What’s Behind the Rift in Whistler’s Catholic Church?

A small group of Our Lady of the Mountains parishioners defected over $5 million church expansion and association with American Catholic traditionalists, the Napa Institute

from Whistler Our Lady of the Mountains is closing in on a multimillion-dollar fundraising goal that will see the Catholic church significantly expand its footprint and presence in the community, but some parishioners have defected over the splashy project and association of the church with a traditionalist Catholic group based in the United States.

Whistler’s only Catholic Church has now raised approximately $4.5 million of its $5 million goal to expand the Lorimer Road building which was completed in 1996. Originally built as a multi-purpose hall, the church has a long history of hosting community events and concerts, but it’s not exactly ideal for quiet contemplation and prayer, said Our Lady of the Mountains priest Father Andrew L’ Happy.

“Every time we used the room for something else, we didn’t have the space to pray. The church is a meeting place between us and God… and we usually have a space dedicated to that, but in the initial construction it was not possible,” he explained. “It was actually in the original plans to have a hall and a church, so in 2019 parishioners [asked], ‘Why don’t we do what we originally planned to do?’ It seemed impossible and all of a sudden everything started to fall into place.

The funds were raised in a relatively short time frame, anchored by Andy Szocs, church member, retired businessman, philanthropist and second owner of Whistler, who initially donated $1 million to the cause before doubling its contribution. The founder of the Szocs Foundation, Szocs is a major contributor to mental health initiatives in British Columbia and across Canada, and has a long history of philanthropy in Whistler. In addition to his considerable donation, the 82-year-old has also led fundraising efforts, drawing on his years of experience in the nonprofit sector.

“Here is the big challenge: we have about 160 parishioners… so it is very difficult to raise the 5 million dollars because a significant part, like 80%, had to come from outside the parish,” he said. . “We did extremely well. I mean, a good fairy tale.

Potential plans for the church include a new sanctuary, a refreshed interior design, and a columbarium outside the church. The new building will seat around 200 people, but will adjoin the existing hall, which will be redesigned to open onto the new church space, providing an additional 300 seats.

“It will come in handy at Christmas when we have a lot of people. We used to rent the Westin [for Christmas mass] so it will be nice to have everyone in church,” L’Heureux said. “That’s one of the good things, that we have this scalability.”

The priest said the church is also looking into the possibility of opening a daycare center in the building. The church housed a Montessori school in previous years.

“We know there is a great need in this region for child care,” added L’Heureux.

Once the necessary funds are raised and the designs approved at City Hall, L’Heureux predicts that it will take about a year to complete the expansion.

“It was basically a slap in the face”

Heather Durfeld still remembers the first meeting L’Heureux had with the church’s finance board after becoming the new priest of Our Lady of the Mountains in 2018. The meeting was memorable due to a comment particular he did on the existing church building.

“Our current priest came into the community and the first thing he said to the finance council was, ‘I can’t find God here,’” she recalls. “It was basically a slap in the face because it’s not the building that has the presence of God, it’s the community itself. It was basically telling us that we are not very spiritual here and that God will not come here until we build this fabulous church.

Prior to L’Heureux’s arrival, the parish had already put in place renovation plans that lasted for years, but were eventually abandoned. The parish voted 88% in favor of the $5 million expansion and led the charge to launch this latest project, the priest said.

“It was more of a cosmetic change, in part. Some of them moved doors inside the parish. First of all, a lot of parishioners were kind of offended and didn’t think it was a good use of the money because it didn’t really fit,” L’Heureux said. “As Catholics, what we worship is very important and we want to show it to people when we come to church. The renovation [plans] didn’t show any of that.

prick spoke with several parishioners who said they felt compelled to vote in favor of the expansion and that any concerns they raised were quickly dismissed. Jeanette Callahan had been involved with the church since 1985, when she was still housed in the small Whistler Skiers Chapel in the village. She said the so-called “discernment” on the project – a decision-making process used in Christian churches intended to be a tool or guide to help determine what God calls a congregation to do – has felt decided even before the parish had voted. .

“My main concern, really, was the process,” Callahan said, adding that a video endorsing the expansion from the Archbishop of the Diocese of Kamloops, to which Our Lady of the Mountains belongs, was released for the parish even before to have seen all the design plans.

“My understanding of a discernment is that you go to the congregation and ask them what their needs are and what they see for the future…That didn’t happen. What happened was that all of a sudden there was a [architectural] drawing in front of us. A drawing. A single drawing. It’s not a proper process.

Given the past two pandemic years and the challenges facing Whistler’s most vulnerable, Callahan and others wondered why more consideration wasn’t given to how a new development could potentially benefit those in need.

“We are seriously questioning the timing, the priority and the whole process of the new church project. How, in this time of the world, might our parish be perceived when building and raising funds for a new church in the midst of a pandemic, the clergy sexual abuse crisis, knowledge of the unmarked graves of residential schools (2 of which are specifically in the Diocese of Kamloops), calls to action for reconciliation with First Nations and the Synod? read a February letter to the editor of British Columbia Catholicthe official journal of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, after a complimentary article about the project. The letter was signed by eight current or former members of the church, including Callahan and Durfeld. About 10 parishioners left the church because of the project.

Opponents also criticized the high price of the project, given that the parish continues to run an annual deficit, and questioned whether the expansion would truly serve the local congregation.

“How did we come to meet the needs of outside organizations such as the Napa Institute rather than the needs of the local parish community, many of which have not been recognized in this proposed plan?” the letter continued.

What is the Napa Institute?

Our Lady of the Mountains parish and clergy aim to make Whistler a destination for the faithful, with talks underway with the California-based Catholic organization, Napa Institute, to hold a satellite event in Whistler dubbed “Napa North”. The Napa Institute main conferencewhich is held in Napa Valley, welcomes hundreds of faithful Catholics and clergy each summer.

“The potential pitch was a vision that Whistler is a world-class resort and when you come here, we wanted to have a stronger presence for our Christian faith,” Szocs said. “We are going to organize world-class conferences.”

Co-founded by the Reverend Robert Spitzer and wealthy businessman, hotelier and philanthropist Tim Busch, who also donated to the Our Lady of the Mountains campaign, the Napa Institute was established in 2010 to fight what he sees as the growing secularization of American society.

The institution has a number of prominent donors and speakers, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and a Washington, D.C. insider Leonard Leowho advised former US President Donald Trump on Supreme Court nominations – the latter Busch applauded for his anti-abortion stance.

In his welcome address to the 2021 conference, Busch described the organization’s mission as “forming faith, truth, and uniting Catholic leaders to transform culture,” which he said was more urgent than ever as “religious freedom is under attack, the right to life is under attack, transgender ideology is forced upon our children, and Black Lives Matter promotes racism, critical race theory and destroys the nuclear family”, according National Catholic Journalistit is John Gehring.

“They’re anti-pope and there’s going to be a lot of people saying I’m wrong, but if you really dig into the Napa Institute and what they stand for, I don’t think as Canadians we want that. here. “, Durfeld said. “Instead of being our community church, it becomes something else that is not for the local community.”

When asked if he thinks the ideals of the Napa Institute fit the majority of Canadians or the community of Whistler, L’Heureux spoke about what he sees as the risks of identity politics.

“Just because there’s propaganda about one thing or another, I mean, at one point there was propaganda about the quality of slavery. I know I’m taking extreme examples, but for Catholics, our whole thing is that every time you put the human person down into some sort of label or category, you take away an aspect of their humanity and then they become something we can do without,” he explained. . “It’s something we’re always very careful about. We want to make sure that what we promote really promotes good for humanity, and not just temporary good, like, “Oh, you might feel good about that, so I should support it.” What is the ultimate good of humanity? Is our society really open to discussing these issues and talking about good and bad, because that’s how a lot of propaganda works. It tells you one side of the story and doesn’t explore the cause and effect of all those sorts of things.

The Napa Institute did not return a request for comment.

Among other church expansion plans, L’Heureux said he would launch a new pilgrimage route this summer called the Camino of the Holy Family which, when completed, will stretch from Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver to Our Lady of the Mountains. in Whistler. Not a continuous trail at present, L’Heureux said pilgrims will likely hike sections of the route – like, say, Squamish to Whistler – until the trail is complete.

“We want to make this place a pilgrimage destination and hopefully at some point the trails will reach Vancouver so it will be a bit like the Way of Saint James,” he added.

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