Vibrant Whistler parish has roots as tiny skier’s chapel

09 July 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

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,” said Father Dale Normandeau said.

Our Lady of the Mountains, with visitors from across the globe, a church built like a wooden ski chalet, and Mass participation that ebbs and flows depending on the season, is one of B.C.’s most unusual churches. And, 25 years ago, it became the permanent place of worship for a vibrant community of Catholics.

Father Bob Haggarty 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 Mount Currie. Local Catholics, with no church of their own, had been going to Mass in a 60-seat skier’s chapel at the base of Whistler Mountain.

Visitors “would come in with their skis and poles and be ready for Mass,” said Father 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.

Father Haggarty said for Easter as many as 800 people would show up.

Travelling to Whistler for the day and staying in Mount Currie for the night, Father 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.

Parishioners celebrate Mass at Our Lady of the Mountains.

Construction began, with the full support of Mayor Ted Nebbeling, in 1994.

“It was our hope, at that time,” said longtime parishioner Jeannette Callahan, “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.”

It did that and then some. 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.

Sliding a temporary wall before the wooden altar and rearranging the chairs easily transforms the church into a banquet hall or rental space.

“For so many of us who have called Whistler home for a long time, this is a very special place,” said municipal Coun. Jack Crompton said at a June 2 anniversary banquet for the parish.

“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 Father 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!”

He remembers when about 30 people came out for a little prayer service to break the ground for the new church. “It was a lousy day. It was in the springtime, and it was rainy,” but he was “happy to be part of it.”

Father Bill Haggarty and Bishop Joseph Nguyen share a laugh at the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Whistler parish.

Our Lady of the Mountains is 120 kilometres away from downtown Vancouver, but falls under the Diocese of Kamloops. Its pastor, Father Normandeau, also serves churches in Mount Currie and Pemberton.

Bishop Joseph Nguyen of Kamloops made the trip (the church is 300 kilometres from his Kamloops cathedral) to celebrate the 25th anniversary and to offer the sacrament of confirmation June 2.

“To all of you: I thank you so much for working hand in hand for building up our parish, Our Lady of the Mountains,” he told the anniversary banquet.

“God knows the abilities of each of us and he gives according to our ability to receive. So, as workers in his vineyard, we are reminded of the famous words of St. Catherine of Sienna: ‘If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.’”

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.

Though not part of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Our Lady of the Mountains shares a close relationship with its Catholic neighbours to the south. Father Gary Franken, the pastor of St. Anthony’s in West Vancouver, has celebrated weddings there, and often visits to ski in the winter or ride his motorcycle in the summer.

“People from Vancouver want to enjoy what you have here,” he told Whistler Catholics.

He added that the Archdiocese of Vancouver and private donors contributed to the campaign to build Our Lady of the Mountains 25 years ago.

“We are all connected.”