at Ste-Agnes on July 27 at 11 a.m. to commemorate those who lost their lives, he said.
"I want to thank all the people who pray for us at this time, all the priests, all the communities, all the lay people," he said.
"I want to thank them in the name of our community."
Sherbrooke Archbishop Luc Cyr has also been present in Lac-Mégantic. He has created a fund to help with the pastoral and human needs of the victims of the catastrophe.
Anyone wishing to make a donation can write a cheque to "Fonds de Solidarité Lac-Mégantic" and mail it to the Archbishop of Sherbrooke, 130 rue de la Cathédrale, Sherbrooke, QC, J1H 4M1.