Chapel renovation runs deeper than stone, mortar

Roofing, windows, interior to be refurbished at shrine

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2004

Renovation of the chapel at the Shrine of St. Therese means more than just refurbishing wooden doors, installing new windows and replacing the tattered roof.

"For me, it's one of those places that's so much more than a building," said Michael Dombkowski, who stopped by the chapel Thursday with family members. "It's a reminder there's been a Catholic, Christian presence here for such a long time."

Dombkowski, a member of Cathedral of the Nativity in downtown Juneau, said the renovation will make the chapel more comfortable for visitors while maintaining its plain and simple character.

Leora Houtary of Juneau is a mechanical design engineer working on the renovation. But the project means more to her than just improving the heating system and other facets of the chapel. It's especially important to her because, as a Catholic, she goes to the shrine to meditate and write in her journal, she said.

"This is a very special, sacred place and I want the best for it," Houtary said. "It's nice to give back the work of my profession to the church."

The shrine, located past Mile 23 on Glacier Highway, is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Juneau. The stone chapel, which seats about 90, sits almost hidden on an island connected to the mainland via a causeway.

The renovation work will include refurbishing the wooden doors, replacing the roof, repairing cracks to inside masonry work, and insulating the concrete walls, said Thomas Fitterer, director of the shrine. Indoor lighting will be replaced and windows with the capability of being opened will be installed, he said. Two separate rooms off the chapel will be renovated to allow brides to change into their gown and priests to change into vestments. A new air ventilation system will be installed and the furnace replaced with a boiler. The chapel will be heated year-round, Fitterer said.

Plans for the chapel originally called for stained glass, but it never happened because World War II broke out when diocese officials were in talks with a French company, he said. The renovation will continue the tradition of clear glass, which many people like because of the trees, ocean and flowers outside, he said.

"It's a perfect place to contact God through nature," Dombkowski said.

The shrine, with a retreat house and chapel, began as a vision of the Rev. William Le Vasseur. At that time, there was no other retreat house in Alaska.

"It was never a dream; it was always a reality," Fitterer quoted Le Vasseur as saying.

In August of 1932, the diocese gained access to the shrine and began building on the site.

By the summer of 1937, George Murphy of New York City volunteered his time to clear trees, dig the hole and pour the concrete for the chapel's foundation.

The chapel was supposed to be built of wood, but many of the logs coming from the Eagle River on a boom were lost in a storm at sea, Fitterer said.

In 1938, workers began building the chapel out of stone. D.P. "Doc" Holden, a stone mason from Twin Falls, Idaho, was a perfectionist on the job, Fitterer said. Workers would lay stone in mortar during the day and carefully smooth the mortar with their hands at night.

"Much of it was built on a labor of love and giving," Fitterer said.

The cornerstone was laid on Oct. 30, 1938. The back of the stone was cut out to place a copper box full of letters, newspapers articles and other items related to the chapel. For the chapel's 50th anniversary, a stainless steel box was placed above the cornerstone with more items.

The estimated cost of the renovation is $500,000, Fitterer said. The shrine has collected $38,000 in donations and expects it will have to take out a loan for some of the costs, he said. Silver Bow Construction in Juneau submitted the apparent low bid of $487,000 on Wednesday. Shrine officials have not awarded the contract yet, Fitterer said.

Construction would begin this October or November and be done by next spring, he said.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at

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