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My Turn: Shrine of St. Therese: A labor of love

Posted: May 12, 2013 - 12:10am

Last Sunday evening the Jasper Quartet, as part of the Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival, performed in the chapel of the Shrine of St. Therese. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, as I was en route back to Juneau after being away for parish visitations and confirmations. But I am grateful that people in Juneau were able to listen to these talented musicians performing works by Beethoven and Hayden in the beautiful and sacred setting of the Shrine.

The Jazz and Classics Festival, like so many events in our community, depends on the dedication and hard work of volunteers. How appropriate that the venue for this wonderful quartet was in a place that itself was and continues to be a labor of love, which has been sustained for almost 75 years by volunteers.

What I have learned since I first came to Juneau is that people throughout our community and our region, regardless of their faith perspective, love the Shrine. I think this is because it is a place of tremendous natural beauty and grace that is removed from the anxieties and distractions of our daily lives and it is open to everyone. It is a place where one can be still and in that stillness become recollected and present to creation and to the Creator.

The Shrine came into being only six years after the canonization of St. Therese of Lisieux, an otherwise unremarkable cloistered Carmelite sister who lived in the late 1800s. She described her life as her “Little Way”. She sought to do everything, all of the ordinary little things of life, with great love. Her spiritual autobiography, “Story of a Soul” captured the imagination of Catholics and non-Catholics alike when it was published shortly after her death at the age of 24. Among those who were devoted to this remarkable French Carmelite nun was Bishop Joseph Crimont S.J., the first Catholic bishop of Alaska. (Bishop Crimont is buried in the crypt of our Shrine chapel alongside Bishop Michael Kenny.) In 1925 Bishop Crimont had gone on pilgrimage to the shrine dedicated to her in Lisieux, France and had been present in Rome for her canonization. Bishop Crimont officially designated St. Therese as the Patroness of Alaska and the Alaska missions.

With Bishop Crimont’s enthusiastic support, Fr. William Levasseur S.J., the Jesuit pastor of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Juneau first proposed creating a shrine on a small island twenty-three miles north of Juneau. In 1931, the Forest Service, through an Act of Congress, granted the Diocese of Juneau the island and surrounding area for a shrine chapel and retreat house. It was ten years before the chapel was finally consecrated in 1941.

The construction of the lodge came first. It housed the workers who then built the causeway out the island and then chapel itself. In addition to a small group of workmen, members of Juneau’s small Catholic community and many other volunteers did much of the work over the decade it took to create the Shrine. In the spirit of St. Therese, they did many little things with great love. This tradition of volunteerism at the Shrine continues to this day. Since 1999 the chapel has been renovated, two additional retreat houses, the ‘Rosary Trail’ and a columbarium have been constructed and many improvements have been made to create better access and parking for the public. All of these projects have relied on the generosity, hard work and great love of scores of local donors and volunteers.

There are a number of improvements that I want to share with you. First, just before Easter the new sculpture of the crucified Jesus (called the ‘corpus’) was attached to the large cross next to the Shrine Chapel and blessed on Good Friday. Secondly, about two years ago at the grotto out at the end of the ‘Rosary Trail’ a generous benefactor donated a reproduction of Michalangelo’s ‘Pieta’. Above the grotto here have been some problems with the stability of the hillside: local people with the needed expertise to resolve those problems have generously stepped forward. Third, the old “Post Office” cabin has been replaced with a nice new structure. Fourth, a wayside cross has been erected at the entrance of the Shrine to remind visitors that they are entering sacred grounds. Finally, the renovation of the Lodge, the oldest building at the Shrine, is close to being completed. After learning that the Lodge needed serious structural renovation or it would have to be demolished, our neighbors put together a plan that combined professional services and materials at cost with donations of time and labor to save the historic building.

To everyone who has helped recently and over the past decades to make the Shrine the place of recollection and rejuvenation that it has become — thank you! To anyone who has not yet had an opportunity to visit the Shrine, I invite you to do so. All are welcome.

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