Wearing his pressed black vestment and starched collar, the young parish priest for Lac-Mégantic will take the stage on Saturday morning to deliver a homily that will be broadcast live across Quebec.
More than 1,000 people are expected in the pews of Ste-Agnès church, only a hundred metres from the village’s shattered downtown. Among them will be the friends and families of the 47 people who died when an oil train crashed on July 6.
While the archbishop from nearby Sherbrooke will be presiding, Rev. Steve Lemay will maintain a large presence. The priest has been highly visible in the community since the disaster. His message on Saturday will be simple: “Death cannot conquer love.”
The site of the commemorative mass has also become a hub for tourists, with hundreds flocking to the church’s front steps daily to peer at a downtown gutted by fires and explosions.
“This mass will be the first time for a pause that we have had together,” Father Lemay said on Thursday.
The pause began on Friday afternoon as the loud chirping of birds returned to the desolate downtown. Out of respect for the planned service, the heavy equipment searching for bodies was turned off in one of the few respites since the rail disaster. Crews will return on Monday to search for the five bodies yet to be pulled from the rubble.
More than 700 seats in the church have been set aside for the families of victims, as well as for volunteers who have helped clean up since the crash. Prime Minister Stephen Harper will lead a number of dignitaries, including Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, Governor General David Johnston and Maine Governor Paul LePage.
Only 175 places will be available for other members of the community, who will be seated on a first-come, first-serve basis. Two large screens have been erected outside the church to allow the hundreds more expected to participate.
None of the 42 bodies recovered from the downtown have been returned to the town for burial; they are being kept in a Montreal crime lab where they were identified. Even without bodies or memorials at the ceremony, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said she hopes the gathering will allow the town of 6,000 to begin sharing a collective sense of grief.
“On the night of the explosion we saw everyone on the streets and sidewalks, many of us haven’t seen each other since then,” Ms. Roy-Laroche said. “That’s why this is important.”