Humboldt (Canada) (AFP) - Rarely have the dozen Catholic and Protestant churches in the small Canadian town of Humboldt seen crowds as large as they did this Sunday. But the terrible bus accident two days earlier that claimed 15 lives has brought both a time of somber reflection and a desire to pitch in and help.
A jersey of the youth hockey team that was badly torn in the crash, the Humboldt Broncos, was draped over the baptismal font in the front of Saint Augustine Catholic Church. Worshipers reverently made the sign of the cross as they entered, one by one, and quietly took seats in the wooden pews.
After a moment of silence, Father Joseph Salihu said Mass before the packed congregation, struggling to find words to comfort people still deeply in shock over the brutal collision at a rural intersection between the hockey players' bus and a heavily loaded semi-trailer.
Five local residents from this town of 6,000 lost their lives, along with 10 others from the area. The 14 others on the bus were all injured, and some remain in critical condition.
"It's a close-knit community. Everybody gets along and works good together," Fred Stanec, a member of the Saint Augustine parish, told AFP. "To have some big tragedy going on now that we had, that really brings us together that much closer."
Along with perhaps 100 other worshipers, Stanec, a retiree, went directly from the Mass to a fund-raising breakfast organized in a nearby building. Meals were offered for Can$7, but most people gave anywhere from Can$20 to Can$60, with the money going to help the families of crash victims.
In this town founded in the early 20th century by German and East European immigrants on the site of a telegraph office and a military fort built during the conquest of northwest Canada, the Broncos hockey team is a revered local institution.
"It's a very sad situation," said Albert Hoppe, a seventy-something retiree wearing a Broncos jersey. "Humboldt is a hockey community -- the only thing that really put Humboldt on the map."
As it does elsewhere in Saskatchewan, Canada's least-populated province -- with 1.2 million inhabitants spread across an area the size of France -- life revolves around farming and skating.
"All the little towns around here, all they have in winter is mostly hockey," said Hoppe. "Lots of hockey."
"I just want to help anyway I can," said Valerie Thiemann, a volunteer working at the fund-raising breakfast. "It's a wonderful community. We help everybody. And when someone is down, we try to have their back."
Another local, Calvin Lukan, who had come with his wife and children, summed up the general feeling: "It's tragic, it's still kind of settling in. I'm still not really believing it."
"It can take a long time for it to sink in."