Our Lady of the Way Church, converted from a quanset hut used to house American troops building the Alaska Highway, stands out against the northern lights in this Libby Dulac painting. Image courtesy Libby Dulac

Faith flows through artistic passion

  • July 29, 2021

Nestled amidst the evergreens in the village of Haines Junction in Canada’s Yukon, a tiny church known as Our Lady of the Way has been a source of creative and spiritual inspiration for artist Libby Dulac.

For close to five decades the parish lay minister has been painting the Yukon wilderness that she fell in love with when she moved to the small community from Europe with her husband in 1973. The church is a converted quonset hut which was used to house American troops building the Alaska Highway towards the end of the Second World War. Dulac, who has painted the strikingly unique church several times throughout the years, still remembers the day she first set eyes on it.

“Driving towards the mountains it was just literally love at first sight,” said Dulac of her first trip into Haines Junction with her now late husband Claude. “We saw the little church and probably even went in. The church became very important to us.”

With extra quonsets huts lying around after the highway project was complete in the 1940s, it is said that a priest named Fr. Eusebe Morisset took the initiative to covert the cylindrical structures. He had them cut down and, adding onto the architecture with a steeple and windows, they created the distinctive house of worship that exists today. Another quonset conversion in the 1960s resulted in Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Beaver Creek, about 300 km south.

With its uncommon curved edges, Our Lady of the Way seems to flow with the nature that surrounds it. A very active ministry, pandemic restrictions have certainly taken a toll on the church, which is normally a hot spot for visitors from around the world travelling along the Alaska highway.

“The sign outside says it’s the most photographed church in the Yukon,” said Dulac who at 74 years old helps with the church’s gardening. “I think that’s probably fairly close because it’s so unique in its design and kept. The upkeep shows people that the place is loved.”

Dulac’s husband served as pastoral assistant at the church until he died in August 2015 and Dulac took on the role, which she continues to serve in today. Originally from England, Dulac says both she and her husband, who was originally from France, had a deep love for the outdoors and for the Catholic faith.

She was raised Protestant and at first split her time between the Catholic Church and Protestant church in the Yukon, but eventually converted to Catholicism, inspired by the bond she was building with the community. The couple had two children whom Dulac is proud to say continue to be strongly rooted in the faith.  Claude worked for the Kluane National Park in the Yukon and took great pride in the picturesque backdrop he was able to enjoy everyday. 

“He would sweep his hand against the mountain side and say, ‘That’s my office,’” said Dulac. “It was his dream to be out in the wilderness.” 

Her dream was to paint the wilderness, and Kluane Park became the subject of many of her pieces. She spent many days sitting before a canvas working to capture the colours and scenery before her. She describes those humbling moments with paint brush in hand, as time spent with God.

“When you’re out there studying a mountain and the way the light hits it and the valleys and the snow melt coming down, it’s definitely a spiritual moment for me,” said Dulac. “It almost feels like I’m creating with God when I’m doing that.”

As a sign and symbol of her faith, Dulac paints a cross into every one of her pieces. As one of only a handful of wilderness artists in the Yukon, she’s been able to grow a successful career. She first painted Our Lady of the Way as a fundraiser for the diocese early in her career and the 500 prints that were made of the popular northern church quickly sold out.

Today, capacity for in-person services is capped at 15 to allow for social distancing. Despite restrictions, the faithful continue to support the parish and attend service online whenever there is a priest in town. Bishop Hector Vila of the diocese of Whitehorse has been moved by the love and resilience parishioners have shown to the church despite the challenging times.

“COVID has impacted the church very much and nonetheless, the community continues today to keep strong and active and many of them continue to join services via zoom,” said Vila. “The community, although the circumstances are not favourable, they are strong and faithful.”

The close knit community of 900 people in Haines Junction have been a great support to each other throughout the years. Living off the land in large part, hunters and fishers regularly share game with extended family and neighbours.

Though the community is small, Dulac says they have been very close in friendship and support in their shared bond over their beloved church.

“There’s a spiritual attachment and it’s also a personal love of the place,” said Dulac. “If we didn’t have that little church here, we wouldn’t have anywhere to worship the Lord

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