A preliminary concept of the new Our Lady of the Mountains Church in Whistler, B.C. The church’s pastor hopes Whistler’s awe-inspiring scenery will draw trekkers looking for a multi-day hike. Photo courtesy The B.C. Catholic

Whistler church ‘what God wants us to do’

By  Terry O’Neill, Canadian Catholic News
  • March 5, 2022

VANCOUVER -- Fr. Andrew L’Heureux dreams of a future when a flock of pilgrims, backpacks loaded and spirits high, assemble outside of Holy Rosary Cathedral in downtown Vancouver. The pilgrims take one last, respectful look at the cathedral’s evocative Homeless Jesus statue — the Catholics among them making the sign of the cross — and then they turn to start a multi-day, 123-km hike to Whistler, B.C.

Whistler’s awe-inspiring scenery will surely draw such trekkers, said L’Heureux, pastor of Whistler’s Our Lady of the Mountain Parish. But a more powerful pull may emanate from a beautiful new church the parish is planning.

“People who come looking for an earthly paradise could find themselves discovering a heavenly one as well,” he said.

The prospect of a Vancouver-to-Whistler pilgrimage trail is one of several opportunities that L’Heureux sees as arising from the “New Church Project.”

A proper, new church, replacing the parish’s church hall that is currently in use, “has the potential to put Whistler on the worldwide map as a spiritual destination for pilgrimages, retreats, Catholic weddings and conferences,” he said in newsletter describing the project. “The word has spread, and we already have interest from a few retreat masters.”

Although closely associated with Vancouver, Our Lady of the Mountains is actually part of the Kamloops diocese. It has already raised $3.3 million towards the church project and is counting on major donations, likely from well-heeled Vancouverites who have second homes at Whistler, to help it reach its $5-million goal.

Philanthropist Andy Szocs heads the parish fundraising team.

“We’re not trying to siphon off from the Vancouver archdiocese,” he said, “but we’re looking for people who could give to both.”

When the Whistler resort opened in the mid-1960s, Catholic services were held in the non-denomination 60-seat Skiers’ Chapel, a tiny A-frame building built in 1968. Our Lady of the Mountains Parish was officially established in 1993 and construction of the multi-purpose church hall began a year later.

Although the parish has fewer than 100 families, it must also serve the needs of the 2.5-million skiers, hikers, cyclists and other vacationers who, in pre-pandemic times, travelled annually to the all-seasons resort community.

L’Heureux, who has been pastor of the Whistler parish for less than two years, admits to being astonished at the speed at which the new church project is coming to life.

“The whole thing is ridiculous to me,” he said. “But I believe this is what God wants us to do.”

The new church will seat 200, but will adjoin the existing hall, which will be reengineered so it can open to the new church to provide an additional 300 seats during busy seasons such as Easter and Christmas.

“We’re in the third round of design and once that’s finished, we can start with the permitting process, which should take about nine months,” L’Heureux said. If all goes well, ground-breaking will take place in the spring of 2023.

The primary purpose of the new church is to provide parishioners with a truly sacred space.

“For we Catholics, there’s such a necessity for the sacraments and that’s the opportunity to spend intimate time with God,” L’Heureux said. “And right now, because our church is a multi-purpose centre, it doesn’t really have that. It’s never fully set aside for the worship of God, to show the importance of why we worship as Christians and how essential it is to have a space set aside solely for the worship of God.”

While incorporating natural-wood structures and finishes that have come to be associated with Whistler, the new church will also be traditional in design.

An important part of L’Heureux’s vision for the future of the parish is to expand its mission to make Whistler “a place of Catholic destination,” where Catholic organizations can hold satellite events.

“Whistler is a beautiful place,” L’Heureux said. “It’s a natural destination. So we also want to make it into a supernatural destination.”

The final part of the vision is the pilgrimage trail. There’s no continuous trail at present, but L’Heureux thinks it is inevitable that a full trail will eventually be completed.

He notes that on famous pilgrimage trails like the Camino de Santiago in Spain, perhaps only five per cent of hikers actually have religious intentions in mind when they begin, but “100 per cent of the people have a spiritual experience while being on the trail.”

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