By Louise Egan
L'ISLE-VERTE, Quebec (Reuters) - About 900 mourners in the small grief-stricken Quebec town of L'Isle-Verte attended a public mass on Saturday for the 32 people feared dead from a fire that ripped through a wooden retirement home.
Somber-faced friends and relatives sat in the town's large 19th-century Roman Catholic church to hear prayers and tributes to victims of the January 23 blaze, one of the worst disasters to hit a Canadian residence for the elderly.
"Lord, we are all gathered in the same pain, in this deep suffering that breaks our hearts," said Pierre-Andre Fournier, archbishop of the nearby town of Rimouski.
Among those attending the nationally televised ceremony were Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois. Governor-General David Johnston came as the personal representative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, Canada's head of state.
At the front of the church stood special boards covered with large photos of 31 of the victims, as well as children's drawings. Mourner also brought bouquets of flowers, cards and handwritten letters.
Of the 52 people inside the three-story Residence du Havre when the fire erupted, 37 were 85 or older, and many needed wheelchairs and walkers. Some had Alzheimer's disease, town authorities say.
Pope Francis sent his condolences to L'Isle-Verte on Thursday.
"These people are very dear to us," said local priest Gilles Frigon. " ... They did not deserve to end their days so tragically.
"I am convinced that every one of us will lift ourselves up and become better men and women, men and women who are more respectful of each other, more attentive to the needs of others," he said, prompting a round of applause.
At the front of the church stood an empty white rocking chair on which members of the congregation placed a white shawl, a hat and flowers to represent the dead.
Police, who have found 24 victims and say another eight are missing, resumed work at the disaster site on Friday after a judge granted them a warrant to investigate an area officials say may be where the fire started.
Some mourners carried photos of the dead as they walked toward the stone church in L'Isle-Verte, a town of 1,500 people on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, about 230 km (143 miles) northeast of Quebec City in eastern Canada.
"We all know each other; it's not like in the big city," said Solange Belanger, who volunteered at the residence and played bingo there twice a week.
"It was wonderful to spend time with them, but now, oh my lord ... ," she told Reuters, her voice trailing off.
Police have declined to speculate on reports that a cigarette might have caused the fire, saying it could take months to determine what happened.
Health officials say the residence was fully compliant with regulations and had not received any complaints.
But it was only partially equipped with sprinklers, which are not required at privately run Quebec facilities where some residents are mobile.
The fire was the second calamity to hit a small Quebec town in the past seven months. Last July, a crude oil tanker train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people.
"This is a very beautiful place, but this is a very big tragedy," Harper told reporters outside the church after the ceremony.
"It is something that everybody can identify with," he said. "We all have or have had parents, grandparents who become elderly, who are terribly vulnerable, and when we see something like this, I think it just breaks the heart of everybody."
(Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)