Recently I grabbed a cab at the Juneau Airport to conclude a business trip. Kathy was the driver and I asked how the tourist season was treating her. She indicated that she thought it was a bit slow. In overseeing the work at the Shrine of St. Therese, I am aware that the number of visitors has increased. In light of this, I asked if she had taken people to the shrine. She paused and then proceeded to tell me of one gentleman who jumped into her cab at the airport a couple of weeks ago. It had been 30 years since he had been in Juneau. He told Kathy which hotel he was staying in but first he wanted to take a trip to the Shrine of St. Therese. She explained to me that the gentleman viewed the Shrine of St. Therese as a wonderful place that had special meaning for him. Kathy sat in her cab for about a half hour while the man experienced once again the beauty, peace and spiritual renewal that the Shrine had offered him 30 years ago.
The Shrine is a great place to meet pilgrims as well as people from Juneau bringing out of town guests for a visit. The shrine is a wonderful blessing for the Diocese of Juneau and for the community at large. There is so much to appreciate about the Shrine: its beauty and tranquility, the view of Lynn Canal and the Chilkat mountains, the walk across the causeway to the chapel and the chapel itself. I have met people from different parts of the world at the shrine who also have a special devotion to St. Therese.
The shrine is dedicated to St. Therese of Lisieux, the 19th century French contemplative nun who is the patron saint of the Diocese of Juneau and of Alaska. Although she lived a cloistered, monastic life as a Carmelite sister and died at the very young age of 24, the simplicity and beauty of her spirituality made her one of the most beloved modern saints. Her “Little Way”, serving God by faithfully doing everything, however mundane, each day with love, has provided an example of holiness of life accessible to ordinary people.
The shrine began with the assignment of Jesuit priest, Fr. William Levasseur to Juneau in 1931. Like the then Apostolic Prefect to Alaska, Bishop Joseph Crimont, Fr. Levasseur was devoted to St.Therese, who had been canonized in Rome in 1925. Fr. Levasseur’s dream was to build a retreat house and a chapel on a parcel of waterfront land 23 miles north of Juneau. There were some big obstacles to overcome: access, transportation and weather was a challenge; the site of the chapel was on an island that required building a 400 foot causeway in the face of high tides and severe winter storms. Financial support was also difficult in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
With the support of the Catholic community of Juneau and Southeast Alaska, as well as many others, including the hard physical labor by dedicated volunteer workers, the retreat house and the chapel were brought to completion. The foundations and walls of the chapel were already completed when Bishop Crimont laid the cornerstone on Oct. 30, 1938. The chapel was dedicated on Oct. 26, 1941, when Mass was celebrated there for the first time.
Seventy years later, the Shrine has become a place beloved not only by Catholics but by the entire community. While the sacraments of the Church are celebrated at the shrine on a regular basis, the shrine is also used by religious and secular groups and by families and individuals for retreats, meetings, receptions and celebrations.
First and foremost, the shrine is a place of prayer and reflection. The stations of the cross, which were erected on the shrine island, are reminders of Christ’s sacrificial love for us. The columbarium as well as the memorial to the unborn provides a place to remember those who have died. The rosary walk, too, offers a wonderful place for meditation. This summer a replica of Michelangelo’s sculpture, “Pieta”, has been installed in a beautiful grotto at the end of the rosary walk and will be dedicated on Aug. 7, 2011.
From my perspective, the Shrine of St.Therese has been a gift for our community. I am grateful for all of those who over the years have been such good, faithful and generous custodians of this sacred place. I am grateful too for Fr. Lavasseur’s and Bishop Crimont’s vision and forethought. It is my prayer through the intercession of St.Therese of Liseaux that her shrine may continue to be a place of blessing and spiritual renewal for all who visit it.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.