The old skiers’ chapel at the base of the mountain in Whistler, B.C., eventually became Our Lady of Mountains Parish, celebrating its 25th year. Photo courtesy of Whistler Museum and Archives Society

Whistler church has its roots in skiers’ chapel

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski, Canadian Catholic News
  • July 26, 2018

WHISTLER, B.C. – The season has shifted gears from skiing to hiking in Whistler. For a small community in the resort municipality, a season of celebration has also just begun.

Our Lady of the Mountains Parish has just celebrated its 25th birthday.

Whistler is “a small community, some 10,000 souls, and yet it’s a host to the world — particularly as it is, I’ll admit, the greatest ski resort in the world,” Fr. Dale Normandeau said to cheering and applause at the church’s anniversary banquet last month.

Our Lady of the Mountains, a church built like a wooden ski chalet and with Mass participation that ebbs and flows depending on the season, is one of B.C.’s most unusual parishes. And, in 1993, it became the permanent place of worship for a vibrant community of Catholics.

Fr. Bob Haggarty, OMI, helped the community discern building a church when he was assigned to serve in Whistler in 1986. “The Catholic Church is here to stay until the Lord comes again in glory, and you do need a place to call home.”

When he arrived, Our Lady of the Mountains Parish didn’t exist — it was a mission of St. Christopher’s Parish in nearby Mount Currie. Local Catholics, with no church of their own, had been going to Mass in a 60-seat skiers’ chapel at the base of Whistler Mountain, 120 kilometres from downtown Vancouver.

Visitors “would come in with their skis and poles and be ready for Mass,” said Haggarty. “They hoped the priest wouldn’t speak too long, they would maybe put a little in the collection, and then go to their wealthy homes or go down to the bar and spend a lot of money there, but they’d been at Mass anyway.”

The tiny A-frame structure, built in 1968, was Canada’s first ecumenical chapel and was shared with people of other faiths.

But the Catholic population was growing and the chapel was becoming crowded. The faithful started using other shared spaces, like a local conference centre or elementary school. Haggarty said for Easter as many as 800 people would show up.

Haggarty started consultations with the people about their options for building their own church. Msgr. John MacIntyre took over in 1992 as the first resident priest and one year later Our Lady of the Mountains Parish was officially established.

Construction of a new building began in 1994.

“It was our hope at that time that Our Lady of the Mountains would become a place to gather, share our faith, worship, rest, learn, meet new friends, welcome newcomers, offer community rental space at reasonable rates, and ultimately, to share God’s love,” said longtime parishioner Jeannette Callahan.

It did that and then some. The church community has grown to about 70 families, half of whom are Whistler locals. Many tourists and, depending on the season, skiers and hikers still come by for Mass.

Since it was built, Our Lady of the Mountains Church has also played host for the Whistler food bank, and its rectory was once used as emergency housing. 

“For so many of us who have called Whistler home for a long time, this is a very special place,” said municipal councillor Jack Crompton, who attended the anniversary banquet. “This is where the food bank was. This is where the community was served. You’ve done a wonderful job opening your home, allowing everyone, Catholic and not, to be a part of what happens in this community. You’ve done a wonderful job serving Whistler.”

Msgr. Jerry Desmond, rector of St. John Vianney Parish in Kamloops, remembers helping the community and then-Bishop Lawrence Sabatini buy land for the new church. It took Desmond one hour to fly a Cessna 210 from Pemberton to Whistler, and he made the trip countless times until he found the right property.

“We didn’t think it was a good deal at that time. We had four acres of land for $400,000, and we thought we got robbed!”

(The B.C. Catholic)

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